About jembenham

Medieval historian and football nut. Interested in war, peace, diplomacy and the legal history of England and Scandinavia.

The Imprisonment of Erling Steinveggr: a Case Study of Exile

One of the best things about doing research is finding pieces of evidence in the most unexpected places. I am back in Norway working on the Nordic Civil Wars project, thinking about how conflicts were resolved; what worked and what did not. As part of this, I have been reading Baglarsaga – chronicling the earliest years of the thirteenth century in Norway – looking for evidence of peace agreements. It was not the place I would expect to find any evidence for my forthcoming book on international law, but only two pages in, I realised I had struck gold.

One of the versions of Baglarsaga has a story about how King Sverre of Norway (r. 1177-1202) found out that there was a man in Denmark who was calling himself Erling, son of the previous King Magnus V Erlingsson (r. 1161-84), who, at one point, had been Sverre’s main rival for the Norwegian throne. Upon hearing this, and obviously realising that a son of his rival was a significant threat to his own position, Sverre sent men to Denmark to look for Erling, who promptly fled to the province of Göta in the kingdom of Sweden. Sverre then sent a letter to the Swedish king, Knut Eriksson, to whom he was related by marriage, and told him that ‘there was a man in his realm, who was calling himself a son of King Magnus, and who likely wanted to cause ‘ofrið’ (lit. unpeace) in Norway.’ As soon as King Knut heard this, he sent men to look for Erling and put him in the stone tower in the fortress of Näs on Visingsö – an island in lake Vättern – where he remained for a while (Bǫglunga sǫgur (1988), 2: 12).

The reason why this is of interest to me in writing about international law in the period up to c. 1200 is, as explained here many times before, that expulsion of individuals who were deemed dangerous in some way or another, and how these were tracked and chased across different political entities, is one of the best ways to see that international law was practised on a daily basis in the medieval period. Containing the movements of these people was of significant concern to rulers and, in many ways, was an extension of what can be seen in domestic laws from across the medieval West. We know something about how this was attempted because several treaties set out that neither side was to receive the men of the other without some form of identification that they came on legitimate business. Lists of ‘undesirable’ individuals were kept (e.g. Treaty of Falaise 1174), and we know that in certain contexts such lists were exchanged with the other side (e.g. Treaty of Colombiers 1189). We know that rulers could also intervene directly to canvass for the return of men who had been expelled, or to ask for them to be kept away. For instance, an eighth-century letter of Charlemagne to the Archbishop of Canterbury outlines the fate of Mercian exiles, asking the archbishop to intercede with the Mercian king, Offa, on their behalf so that ‘they may be allowed to return to their native land in peace and without unjust oppression of any kind’ (EHD I, no. 197).

The fortress of Näs, surrounded on three sides by water

The story in Baglarsaga evidently fits this wider context, showing how rulers could, and did, take action on this tricky issue. Of particular interest to me personally, is the imprisonment of Erling on Visingsö. I had the opportunity to visit the island in 2016 and can confirm that it lives up to its billing as the island of kings and legends. The fortress of Näs, on the southern tip of the island, was the seat of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century kings of Sweden, and presumably intended as a location that provided great security – though ironically King Karl Sverkersson was killed there in 1167. Little of the fortress survives now, having crumbled into the sea over the centuries, but if its location is any indication, King Knut seemingly felt that Sverre’s request to apprehend and keep Erling was of some significance. The pragmatist in me, of course, wants to argue that the fact that Erling was kept alive, indicates that Knut felt that this was a good chess piece to have and to play if the opportunity arose. More importantly, for the saga author at least, while the stone tower at Näs might have been impregnable, it was, nonetheless, one from which a man could escape. This, Erling promptly did, with the help of the woman who had been feeding him, and he subsequently acquired the byname ‘Steinveggr’ (lit. stone wall) as a commemoration(!) of his incarceration.

Iron-age graves on Visingsö

Exactly what happened to Erling afterwards is disputed among the sagas, and even among the different versions of the same saga – likely the author(s) didn’t know. Nevertheless, the story has provided me with a great case study and reminded me about that beautiful summer day when I may (or may not) have fallen off my bicycle on a completely straight bit of road going towards Näs, because I was watching the surrounding scenery with iron-age graves, straight oak trees, and stunning views of the lake…


Out on a limb: International law in the earlier Middle Ages

I’m a bit nervous. Next week I’m presenting a piece from my forthcoming book at the ‘Law and Legal Agreements’ conference in Cambridge, organised by the Voices of Law international network. I will contend that there was a notion of international law in the earlier Middle Ages. It will be the first time I am presenting this idea in some detail and I know from talking to people about my research, that the idea will be contentious both in terms of theoretical framework and in terms of the evidence used.

No, I won’t discuss the meaning of the word ‘international’ or the supposed ‘universality’ of international law, nor the difficulty of applying these concepts to the medieval period. And, I won’t talk about the revival of Roman law and the contribution of Canon law to this topic either, nor about the fact that any assumption that there was no international law in the medieval period is currently not based on an examination of the two most important sources for it: treaties and custom. I feel like I’ve done that already and have nothing to add to anything I previously said!

Instead, I am following the very simple formula of Martin Dixon in his Textbook on International Law that ‘the most cogent argument for the existence of international law as a system of law is that members of the international community recognise that there exists a body of rules binding upon them as law’, and that the evidence of this can be seen through (1) its regular practise, (2) through the justification of action, and (3) through the fact that the majority of international legal rules are consistently obeyed (Dixon 2013: 4). My evidence is those treaties – or legal agreements – produced in the period c. 700 to c. 1200, as well as descriptions of customs, and their links to domestic laws and practices.

It will come as no surprise to many that I argue that one of the best ways to see (1) in the medieval period is to look at the practices surrounding displacement of people and in particular expulsion – exile, banishment, outlawry or whatever we want to call it. The expulsion of individuals who had committed reprehensible acts was one of the ways in which medieval rulers and communities dealt with law and order. As an alternative to corporal punishment, such as mutilation or death, expulsion from a political entity – whether we view this as a city, region or kingdom – was reserved for the most serious offences; those which could not be atoned for with compensation. However, while expulsion was intended to ensure law and order on a domestic level, it could result in becoming a threat to peace and security on an ‘international’ level. Primarily this was because, once expelled, such individuals often committed further reprehensible acts and/or engaged in conflict against the entity from whence they had come. The provisions for dealing with this threat in treaties, in customs, and in domestic laws and practices, show a more co-ordinated and systematic approach than medieval scholars have perhaps appreciated in the past. One could, and I will, argue similarly for other provisions, and, in my paper, I will use those for arbitration and trade to show some of the possibilities for (2) and (3).

In short, I will argue that as there were no nation states in medieval Europe, it is inevitable that traditional views of state-centred international law and institutions must give way to a different model – the one I’m presenting – which recognises the plurality of law and that the locus of political and legal power in the Middle Ages was multi-layered.

I hope to see some of you in Cambridge next week, prepared, as a very good friend and colleague told me today, with those awkward questions I often target at others. Well, I am not averse to taking risks and simply throwing myself down that ski slope that turned out to be off-piste or riding on that roller coaster that got stuck at the top for hours. Bring it on!

A Model Murder during the Nordic Civil Wars

This is greetings from Oslo! I am spending some time as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Oslo, working on the Nordic Civil Wars project. One of the main reasons for being here in Oslo is that I am writing a chapter on the concept of ‘state’, its expectations and functions during times of civil wars. However, researching this topic has inevitably thrown up plenty of other intriguing pieces of evidence that I am also pursuing as part of the project.

One such unexpected finding relates to the killing of King Harald Gille in 1136 by his half-brother and rival for the Norwegian throne, Sigurd Slembe. The account in one of the kings’ sagas known as Morkinskinna, composed c. 1220, goes something like this:  Having discovered that Harald was staying the night with his mistress ‘Sigurd went to the lodging where the king was sleeping, and they began by first killing the guards and breaking down the door. Then they entered with swords drawn. The king had gone to bed after heavy drinking and was fast asleep. He awoke only as they attacked him…There King Harald lost his life…After that Sigurd and his men left. He summoned the men who had promised to support him if King Harald was killed. They took a ship, had the oars manned, and rowed out across the bay past the king’s residence. It was then beginning to dawn. Sigurd stood up and spoke to the men on the quay, identifying himself as Harald’s killer. He asked that they accept him as their chieftain, as his birth entitled him to be. Then large numbers arrived from the king’s residence, and they were all in agreement. They said that they would never serve a man who had murdered his brother…They all proclaimed that the killers should be outlawed and subject to death. Then the king’s trumpet was sounded, and all the district chieftains and retainers were assembled. Sigurd and his men saw that their only chance was to depart’ (Adapted from Morkinskinna, tr. T. M. Andersson and K. E. Gade (Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 371-2).

There are lots of things in this account that is of interest. For me – no surprises – the description of an unemendable crime and the outlawing of the perpetrator was what originally caught my eye. The description in Morkinskinna has all the hallmarks of a more formal, legalised, process, with emphasis on certain elements – the breaking into the chamber, the witnesses, the consultation and agremeent, and the judgment of outlawry. The account clearly deals with the crime of treason – a hotly debated topic in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe and characterised in works such as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (VI:24), following the Digest of the Emperor Justinian. But despite these exciting features, my question after reading the account in Morkinskinna, and remembering a similar description in one of the eighth-century entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), which I use in one of my third-year lectures as an example of how to become king in the early Anglo-Saxon period, leaned more towards: Did the Icelander writing the saga have access to the ASC?

The short answer is ‘no’. Or, not that we know of anyway. The accounts are not exactly the same, but at the core there are some very close similarities, suggesting the use of a textual model. I will be exploring some of the possibilities and problems of the origins of the account in Morkinskinna in a forthcoming paper to be given to the Graduate seminar at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Cambridge on Monday 6 November. Hope to see you there!

Developing a Theoretical Framework for Medieval Diplomacy

I am suffering from research insomnia. You know, that condition that afflicts all academics once they have had enough time and space in their minds to recover from a long term and to start thinking about all those research projects they’ve been neglecting. In my case, it is coinciding with something I have been pondering for a while: how to establish the right theoretical framework for my next monograph.

The outline for the book – Law, Treaties and International Relations, 700-c.1250 – I have had for a while and have been writing chapters towards it. The main thrust up to this point has been on thinking about international law; what it is and what the possibilities and problems are for the early medieval period. However, I have had a sense for a while that I was not quite getting to the bottom of things and in the last few weeks have started working on a slightly different theoretical model that will better bring out the legal aspects of the book by focusing on known issues within diplomacy and international relations: security, displacement of people, deterrence, transitional justice and so on.

I know that this modern take on medieval diplomacy will be unpopular with many early medievalists but I think it is important to re-align the historiography on pre-modern diplomacy with its more modern counterparts for several reasons. As John Watkins noted in 2008: ‘Much IR theory may first seem irrelevant to a discussion of premodern diplomatic configurations because of its grounding in relationships between modern nation-states. But scholars writing on anything from strategic negotiations and treaty-making to the cultural impact of shifting political configurations in the premodern period could benefit from reading bodies of IR theory that explicitly challenge the state-based assumptions currently dominating the field, such as transnationalism, postinternationalism, Robert Keohane and Jospeh Nye’s complex interdependence theory, constitutive theory, and Krasner’s international regime theory’ (John Watkins, ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38 (2008), p. 5)

Furthermore, currently scholars of pre-modern and modern diplomacy are often talking past each other because of the different vocabularies and terminology used to express that scholarship. For instance, medieval historians rarely discuss exile and outlawry within the context of displacement of people and its link to the crime-conflict nexus – both of which are well-known issues in IR studies. This has resulted in some curious gaps in the historiography, with most text books and longer surveys of diplomacy, international relations and international law giving the Middle Ages the heave-ho despite the fact that there are scholars working on aspects of these topics. One of the most recent examples I came across was piracy – a known threat to contemporary international shipping. Reading some of the literature on this topic, one would think that counter- and anti-piracy was a 21st-century phenomenon, even though scholars working on the Vikings, Slavs or on fourteenth-century piracy might disagree once they saw the practices that underpin these two concepts.

Adopting a more modern vocabulary and theoretical model does not mean abandoning that fundamental principle of questioning the medieval evidence or taking the evidence out of its immediate context. Yes, I frequently get asked about this. Having embarked upon this new direction for the book, it is still the case that it will be based on the evidence from medieval treaties or descriptions thereof. In fact, it is that evidence that is leading me to frame the content of the study in IR theory. If I was to discuss, say, exiles, arbitration, or compensation without this theoretical framework, I would be missing a significant point about where this material sits in our history. Most importantly, related fields within medieval history, such as violence and conflict, have gone through a similar progression of wider interdisciplinary and theoretical analysis.

To test the waters before embarking completely on producing the monograph, I am just putting the final touches to an article on ‘Peace, Security and Deterrence’ for Walter P. Simons’ collection of essays in A Cultural History of Peace in the Medieval Age. I guess this means research insomnia might continue for another week or so.

Princess Alys of France: a Twelfth-Century Patty Hearst?

A second instalment from students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’. Hayley Bassett grapples with sexual exploitation of female hostages.

6 January 1169: King Henry II of England and King Louis VII of France ratified the Treaty of Montmirail, in an attempt to settle their long-running territorial disputes in France. Henry agreed to divide his lands between his sons with Henry the Young King receiving the kingdom of England, Duchy of Normandy and County of Anjou. Richard would receive his mother’s Duchy of Aquitaine and become betrothed to Louis’ daughter Alys and Geoffrey would receive the Duchy of Brittany upon his marriage to its heir Constance (there is no mention of the infant John at this time). At the age of nine Alys was sent to the English court as Henry’s ward in preparation for her future wedding to Richard. There is nothing unusual in these arrangements, the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I, moved to the German court aged eight upon her betrothal to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor in 1110. The main issue of contention here was the absence of a wedding between the engaged couple which culminated in Alys being returned to the French court in 1195, still unmarried some twenty six years later.

Alys’ time in the Angevin court is poorly documented but embellished with scandal; most commonly she is depicted as Henry’s mistress prompting Richard to reject his father’s “conquest” as wife. The “real” Alys presents historians with a challenge but there are similarities to be drawn between her and later women in, if not identical, then certainly comparable circumstances. One such twentieth century example is Patty Hearst, granddaughter of US politician and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In 1974, 19-year-old Patty was violently kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, and held hostage for two years during which time she was repeatedly physically, emotionally and sexually assaulted by an organisation calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Patty’s time as a hostage is well documented; her family’s position in US society and her assimilation by the SLA guaranteed large scale media attention and it’s that transparency which allows parallels to be drawn with Alys. Alys position at Henry’s court offered her little security; she awaited a marriage and a bridegroom that, although promised, never came and was locked into an arrangement beyond her control, which neither her father nor Pope Alexander could force Henry to conclude. This position of abject helplessness also applied to Patty, when it became clear whatever action her family took to secure her release would not be sufficient for her kidnappers to release their “prisoner of war”. In her trial defence Patty insisted that the unrelenting physical and psychological pressure of her situation made her agree to anything, culminating in her public declaration of support for the SLA and participation in criminal activity (Nancy Isenberg, “Will the Real Patty Hearst Please Stand Up”, in Historic U.S. Court Cases: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, ed. John W. Johnson (New York, 2001), 142). Likewise for Alys, she had no bargaining power at the Angevin Court and self-preservation was her only option for survival, in whatever form that took.

For both women sexual exploitation was a factor in their confinement and was a weapon employed by the media of their respective time to denigrate them. Patty claimed she was consistently raped by William Wolfe whilst the SLA orchestrated the image of a “love affair” between them for the world’s media, who swallowed that interpretation. Similarly, Richard of Devizes and Roger of Howden, as well as the more scandalising Gerald of Wales, refer to Henry seducing Alys sometime around 1177, whereas a more accurate portrayal would suggest a powerful authority figure pressurising a dependent into a sexual encounter (Roger of Howden, Gesta, ii, 160. Richard of Devizes, Chronicon, 26. Gerald of Wales, Opera, viii: 232) For both women there would seem to be no choice in the matter and little prospect of protection from a third party. Alys and Patty did what they had to do in a difficult situation and whilst they might be divided by eight hundred years, they are testament to their own ability to endure difficult circumstances.

The king on his knees – Demonstrating humility and penance in international relations

Students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’ have again been working on drawing comparisons between modern and medieval diplomatic practices. Here, a first example from Hanna Nüllen.

The picture of then German chancellor Willy Brandt dropping to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial on 7 December 1970 is often counted among the most powerful images of post-war Germany. To this day, articles dealing with this gesture are published in regular newspapers and the photograph can be found in many German schoolbooks. The intention behind this genuflection is still debated and while many see it as a simple demonstration of Brandt’s personal feelings on the matter of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime, some suggest, that his motives might have been more complex. At the time Brandt was in the middle of signing a treaty with Poland and later described his genuflection as a reaction to the overwhelming weight of history.

Whatever his intentions, Brandt was not the first person who might have tried to make political and diplomatic gains out of a gesture of humility and penance. We find many instances of kings and other rulers publicly showing their humility throughout the Middle Ages not only as a demonstration of their kingly virtues but also to influence the outcome of negotiations or to regain their position. One such example is Louis the Pious, who publicly paid penance twice, in 822 and in 833, in order to maintain his position as the king of Frankia, which was beginning to fall apart. In contrast to Willy Brandt, who silently dropped to his knees as an acknowledgment of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, Louis confessed to long lists of personal wrongdoings. While his circumstances were vastly different to those of Willy Brandt, in both cases the influence their gesture might have had on their and their people’s future is discussed in much the same way. Hence, even though showing humility is sometimes perceived to be a sign of weakness, it can often work to strengthen one’s position.

What does that word mean, really?

All medieval historians engage with translation in some way to do research; whether it is simply to read primary sources or secondary literature, to write up research based on variations in translation, to edit translations already made, or to create new translations. Medievalists spend years honing their translation skills and I think it would be fair to say that translating, in its various forms, is one of the hardest parts of my job, not only because it requires significant skills but because it demands space in time and in mind – the two commodities hardest to juggle in my role as a lecturer in a busy history department.

'Oh great, this book's in cow.'

‘Oh great, this book’s in cow.’

My own experience with translation clearly began before I decided to go into research. As most of you will know, I’m a non-native speaker of English and this means that I continuously engage with translation by copying, editing and thinking about the way native speakers use English in speech and in writing. It has often been a process of trial and error – really, lots of errors (so many horror stories that are not suitable to write about here!). Nevertheless, by the time I started my postgraduate studies, this process had left me fairly confident that I could tackle any text with a good dictionary and patience. For several years, I felt that this worked like a charm – mostly – until my research took me in new directions and I had to make completely new translations of the sources I was working with. Honestly, my postgraduate training and a PhD had not prepared me for this. Even small practical things like whether to indicate variations in spellings in the word document using square or round brackets or footnotes became a matter to ponder for days, weeks and months. And, the more translations I did, the less I felt I knew.translation-is-a-puzzle It has resulted in me becoming more pedantic about words and phrases in general and those students and colleagues who know me well, can attest, with great exasperation, to the fact that I start almost every question or objection with “but what does that word mean in practice?”

Next week I, together with the Leverhulme-funded international network ‘Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice’, will be hosting a postgraduate workshop on editing, translating and using medieval documents. I will be sharing some of the basic problems of translating (yes, maybe I’ll divulge some of those horror stories too), focusing on problems relating to purpose, time, knowing too much/too little, and logistics. I’ll be joined at the workshop by some more experienced colleagues from Cambridge, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and the Frisian Academy, who also grapple with translations. Afterwards, the papers from the workshop will be made available in an online booklet, which will, hopefully, provide postgraduates with some useful guidance on this topic.

An uneven record of diplomacy

Third-year Cardiff University student Ellie Collingwood blogs about her summer placement investigating medieval treaties, finding it a surprisingly uneven record.

This summer I took part in an eight-week research placement for Dr Benham. The brief was to compile a database of medieval treaties c. 750-1250. I would be filling in information about where and when the treaties took place, which parties were involved and which original manuscripts and later reproductions contained them. At first, I must admit, I thought that this was going to be a task for which there was a recognised pool of material and that there would be significant gaps in the records for the earlier half of the period. I was wrong on both counts. It seemed that rather than there being more treaties as the period went on, the records of treaties seemed to come in waves with some years having vast numbers of treaties and then no records for perhaps decades. The patterns often coincided with the reigns of particular monarchs; some of whom made considerable amounts of agreements while others made few or none. Similarly, I found that some reigns or time periods had the focus of certain chroniclers and historians, whilst finding a relevant text for other proved more difficult.


And how do you know whether the information you are looking for actually still exists or even if you’ve got all the references to it? This problem was exaggerated by the fact that sometimes there were years (often even centuries) between different publications and therefore that references to later reprints were conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, the geographical spread of the information meant that certain things might exist only in one language or be referenced by only one (and sometimes none) of the chroniclers of the parties involved. With regards to the linguistic element, however, I found that by the end I had got much better at sifting through texts in another language using the format more than the words to identify the information and texts of the treaties. And, as to the chroniclers, by the end of the placement I felt that I had a much better idea of who to go to for what information. I must say, I never realised how indebted I would be to Roger of Howden!

What really struck me as interesting about the information I was researching was what exactly made certain treaties worthy of being written down, preserved and rigorously reprinted over approximately 1000 years while others had been consigned to the history of rumour and speculation. Obviously a percentage of this is due to luck but I think it is fair to say that there must have been an element of selection in the initial phases of the agreements. For example, I found the existence of one lesser researched treaty to be particularly curious. The Ordinance concerning the Dunsæte is one of relatively few early Anglo-Saxon treaties and was an agreement attempting to foster good relations not between two rulers but between King Athelstan and the Welshmen (of the Welsh Dunsæte).

It lays down some basic rules to the Welsh about theft and homicide. But what, in this case, made it necessary to write this down? Was this just one of many similar documents all of which have subsequently disappeared? Had a verbal agreement been ignored in the past? Was it an example to the inhabitants of other borderlands who might make a similar trouble for the Anglo-Saxon government? Or did it just appear that this would be the most sensible way to ensure the terms were upheld? I suppose we will never really know but the existence and survival of this treaty along with all the others in the database provide a fascinating insight into the range of legal practises across the period and of the variation of interactions between different rulers and populations.

Overall my research has been a process characterised equally by feelings of delight at having successfully followed a link to exactly the reproduction I was hoping for and by disappointment at having spent hours chasing up a link to find only a fleeting mention of the treaty and no reprint of it or suggestion of where one could be located. All in all, I’ve enjoyed playing the detective and am really grateful to have been given this perfect opportunity to have a go at some real research first hand. I’m sure the skills I have learnt and honed, as well as knowledge of which resources provide the best information, will help me greatly in my upcoming dissertation and any future research at a higher level.

A Friendship Meant to Last?

The second instalment of MA students comparing medieval and modern diplomatic practices. Here Niamh Kelly reports on the role of friends and friendship.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines diplomacy as “the profession, activity, or skill of managing international relations, typically by a country’s representatives abroad”. Looking at the management of international relations in the middle ages compared to the modern day, shows that there are similar tactics or skills used despite the (roughly) 800 year difference. The first thing I think of when the word diplomacy is used is the idea of peace, whether to it’s to start or maintain a friendship between nations or countries. Pledges of friendship have been found widely throughout history and two that are a good comparison are the pact between King Louis of France and King Henry of England to go to Jerusalem together on pilgrimage in the 12th century and in the modern age, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939

The letter of Louis and Henry agreeing to go on pilgrimage together is found in the second “distinction” of Gerald of Wales’ De Instructione Principis and seems determined to stress the friendship between the two kings. Historically having a strained relationship, the letter assures that the two “now are friends” and continues listing the conditions under their new found friendship. Promises to “preserve the life, and limbs, and earthly honour of the other against all men to the utmost of his power” seem dramatic through modern eyes. Yet when looking at the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, a similar promise is made, if a little less poetic, as Article ll states: “Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third Power”. Protection of the other party is an obvious way of maintaining friendship between nations and, in theory, should keep each party safe.

Another similar factor is the involvement of third parties as witnesses to these pledges of friendship. Both Louis and Henry call bishops and barons to settle any dispute that may arise between them and what is decided the two kings must “firmly abide by what they shall say”. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact allows for the two parties to try and settle any disputes between themselves by themselves and if it isn’t possible, “through the establishment of arbitration commissions” in accordance with Article V. Evidently, friendship between nations in any time must have a ‘back-up’ option to rely on should any hostilities or disputes arise even if they do not work as hoped.

Though pacts and pledges of friendship have good intentions, in practice they rarely work. Medieval diplomacy was riddled with leaders breaking their “friendship”; Louis and Henry’s broke down with Louis assisting Henry’s sons in rebellion against him and Hitler and Stalin’s broke in mere months with the start of World War ll. This goes to show that almost 1000 years ago or almost 100 years ago, friendship between nations and the ability to maintain it usually worked better in theory than when put into practice.

“I’ll be with you in a minute”: The use and danger of ‘ignoring tactics’ at diplomatic meetings.

Students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’ have been tasked with comparing medieval and modern diplomatic practices and writing the results up as a blog post. In the first instalment James Smith examines the knotty problem of diplomatic meetings.

In 1949, Mao Zedong went to meet with Joseph Stalin in Moscow, to ensure Soviet economic and military support for China.  Similarly, in 1093, Malcolm III of Scots humbly travelled to Gloucester to see William II of England, in hope of encouraging the English king to fulfil their prior agreement.  In both cases the more powerful leader, whose support was being requested, chose to act coolly. Neither Stalin nor William II met their guests upon arrival, nor were the guests allowed to speak with their hosts when they desired, and were extensively ignored.  Using these and comparative examples, I will demonstrate why ‘ignoring tactics’ were continually practiced at diplomatic meetings and the danger of utilising them.

Superior leaders pursued ignoring tactics to demonstrate power over inferior ones. Mao’s two week isolation in a dacha, unable to leave or meet with Stalin as he requested, caused observers, such as  Khrushchev, to claim the Chinese leader was being treated like a prisoner ‘sitting behind lock and key’.  Mao himself interpreted this as poor hospitality, shouting insults at Soviet visitors and declaring his intention to go home early.  Likewise John of Worcester’s account shows that Malcolm III was also unhappy about being ignored and that the situation was similarly interpreted, as the two medieval rulers ‘separated without any agreement’.  Thus by ignoring inferior leaders, superior ones demonstrate their dominance, since the inferior is clearly at their beck and call, and can be greeted or dispatched whenever they see fit. This attitude is not just rooted in diplomacy but is evident in popular culture and our everyday lives. In the recent Bond film Spectre, upon arriving at the villain’s base James Bond is welcomed, offered a drink and sent to a bedroom, before the villain allows the confrontation to take place. Likewise we all recall being sent to the head teacher’s office as children and being forced to wait outside until we were called in. Therefore a desire to display power is behind ignoring tactics.

Mao and Josef Stalin in Moscow, December 1949

Mao and Josef Stalin in Moscow, December 1949

However, if overused, ignoring tactics can cause problems for the user. For example Stalin’s actions clearly soured Mao’s view of the Soviets.  In 1958 he took revenge by forcing Stalin’s successor Khrushchev, who could not swim, to join him in his pool whilst on a visit to China.  Swimming was a great skill of Mao’s, and the comparison between his skilful strokes and Khrushchev’s use of an inflatable aid was not lost on the witnesses, such as Mao’s physician Dr Li who described him as an ‘Emperor’ receiving tribute from a ‘barbarian’.  Similarly following his humiliation Malcolm III responded by invading William II’s realm.  Consequently the danger of employing ignoring tactics is that excessive use can cause the victim to take revenge against you, which may result in your own humiliation.  Thus the practice is inherently risky.

Therefore dominant diplomatic parties throughout history have used ignoring tactics to demonstrate their power. However, if practiced excessively the user might find themselves the victim of some act of revenge. My advice: Learn to swim.



The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in Douglas D C, Greenaway G W (eds.), English Historical Documents II: c.1042-1189 (London, 1968)

The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, in Riley H T (eds.), The Annals of Roger de Hovedene compromising the History of England and of other countries in Europe, volume II (London, 1997)

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, in McGurk P (ed.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester Vol.3, the annals from 1067 to 1140 (Oxford, 1998)

Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China, in Cheng Pei-Kai, Lestz M, Spence J D (eds.), The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (London, 1999)


Bailey P J, China in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1988)

Heinzig D, The Soviet Union and Communist China: 1945-1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance (London, 2004), p. 269

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Taubman W, Khrushchev: The Man: His Era (2005, London)