How Many Texts in a Medieval Treaty?

This is not a trick question. As some of you will know, I am currently finalising the manuscript for my second monograph, Law, Treaties and International Relations, c.700-1200, and I have been pondering for a while whether I am using the modern English word ‘treaty’ in a misleading way if what I am actually talking about has more than a single text.

The majority of treaties from the earlier medieval period have no surviving text at all: just in the few sources I have investigated there are more than 600 such instances between 700 and 1200. Then there are those instances where there is a text preserved as a single document, which can take lots of different forms: oaths, laws, partitions, notifications and so on. In a few cases, however, historians of diplomacy have seemingly hit the jackpot and find that there are several documents recording not different versions but rather different aspects of the same agreement.

Louis the German’s oath in the Treaty of Koblenz, 860, from BNF, MS Lat. 9654, f. 81.

One example of this is the Treaty of Koblenz, concluded in 860 between Charles the Bald (k. of west Frankia), Louis the German (k. of East Frankia) and Lothar II (k. of the middle Frankish kingdom later known as Lotharingia). This particular treaty seems to have had five parts – the oath of Louis the German, a short adnuntiatio (announcement) of the peace by Charles the Bald, a longer announcement by Louis the German, and the terms of the agreement. The originals of these various parts do not survive but there are early (by which I mean pre-twelfth century) copies, for instance in the large tenth- or eleventh-century collection of legal materials MS Lat. 9654 preserved at the BNF, Paris (for a good description of content, see Only very late manuscripts, such as the Vatican Library’s MS Lat. 4982, preserves all five parts of the treaty, with earlier ones often only preserving one or two. For instance, MS Lat. 9654 records only the twelve clauses of the agreement, the witness list, and the oath of Louis the German, while manuscripts containing the treaty as recorded in the Annals of Fulda preserve only the oath of Louis the German.

Announcement of peace concluded at Koblenz by Charles the Bald from MS Vat. Lat. 4982, f. 122.

A number of other ninth-century treaties also had several parts, including the Treaty of Meersen (851), which has the terms of the agreement as well as the announcements of all three parties, and likely also the Pactum Sicardi (836), for which only the terms of the agreement has come down to us but with the headings indicating that oaths once accompanied them. By the time we get into the twelfth century, we usually only see combination of documents for a single treaty in Italy, e.g. in treaties with the Italian city states. Elsewhere, the various parts are often, but not always, compacted into a single document – a treaty, more akin to the modern sense of the word. The fact that there can be several parts, and/or several documents, to a treaty raises lots of questions: What was a treaty in the period 700-1200? Were some treaties, now surviving only as oaths or as lists of terms and conditions, once part of a bigger whole? How were treaties recorded, announced and/or preserved? And many, many more.

Of course, the basic premise of any treaty is the fundamental principle of pacta sunt servanda (‘agreements must be kept’), that an oath properly demanded and properly taken was binding, in whatever form the sworn agreement had been prepared and published. This presents a very practical problem when writing about some of these medieval treaties because when referring to “Treaty XYZ” which has, say, three parts recorded in two different sources, how can I convey to the reader which part(s) I am actually talking about? And what about if two of these parts have clearly discernible clauses and c. 3 of the “Treaty XYZ” could indicate either of these parts or both? I am so confused ☹ And if I am confused, imagine the person eventually reading the book, who has not been working with these documents for years.

Clearly, I cannot resolve all questions surrounding this issue in the book I am currently writing but it has made me pause and think again about the process of translating and editing these treaties, the manuscripts which preserve them, and the textual links between treaties of different geographical regions. Perhaps I’ll attempt the answers more fully in book number three…(Shhh, don’t tell my family!)


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

Hsü I C Y, The Rise of Modern China (Oxford, 2000)

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

Rowing boat diplomacy

Did you see that picture last week? Yes, the one where the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt rowed three of the most powerful leaders in Europe (Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the Dutch premier Mark Rutte) to the summer residence in Harpsund outside Stockholm. The four leaders have been holding talks on the EU following the rise of the eurosceptic far right in the European Parliament and in particular trying to resolve their differences over the tricky issue of the appointment of the next European Commission President. In having the Swedish premier row the leaders across the lake, Cameron et al. were of course following a long tradition of Harpsundsekan (the rowing boat, that is) carrying world leaders to this particular country residence, with previous guests including Nikita Krushchev, Willy Brandt and Kofi Annan.

Harpsundsekan and four Euro leaders

Harpsundsekan and four Euro leaders

While this might seem quite unusual, in fact, in the medieval period diplomatic meetings involving boats were relatively common. Most famously, of course, we have an occasion that is perhaps the equivalent of Harpsundsekan. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 973 Edgar, king of the English, came to Chester with his naval force (sciphere) and six kings met him there and promised to be his ‘co-workers’ (efenwyrhtan) on land and on sea. In the twelfth century, the chronicler John of Worcester, who may or may not have had a now lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, added to this account that Edgar and the kings (now eight rather than six) got onboard a boat and the kings rowed down the river Dee with Edgar at the helm steering. A significant amount of ink has been spilt by historians trying to unravel the identity of the kings involved and the symbolism behind this particular arrangement, often focussing on the issue of Edgar’s superiority – as seen by him taking the helm. Regardless of any supposed symbolism of these meetings, we know that the incident at Chester in 973 was not the only occasion when medieval kings conducted diplomacy in boats. In November 921, Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, and Henry I, king of the East Franks, concluded a friendship (amicitia) at a meeting in a boat anchored in the middle of the Rhine near Bonn. The intention on this occasion seems to have been to meet at a neutral location and to recognise the rights of both kings. Similarly, in the late twelfth century, the English king Richard I met with his French counterpart Philip Augustus on the river Seine between Les Andelys and Vernon. Here, Richard was stood on a boat in the river because he did not want to land while Philip remained seated on his horse on the riverbank. At the time, Philip and Richard were engaged in particularly bitter warfare, perhaps explaining their arrangement for this meeting. Going a bit further back in time, the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells of a meeting between the Emperor Valens and Athanaric, leader of the Goths, in the late 370s, when boats were rowed mid-stream for the two leaders to conclude a treaty. We further know that conducting diplomacy in this way seems to have been common practice because there are several other descriptions of peace conferences where the two parties discussed using boats and meeting mid-stream. For instance, Ralph Glaber recorded that the Emperor Henry II and the French king, Robert the Pious, considered meeting mid-stream in boats in 1023, and in the late twelfth century Walter Map, supposedly recording a meeting between Edward the Confessor and a Welsh ruler in the 1050s, stated that the English king eventually got into a boat and crossed the river Severn.

Judging by the debate generated by these medieval meetings between rulers, it is rather intriguing that the modern-day press has seemingly refrained from making similar remarks about the arrangements of the Harpsundsekan. Nevertheless, what it does do is remind us that this is a diplomatic practice that has clearly stood the test of time.