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.

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.

On the Origins of the Norman Conquest

Over the summer I have spent my time researching two treaties that I have had an interest in for a long time. The first is the treaty between King Æthelred II, the ‘Unready’, and three Viking leaders, supposedly concluded in 994. This treaty, often known as II Æthelred, has strong connections to English law and having written extensively about it in a couple of articles already, my research over the summer has focussed on producing a new edition, translation and historical commentary for the Early English Laws project. However, it is a second treaty – less known but equally important – that is my focus here, namely the first Anglo-Norman treaty.

The document in question is a letter in the name of Pope John XV detailing the reconciliation and peace agreement of 991 between King Æthelred II and Richard I, duke of Normandy, or the ‘marquis’ as he is referred to in the letter. The document outlines how, having heard of the hostilities between Æthelred and Richard, Pope John sent his legate, Bishop Leo of Trevi, to the two rulers with letters admonishing them to put aside their hostility. First he visited England, where he met the king on Christmas Day 990 and gave him the pope’s letters. After consulting with his witan, the king agreed to make peace with Richard and sent Bishop Æthelsige of Sherborne, Leofstan son of Ælfwold and Æthelnoth son of Wigstan to Normandy with the legate. After peacefully receiving the pope’s warning and hearing of the decision of Æthelred and his court, Richard confirmed the peace on the condition that if any of their people, or they themselves, were to commit any wrong against the other, it should be atoned for with fitting compensation. The peace should remain forever and was confirmed at Rouen on 1 March 991 by the oaths of both parties, that is, the three Anglo-Saxon envoys on behalf of Æthelred and Bishop Roger of Lisieux, Rodulf son of Hugh, and Tursten son Turgis on behalf of Richard. A postscript then adds that neither ruler was to receive the men or enemies of the other without the latter’s seal.

There are many extraordinary things about this treaty. For instance, not only would we not know anything about the relations between the English and Norman courts in the 990s but for this document, but it also, unlike English kings’ treaties with Viking leaders, survives in a very near contemporary, early eleventh-century copy. In fact, this document records the earliest surviving treaty between an English king and a ruler from outside the British Isles. It is thus rather surprising that this reconciliation has attracted so little attention from scholars. Partly this is due to the fact that it has been overshadowed by subsequent relations with the Norman court; the marriage of King Æthelred to Emma of Normandy, daughter of the Richard of the treaty, in 1002 and the later, ‘supposed’, promise of the English throne to William of Normandy by Æthelred and Emma’s son, Edward the Confessor, eventually resulting in the Norman conquest of England.

However, the Anglo-Norman treaty of 991 does in fact have something important to contribute to our knowledge of the origin and events leading to this conquest. In particular, it highlights diplomatic practices, of which we would otherwise know nothing, that have an impact on how we analyse the Norman sources’ accounts of the path to William’s victory at Hastings in 1066. This will be the subject of my talk ‘On the Origins of the Conquest: the First Anglo-Norman Treaty’ at Cardiff University for the autumn series of video seminars for the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies on Tuesday 21 October 2014. If you are a student at any of these Welsh universities Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and Trinity St. David, you will be able to attend at your own university and watch the seminar via the Welsh video network. (For further information, click here.)