The sanctuary of Assange – a case of early medieval law

You would have had to have resided in the deepest darkest woods over the last five years not to have heard something about the ongoing saga of the attempts by Swedish prosecutors investigating sex crimes to question Julian Assange, the Australian journalist and founder of Wikileaks – an organisation that publishes secret and classified information from anonymous sources. Assange denies all charges and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden fearing he would be sent on to the US and put on trial for releasing American documents through Wikileaks (a quick recount of events and links to some of the coverage is available here: ; My interest in this story is not about the various legal ins and outs of this case, but rather in how a case such as this might have played out in the period c.800-c.1300.

Firstly, it is important to point out that despite the fact that scholars often regard international law as having its beginning in the early modern period, 1648 and Westphalia is the date and place usually quoted, it is evident that there were some ‘international’ legal principles that had been in use much earlier than this date. We know this because some of the most frequently occurring provisions in treaties of the early medieval period regard those for men (and presumably women?) who had been accused of, or found guilty of, committing crimes or wrongdoings in one kingdom, and who had fled into exile, or been outlawed or banished, and had then sought shelter in another ruler’s territory. There are numerous references in treaties and in narratives describing agreements between rulers to how neither contracting party was to be allowed to shelter such men and occasionally also to the fact that they were to be actively sought and if caught shipped back to the ruler whose laws they had breached. The Anglo-French truce of 1215, the Anglo-Scottish treaty of Falaise (1174), the Anglo-Flemish alliance of 1101, the treaty between King Æthelred and the Viking leaders (994), the Franco-German treaty of Bonn (921), the treaty between Emperor Lothar and the Venetians (840), and the treaty between the kings of Mercia and Wessex (704/5) are just a few examples containing such provisions. We, furthermore, know that there are other pieces of evidence indicating that these provisions were implemented. For instance, in England both the treaty of Falaise and the legal document known as the Assize of Clarendon indicate that it was the responsibility of the sheriff to keep lists of such men, and to hunt them down and hand them over to the other side, while on the continent such men often turned up as mercenaries: the tenth-century chronicler Widukind of Corvey is just one writer to mention an army made up of such ‘criminals’. It is also possible that the attack launched by the English king, Æthelred II, against Normandy in c. 1000 should be seen in this same light, as the treaty of 991 specifically stipulated that the Norman duke was not to harbour any men or enemies of the English king without his say so.

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

So how might a medieval person end up being chased across borders, as it were? Much like today, once a crime had been committed, someone had to announce it and the name of the accused at a local assembly and appoint a day for when the accused would come to answer the accusation. There were a myriad of offences that might land you in serious trouble. For instance, being accused or convicted of a so-called ‘unemendable’ crime; that is, a crime which could not be atoned for with compensation. These crimes varied across kingdoms and regions but often included arson, coining false money, theft or robbery, witchcraft, failure to pay compensation, and betrayal of one’s lord. The last of these, betrayal of one’s lord, usually has a very wide definition in the laws of the period. Betrayal was evidently what the ruler deemed to be betrayal, which means that there were a whole host of offences which, if committed against the king, could in fact be ‘unemendable’. Most of these ‘unemendable’ crimes did of course not result in the accused being chased throughout several kingdoms; if found guilty they were usually punished corporally or with their life. Hence, being found guilty of theft often resulted in hanging, coining false money in the loss of fingers or hands, witchcraft in drowning, and treachery in beheading.

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

On occasion, a person found guilty was sent into exile or was outlawed. The exact distinction between the two is not always clear in the primary sources but both sentences at their basic premise ensured that the guilty fell outside the protection of the king and society, with no one being able to aid him, and should they come across him within the king’s lands he would be killed instantly. Usually the sentenced person was allowed a day to reach a port and take himself overseas or into a neighbouring kingdom. Exile was more commonly pronounced as a sentence on someone found guilty of a crime than outlawry and across Europe the length of exile could vary. We know that in Iceland, for instance, you could be exiled for three years for minor wrongdoings or permanently for more serious crimes, but many early medieval laws did not specify how long the period of exile could or should be. Outlawry was occasionally meted out as a punishment for a serious crime, much like exile, but across Europe it was also commonly a sentence pronounced because the accused had fled without answering his accusers in court. Exile and outlawry were probably in many cases a permanent status that ceased only upon the death of the guilty or accused, though it is important to note that both could often be reversed upon the payment of a fine or compensation to the king or the victim’s family.

Exile and outlawry was not the only alternative to corporal punishment in the medieval period. One could seek sanctuary, not at an embassy but in a church. Many of the legislative traditions in Europe provided for a wrongdoer who had fled to a church the protection from forcible removal as well as immunity from capital or corporal punishment. The fugitive might be required to pay a fine, forfeit his goods, perform penance, or go into exile, but mostly his body and his life were to be preserved. For instance, the eighth code of King Æthelred II promulgated in 1014 stated that if a man reached sanctuary the king would grant him his life in return for full compensation ‘both to God and to men’.

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

The case of Julian Assange has attracted widespread media attention as well as capturing the public imagination over the last five years. The phenomenon is not new, even if the details differ from case to case, and indeed the medieval period is littered with examples of individuals who for one reason or another found themselves on the wrong side of a ruler’s laws: Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Fouke Fitz Warin, Eustace the Monk. And, we should not forget the many European kings who had indeed been exiles before coming to the throne; Edward the Confessor of England (11c), Louis IV of West Frankia (10c), Harald Hardrada of Norway (11c), Æthelred I of Northumbria (8c) to name but a few. Hence, the principle of one ruler not sheltering enemies or wrongdoers of another king, found in many treaties, is not only a very old principle of international law but also one that has been hotly debated, today as much as in the Middle Ages.

The King’s Wife

This is the second instalment of guest posts from students who are undertaking research experience placements with me over the summer period. This one comes from recent Cardiff University graduate Laura Richards, whose research placement yielded some interesting gems from a surprisingly small pool of available evidence.

For two weeks I completed some research on Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances focussing on the primary source material. The main thing I learnt was what every person must grapple with when taking on historical research; you have to go through a lot to get a little. What I did find was often scattered across vast pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the main narrative source for the period c. 800-1066. Most evidence came in the form of the names of the couple involved in the marriage and a brief summary of their genealogy. Little was written in way of formal agreements, nevertheless some ideas about these powerful marriages can be drawn out.Books for research

The status of the wife within these alliances was intertwined and representative of her familial support. Eadburh, Queen of Wessex inspires infamy which extends into today as inspiration for the fictional character Princess Kwenthrith; a Mercian princess with a taste for power and poisoning in TV’s Vikings. This stems from the reputation Eadburh receives within the sources granting her an important role within Wessex history compared to other queens. Asser in his Life of King Alfred recounts how Beorhtric of Wessex married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Eadburh. Once in power she began ‘to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father’, poisoning those she could not control or force the King to disown them. As part of her scheming she accidently poisons her husband. She flees to the court of Charlemagne who, after having his age insulted, places her in a nunnery where she is later caught in debauchery and dies in poverty. Asser casts Eadburh as an evil queen to give warning against granting the king’s wife an equal title.

Despite its aspects of legend, through this narrative it is possible to see how women within marriage alliances represented the power of their families and kingdoms. Eighth-century Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Offa was a powerful king and marrying his daughter to Beorhtric cemented Wessex as a lesser kingdom. With the power of her father behind her Eadburh influenced her husband and had the power to destroy those in her way.

However, if the eighth century belonged to Mercia than the ninth was one of Wessex dominance where equal status was no longer granted to the wives of their kings. This could have been more than just a lesson learnt from the evil Eadburh. It shows that Wessex was the dominant power in any alliance so did not need to give power within its court to the female representative of the alliance. The only Wessex queen within the ninth century is Judith, daughter of King Charles the Bald of Frankia who was crowned before her arrival in Wessex. As a Queen Judith was of equal standing to the King and showed the strength Frankia held as an individual kingdom and ally to Wessex. This is seen as a major contributing factor to the conflict between her husband Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald. Furthermore, Judith created her own scandalous reputation by marrying her step-son and later eloping without permission.

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Nevertheless, Wessex, once a dominant kingdom, was quite happy to use its women to extend its influence. Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and within his lifetime witnessed many charters as Regina of Mercia and after his death ruled as Lady of the Mercians. However, Alfred’s own wife was unable to challenge the Wessex court’s refusal to name her Queen. As most of the sources for the later Anglo-Saxon period are written from a Wessex viewpoint, exercising power and familial backing was positive for Wessex women exported to other kingdoms but disastrously dangerous habits for women being brought into the Wessex royal family. Therefore Eadburh’s infamy must be viewed from this particular angle.

Overall my experience of research has at times been painstaking and although I have to accept that the evidence is lacking on marriage alliances, it was possible to see examples of power being wielded by married women through their familial alliances and for other related ideas when I allowed the evidence to lead my areas of exploration.

Justinian Diplomacy

In the first of five guest blogs on this site, Will Buck – who is graduating from Cardiff University this week (well done!) – writes about his two-week work placement researching the diplomacy of the sixth-century Emperor Justinian.

It has been a joy to work on an area of history which is so disputed due to one author, Procopius, and being able to side step this dispute completely to focus on the content of the text, and largely ignore the opinions of the said author. Procopius’ ‘Wars’ is a text which describes, largely first hand, the wars in Africa, Italy, and the East between Justinian and his contemporaries. It does this in remarkable detail, and you cannot but help believe you are among Belisarius’ household staff, watching the action.

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian's Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

Miniature of the Emperor Justinian with a sword, surrounded by several figures, at the beginning of Justinian’s Digestum Vetus. BL MS Arundel 484, f.6

My task during my two-week work placement was to go through this collection of eight books, and record every instance of diplomacy which I came across. At first I found it daunting that I was going to have to read eight books of what I assumed would be very repetitive descriptions of the back and forth of war, but very quickly these worries were dispersed by both the Thucydidean style, and the remarkable times Procopius was recording.

Alongside this main task, I also found it of interest to make note of any mention of Britain in the text, as it is a shared interest of Dr Benham and I how they were perceived and interacted with other peoples, in the ‘international’ world, during the so called Dark Ages. In this respect we were both surprised by Procopius’ statement that “the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants” (III.II 32-39) as this is almost word for word what Gildas states; a British contemporary of Procopius, often thought to be cut off from the Roman world. This raised questions in both our minds that contact between the Romano-British and the Roman Empire was not as dead as scholars have often assumed, as it is unusual that Gildas decided to use the word ‘Tyrant’ when he was writing in Latin. For Procopius, writing in Greek, tyrant is exactly how we would expect him to refer to the kings in Britain; in Latin, this is unusual.

Returning to my primary task, it became immediately obvious to me that much of the diplomatic action was conducted through the written word. This did not come as a surprise in diplomatic relations between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, but when, for example, the Franks, and Goths interacted they too used letters primarily. This I can only assume was due to their pretence at being continuations of the Western Roman Empire and in assimilating the old Roman bureaucracy which still existed in the cities of the West.

Overall this has been a very enjoyable task, which I hope will prove useful to Dr Benham and any students who have to use my work. It has also allowed me to keep my eye in, so to say, over summer before I start my postgraduate work; an MA in Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies. Thankfully this topic covered the period exactly, and I look forward to being able to continue studying this area of history at Cardiff University.

Collaborating with student researchers

Starting your first permanent academic post can be a scary and stressful experience, even if, like me, you’re a late comer to the profession and have spent some years working in other demanding roles. Learning to time manage the different demands of admin, research and teaching has certainly proved a challenge for me, but I am lucky in that Cardiff University has well-established support for early career researchers, and one way in which I am making use of this support is by employing some student research assistants over the summer period.

Thanks to funding from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University I have been given the opportunity to create six research-based work experience placements for undergraduate students. Each placement will last between two and five weeks and each student will be working on his or her own unique research project. The research involved will range from compiling bibliographies or list of treaties, to mining specific primary sources for material relating to law and diplomacy. At the end of the projects, the material will be used as online resources for both my undergraduate and postgraduate courses – increasing the pool of available primary and secondary material for future students – but will also guide my own research for my forthcoming book on the origins of international law in the medieval period. Furthermore, two of the students will use the material in their own dissertations and I hope that some of the students will continue to collaborate with me at postgraduate level to co-write conference papers and articles.

These placements will clearly benefit my work as a teacher and researcher but I hope that the students will also benefit from honing their skills and over the coming weeks they will all guest blog here about their experiences (good and bad) and about the material that they have found. Topics will include treaties (modern and medieval); exiles, criminals and outlaws; Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances; early medieval peace conferences; and Byzantine diplomacy.

I am ridiculously excited to see and hear about what they will find and, moreover, to work with some great people. Roll on summer!


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.)

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.

To sell a medieval envoy

Lecturers are often asked to introduce or address the issue of enterprise and employability skills in our teaching to better prepare students for life beyond university. This is of course not always an easy task. Many academics have never been employed outside the higher education sector and some subjects perhaps lend themselves more easily to this task than others. So, as a researcher of (mostly) medieval diplomacy and legal practice, I thought that I should see if I and, more importantly, my students could rise to the challenge. The easiest way to do this, I figured, was to do something with marketing. After all, this is an exercise that all academics are engaged in to promote our research, books, articles, projects and so on.

Walter of Essex

Walter of Essex

Having hatched this plan, I then turned the last seminar of the term into an enterprise session and set all 23 students on my second-year undergraduate course ‘War, Peace and Diplomacy 900-1250’ the task of creating a marketing campaign to sell a medieval envoy to a king. In preparation for the seminar, the students, of course, had to apply transferable skills that involved doing some traditional academic work; researching and gathering information from primary sources and secondary literature, and analysing this information to assess which qualities would have been most valuable in a medieval envoy. Students had to think about issues such as whether their envoy should be a nuncius (message bearer) or a procurator (an envoy who could act on behalf of his master); whether he was an ecclesiastic or a secular person; and whether or not the envoy had specialist skills such as languages, legal, commercial, or military knowledge. Once they had done their research, students were allowed to work individually, in pairs, or as a trio, to create and design a poster (one side of A4) outlining their envoy (real or fictional) and his skills and qualities.

Absalon, abp. of Lund

Absalon, abp. of Lund

On the day of the seminar, we had three traditional five-minute seminar presentations setting the scene by discussing particular sources: an extract from William of Newburgh’s History of English Affairs detailing the negotiations between the Danish and French king in 1193, a letter from Pope Innocent III to King John retelling the fate of one diplomatic mission to the curia, and an extract from Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s Conquest of Constantinople outlining the negotiations between the crusader envoys and the doge of Venice in 1201. The main part of the seminar, however, was a speed-dating session, where each student/group had two minutes to present their poster and envoy to another student, who could also ask questions or come up with objections as to why this envoy would be no good for a particular mission.

Hubert Walter

Examples of envoys that students tried to sell included William de Longchamps, chancellor and justiciar to Richard I; Walter Map, clerk and itinerant justice of Henry II; Ahmad ibn Fadlan (famously depicted by Antonio Banderas in the film The Thirteenth Warrior), legal and theological expert of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir in the tenth century; and Hubert Walter, all round super administrator of Richard I and John.

Walter Map

Walter Map

Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of my students, the speed-dating session was very successful and laughter-filled as they tried to perfect their presentation and selling skills, arguing backwards and forwards about their envoys desirable and not so desirable qualities in two minutes flat – no mean feat! At the end of the seminar, each student chose, in a secret vote, the envoy they would hire. No surprises. The clear winner was the fictional envoy Benjamin the Balanced, who, despite having the somewhat inconvenient quality of a limp after tripping over on the famous elm tree chopped down by King Philip Augustus of France at a conference in 1188 (yes, you read it here first!) was at least very cheap, reliable, loyal, and able to take and receive oaths on holy relics (Well done, Matthew!).

Benjamin the Balanced

Benjamin the Balanced

On a slightly more rational note, I, as king of the seminar group, and my co-ruler (Hugo), hired as our envoys Absalon, warrior-archbishop of Lund and right-hand man of kings Valdemar I and Cnut VI of Denmark; Thomas Becket, chancellor to Henry II; Nicholas de Moels, seneschal of Gascony during the reign of Henry III; and the fictional envoy Walter of Essex, a chancellor with 29 years of experience in the English court (Well done Jacob, Helen, Stefan, James and Lucy). Finally, in true medieval style, the students were paid in gold rings (ok, maybe they were chocolate gold coins…).

Reflecting on this seminar, which was really just an experiment on my part, it was probably one of the more successful ones of the term. All of the students entered into the spirit of things and came extremely well prepared, having done their research and prepared posters, business cards, and presentations – and this for the last seminar of term. Most importantly, it enabled the students to use some of the skills they are honing in the classroom in a more commercial setting. Although they are unlikely to sell medieval envoys once they leave university, they are likely to market or sell other products for which they have to research, devise, prepare and deliver a pitch to potential buyers. There were lessons to be learned too, in particular for me, because with a bit more planning I could have added elements that would have seen the students working in groups to plan and budget for an actual embassy based on the available sources.

In all, however, this was an excellent way to end the term on a high and I was simply in awe of the fantastic work my students had done.

International law and the Middle Ages

The troubles in Syria have re-opened the debate about the legality of military intervention by the international community and have made me think again about what international law is and its history, especially (obviously) in the Middle Ages. As one BBC correspondent has summed up the current problem: ‘The words “international law” convey the sense of a set of established international rules and authorities agreed by all nations, and easily understood and applied by them. Sadly that is far from the case, and in practice, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get definitive rulings in international law involving military intervention. There is no international court on hand to give the legal go-ahead to intervene.’ (For the full story, see

This may seem far removed from the Middle Ages. For instance, most historians agree that there were no such thing as ‘international law’ in the medieval period, particularly since there were no clearly defined nation states between which a law could be agreed and implemented. This is of course a simplification of what international law is; a combination of treaties (bilateral as well as unilateral), legal practice (or custom) and general principles of law (usually considered to be those that apply in all major legal systems). It is this combination of what international law is that perhaps give rise to the many interpretations of the ‘law’ and the difficulties of applying it, in modern times as well as in the Middle Ages.

For the medieval period, when historians write or talk about ‘international law’, they tend to look to canon law as something that was understood and applied across the medieval west – that is, canon law was one of those general principles of law. But what about treaties and legal practice? Those have attracted significantly less research by historians of the medieval period, especially the early and high medieval periods, and hence two-thirds of what we consider international law in the contemporary world is largely missing for the Middle Ages, and not because there are no treaties or legal practices but because historians have not really investigated. I would argue that this means that the history of international law in the medieval period is currently misunderstood because historians are looking to canon law because of its, supposed or otherwise, universality, although, as stated at the beginning, universality is not easily achieved or expected even in 2013.

For more about treaties and international law and the problems and possibilities of applying modern concepts to the study of the Middle Ages, my article ‘Law or treaty? Defining the edge of legal studies in the early and high medieval periods’ has just been published in Historical Research, vol. 86, no. 233 (August 2013)


Richard I on tarring and feathering

Occasionally something comes along in the sources that just catches your attention. Take this short legal text issued by Richard I to his followers just before setting out on the Third Crusade:

‘Richard by the grace of God king of England, and duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to all his subjects who are about to go by sea to Jerusalem, greeting. Know that we, by the common counsel of upright men, have made the laws here given. Whoever slays a man onboard a ship shall be bound to the dead man and thrown into the sea. But if he shall slay him on land, he shall be bound to the dead man and buried in the earth. If anyone, moreover, shall be convicted through lawful witnesses of having drawn a knife to strike another, or of having struck him so as to draw blood, he shall lose his hand. But if he shall strike him with his fist without drawing blood, he shall be dipped three times in the sea. But if any one shall taunt or insult a comrade or charge him with hatred of God: as many times as he shall have insulted him, so many ounces of silver shall he pay. A robber, moreover, convicted of theft, shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a cushion shall be shaken out over his head,-so that he may be publicly known; and at the first land where the ships put in he shall be cast on shore. Under my own witness at Chinon.’ (Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Houedene, 4 vols., ed. William Stubbs (London, 1868-71) iii, p.36; Translation from: E. F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, London, 1896)

Initially, what caught my eye about this short text was the reference to tarring and feathering. Partly because it conjured up memories of my primary school library and the many hours I spent there, reading the comics series Lucky Luke – the cowboy known to draw faster than his own shadow, and who was rather fond of tarring and feathering the villains. On a more serious note, my interest was piqued simply because it struck me as an unusual punishment, even for the Middle Ages.

We know that some of the crimes described in the text were so called ‘unemendable’, that is they could not be atoned for with fines but only with life or limb. More commonly, of course, the eyre rolls from the early thirteenth century tell us that those accused of killings, woundings or robbery were outlawed and their property confiscated, primarily because they fled rather than face trial.

In any case, what is clear is that the punishments outlined in the text above do not compare to the punishments for similar crimes elsewhere in English legislation from the twelfth century. The method of accusation, ‘by lawful witnesses’, is similar to what we find in the assizes and the legal treatise known as Glanville, but the punishments are very different. Of course, there would have been good reasons why King Richard needed to keep strict discipline among his fellow crusaders. Lots of fighting men together in a confined space for days on end while on sea probably calls for something stronger than what could be found in current laws.

More surprising, however, is that none of the English laws of the twelfth century contain details of how to deal with transgressions and crime on military expeditions. Given the amount of warfare we encounter in the twelfth century, this is curious, I think. We know that other kings certainly issued laws that contained provisions for military expeditions. For instance, the Law of Jutland, issued by the Danish king in the early thirteenth century, has two small paragraphs relating to crimes committed while on military expeditions. The first one states that if a man in military service is accused of theft by a steersman then he should defend himself with the two men who are closest to him on the thwart, that is, those who sit next to him at the oars. If they convict him, then they should fare with him as with other thieves and he would have forsaken both the goods he had on the ship and the capital lot at home. Here, the punishment was thus mainly confiscation of land and chattels. Another paragraph details how if a man kills another while in military service he should always pay forty marks to the kin and also to the king, in addition to paying the appropriate man worth. What is evident from these provisions is that matters that occurred while men were on a military expedition were expected to be resolved in a similar way as when a man was not on an expedition. For instance, if found guilty one’s fate would be decided by a board of nominated men who could either swear you to compensation or to something infinitely more horrible.

There are no similarities to these provisions among the English laws, although we occasionally get tantalising glimpses referring to the customs of the military household. Most of these glimpses, however, come not from laws but from treaties. More on this anon.

What is War? A medievalist’s perspective

In a recent online quiz (, devised by the good people at the BBC History Magazine, the first question asked how many wars Britain fought during the reign of Queen Victoria? The answer? Apparently a staggering 230! The answer has made me think again about what war actually is.

Here, I have to be honest. I had no idea that Britain fought 230 wars during the reign of Queen Victoria (and the irony of the period being known as Pax Britannica is not lost on me either). In attempting to answer the quiz question, I quickly managed to think of three wars and after some further deliberations felt that I might have been able to name five. But, 230?! As a medievalist I have to say that I would struggle to name 230 wars for the whole of the Middle Ages, that most violent and bloody of periods.

Partly the issue of the number of wars is one of definition. Most dictionaries define war as an armed conflict, often prolonged, between different states or nations or different groups within a nation or state. In the modern world this is a perfectly workable definition that can be used when we think of conflicts such as the Second World War or the American civil war. However, for the medieval period there is an immediate problem with the dictionary definition, and it is one which I have touched on many times in writing about peace and diplomacy in the earlier Middle Ages. At a time when princes generally defined themselves as ruling over peoples and not over a defined territory with a permanent population – that is, a state – wars cannot be defined as being fought between these different entities. Hence, war in the Middle Ages is often referred to through a number of related words, including warfare, conflict, struggle, battle, raid, and siege, which perhaps better reflect the series of small scale attacks that were the most basic form of war in the early medieval period. That’s not to say that medieval historians do not use the word ‘war’ – we clearly do – but merely to highlight that the word has slightly different connotations for the Middle Ages compared to more modern periods.

Having said this, it is evident that the compiler of the quiz question must have used a wider definition of war, one that is closer to that of those studying the Middle Ages than those writing the dictionary entries, in order to come up with the figure of 230.  And, I think that this wider definition is perhaps one that will take root in the public perception of what war is over the next few years, because war and diplomacy in the 21st century is increasingly becoming dominated not by states but by individuals or groups operating concurrently or outside the structures of nation states.

Regardless of how one defines war, I shall always be very grateful to the compiler of the question because I will now be able to tell my undergraduates that the Middle Ages, contrary to public perception, was a less violent and more peaceful period than the Victorian era.