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.

Crime, Exiles and Ordeals

(Recent Cardiff graduate, Naomi Maher, writes about her placement researching crime, exiles and ordeals, and what it’s like to trawl through 600+ pages of primary source material!)

For five weeks I have researched Anglo-Saxon exiles and trial by ordeals. I examined sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne and A. O. Anderson’s Early Sources of Scottish History (all 604 pages of this latter work is simply a compilation of lots of other sources – making it a very long and repetitive account!). Despite some of the challenges these sources posed, this placement provided me with a great opportunity to read and attempt to get a better understanding of the contemporary accounts of Anglo-Saxon life.

Understanding the reasoning behind the ordeal trial and punishment by exile or outlawry was half the challenge. There were a number of different ordeals that could either convict or free an accused. For instance, the ordeal of fire required that the accused walk a certain distance, over red-hot ploughshares or holding a red-hot iron. In theory, if you were innocent you would come out of this completely without injury. However, more commonly the wound was bandaged and re-examined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was festering, in which case you were guilty and then exiled or executed. According to various law codes, exile could be ordered for an individual in cases such as repeat offences, wizardry and prostitution. My research, however, seemed to suggest that the most common reason was simply that the individual posed a threat to the king and it is not always clear if these underwent the ordeal. For example, Symeon of Durham records that in 944 Anlaf and Reignold were expelled from Northumbria by Edmund who later subdued it to his own authority- no further information is provided but it seems pretty clear that they were simply a threat that was dealt with. In regards to trial by ordeal, various law codes suggest that the practice was used in instances such as coining of false money, treachery and theft. In particular, it was this latter crime which seems to have been one of the most common for having to undergo a trial by ordeal. As theft was a crime that could affect the whole community it would stand to reason that the Anglo-Saxons would not only want to make an example of the accused in order to reassure the community but also to deter would-be thieves.

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Overall, whilst today we would see a painful trial and social ostracism as bizarre and extreme we have to remember that, in reality, these penalties were perhaps rarely enforced. Most crimes were compensated rather than punished. During my placement I looked at a range of sources and expected to find many instances of ordeals and exiles/outlaws but was surprised by the lack of evidence for this. Whether this was because they weren’t always recorded or whether they just didn’t happen that often we’ll never really know but, in my opinion, these harsh penalties were effective scare mongering tactics enforced throughout the centuries. These kingdoms were constantly changing and were regularly threatened by external forces, including neighbouring kingdoms and the Vikings, and these strong punishments seems to have been a way of limiting the internal threats that were posed to law and order.