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.

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)

A New Order? Westphalia and ‘Modern’ Diplomacy

Dan Jewson, who is just about to enter his third year as an undergraduate and who arrived at Cardiff University through the Exploring the Past pathway, writes about his three-week placement working on the ‘myth’ of the Peace of Westphalia.

I undertook a three week research placement supporting Jenny Benham in her research on international law. My specific tasks were to compile a bibliography on the subject of ‘The origins of International Law’ and to compile further research into a number of specific European Peace Treaties between 1485 and 1918.

At first, I was overwhelmed at what appeared to be an enormous task in an area of history I have very little experience in. I was not really too sure where to start! Very quickly these fears disappeared as I began to read and research the many primary & secondary sources available and quickly became fascinated by the subject. Whilst this was a subject area I had not looked at in any depth previously, the historical skills I have developed during my degree proved to be transferable.

In particular, it was exciting to have the opportunity look in detail at the 1648 Peace of Westphalia (a series of treaties concluded between May and October), which was the culmination of the peace process at the end of the European 30 years’ war. An historical paradigm has grown up around this Peace. Historians and lawyers believe the ‘Westphalian Order’ represents a turning point in international law, heralding ‘modern’ diplomatic and international relations between newly established nation states. However, by reading the text of the treaty in detail I was able to gather evidence which suggested that this historical narrative can be argued to be a myth. Far from being a ‘modern’ peace treaty or a new way of operating international relations, Westphalia drew inspiration from diplomatic practice stretching back into medieval times. It was genuinely exciting to read through a primary source and identify evidence that challenges established historical thought – a fitting reward for trawling through challenging and lengthy pages of 17th century legal text! Having taken a module last semester on the British Civil Wars, it was also very interesting to be looking at the same period but from a European perspective, broadening my understanding of the Early Modern period and also challenged some of the opinions I had developed on Britain during the Civil Wars.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748

Other Treaties that I looked at in depth included The Treaty of Osnabrück (1648), The Treaty of Pyrenees (1659), The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), The Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle (1748) and the Congress of Vienna (1815). Each of these treaties have also established historical narratives attached to them so it was fascinating to unpick these and consider the evidence. One of the challenges I had with some of the primary sources was finding documents which had been translated into English. This took a long time with some documents and with others proved completely impossible. This was frustrating and slowed down my research at times.

Overall it has been a fantastic opportunity which I have really enjoyed. Looking at peace treaties across a broad timeframe enabled me to understand in more depth the development of international law in Europe and also to challenge some of my own historical preconceptions about the development of European nation states and the background to many European conflicts. It’s also broadened my horizons beyond the Early Modern and Modern Period which are the periods most of my studies have focussed on. Finally, working alongside Jenny and benefiting from her expertise, professionalism and obvious passion for her field has been a real pleasure which has enabled me to further develop my historical skills and knowledge. Thank you very much.

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.

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!


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)