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.

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)