Royal Beheadings and Christian Peace Committees

How the Visualisation of Peace in the Medieval and Early Modern Era differed throughout Europe

Throughout 2022, a team of undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews have been working on a ‘Vertically Integrated Project‘ called ‘Visualising Peace‘. Directed by Dr Alice König, this project seeks to extend the work of the Visualising War project by examining how war’s aftermath, conflict resolution and peace-building are conceived. Our aim is to study different habits of imagining, understanding, representing and working towards peace, and we are particularly interested in analysing how different narratives and ideas of peace have evolved and gained influence over time. 

Part of our work has involved created The Visualising Peace Library, an online bibliographic resource that encourages knowledge exchange between people studying peace in different disciplines and sectors. In this blog, student Kara Devlin discusses some of the items she has added to The Visualising Peace Library. Focusing on Medieval History, she highlights some important facts about the ways in which people experienced, understood and worked towards peace in this era – and she also draws attention to some of our blindspots in studying Medieval peace-making.

Literature Review by Kara Devlin

The Visualising Peace Library aims to promote knowledge exchange between different disciplines. To facilitate this, it must contain resources from a wide range of periods, places and subject areas; so I have spent the last few weeks adding more articles on medieval and early modern history. In doing so, I have come across some fascinating perspectives on peace in Europe in the Middle Ages.

As I discuss below, the visualization of a peaceful world – understood in its simplest form as a period with no conflict — varied along different binaries: some thinkers and politicians saw peace as something that had to be systemically embedded; others saw it as a randomly occurring phenomenon, the product of chance; some prescribed violence in conflict’s aftermath to ensure greater stability; for others, it was first and foremost an intellectual endeavour. The articles I survey below highlight stark different between theory and practice, and they also draw attention to key links between identity-formation and peace-building. Between them, they reveal valuable insights into how peace was visualised in the Medieval world which have a lot to teach us about visualisations of peace in other eras. Studying Medieval peace and peace-making can refresh how we study it in other disciplines and sectors.

The first article I added to The Visualising Peace Library was ‘The Normality of Peace’ by Matthew Melko. This was the perfect initial article for my research, since it illustrated through qualitative data that peace generally exists more than war, at least in early modern and modern history. Even in periods such as the early 20th century in Europe, Melko found that there was more peace than not, simply by looking at each country and year and analyzing whether conflict existed or not. This re-evaluation of the idea that ‘Peace is normal, war is exceptional’ is an effective starting point in analyzing Medieval history – and also an important check on our tendency to visualise (and teach) peace and conflict across history more broadly. 

Our pre-conceptions about conflict in the Medieval period may be that it was an era of violent justice and constant conflict. It is not difficult to prove this statement. Iain A. MacInnes’ article ‘“A somewhat too cruel vengeance was taken for the blood of the slain”: Royal Punishment of Rebels, Traitors, and Political Enemies in Medieval Scotland, c. 1100–c. 1250’ in particular gives many gory examples of the seemingly random punishments enacted by the English and Scottish to maintain order within their kingdoms. One visual example is the practice of beheadings, which were used by both countries, but featured more predominantly in Scotland as a symbol of victory. The heads were utilized as a bragging right and as a warning to anyone who might want to rebel again. However, MacInnes points out that this almost ritualistic killing was done with the primary intention of asserting systemic power, rather than as a bloodthirsty, senseless act of random violence.  

This glimpse we get of a prioritization of systemic justice over random violence in Scotland is backed up by Jenny Wormald’s article ‘Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government in Early Modern Scotland’, which discusses the use of law to resolve feuds. She argues that the Scottish relied on their own cultural system of justice, which involves the family and friends of the victim creating a sentence for the perpetrator. This peace-making relied heavily on community and shared ideals of justice to work effectively. The same sense of justice was applied to everyone, whether it was Mary Queen of Scots, or a local farmer. That said, Wormald stresses the flawed nature of Aulde Laws in Scotland, and the long way that Scottish law had to go to reach a real, collective idea of justice, rather than an idealized cultural version.

This idealised fantasy of a collective cultural idea of peacebuilding was a reality during the medieval era, however; it just happened to exist in a different country.  Loren C Mackinney’s article ‘The People and Public Opinion in the Eleventh-Century Peace Movement’ is an extraordinary depiction of a peace movement which spread throughout all social and economic classes of medieval France. This peace existed tangibly through ‘The Truce of God’ and through local pacts made between towns. French national identity was also re-moulded in efforts to achieve this central goal of national peace. Again, the process towards that was systemic and developed throughout time, beginning with church committees and moving towards more secular public assemblies. 

This French collective identity was strengthened through the Enlightenment as well, although this happened almost half a millennium later. Patrick Riley’s article ‘The Abbe de St Pierre and Voltaire on Perpetual Peace in Europe’ brings together ideas that had been stewing for centuries into the Abbe’s comprehensive plan for Europe. This plan largely involved creating a union for the European countries, an idea that was never fully explored within a medieval context. However, Voltaire and other enlightenment scholars questioned the practical effectiveness of a union, arguing that the way forward for peace was through global enlightenment. This article is a fantastic example of the differences between peace theory and peace practice – helping us to look at how peaceful practices and idealistic visualisations of peace evolved alongside each other. It is important to question whether medieval perspectives of peace were idealized theories or whether they were ingrained in everyday reality to understand how peace functioned within the medieval era. For example, Scottish sources speak of a cultural system of justice by family members. Whether this worked effectively in everyday practice is up for debate. 

Of course, perspectives on peace differed throughout the centuries to keep up with everyday practice within conflicts – in England, as elsewhere. Throughout the medieval period, English ideas and approaches varied from the systemic violence we can see amongst the Scots to the intellectual, realized peace more visible in France. MacInnes and Wormald both speak of the English as having similar levels of violence to the Scots and utilizing it in parallel ways to maintain order. Throughout the centuries, though, the English also turned to less violent methods of policing in order to maintain order. A. J. Musson’s article, ‘Sub-Keepers and Constables: The Role of Local Officials in Keeping the Peace in Fourteenth-Century England’ displays a completely different systemic approach than that of the Scottish. Musson explores the intricate structure of peacekeepers in England, from the royal decrees of the King to the powers of the sheriff constable. One thing which this article underlines is that national peace cannot be established through one system. Instead, it involves layers of overlapping roles which come together to reach every single person, place, and conflict in society. 

The visualizations of peace portrayed and discussed in these articles speak to a medieval world that maintained peace through a range of systemic developments. The Scottish found their systemic conflict resolution largely through violence, which allowed them to assert their dominance over enemies even in times with no conflict. The French built intellectual plans and systems towards a peaceful reality, first in the eleventh century peace movement, and next in the Enlightenment. The English began with similar acts of violence to the Scottish, but then built their own individual machine of law and order, recruiting roles for all levels of public and private order, and expanding the powers of these roles to enact justice. The three European societies presented in these articles ultimately display complex and varied visualizations (and realisations) of medieval peace, painting a picture that tends to differ from our own pre-conceptions of the period. Crucially, they also draw attention to connections between peace-building and national identity-formation which have lessons for our study of peace today.

I hope that this overview of a range of articles on Medieval ideas of peace will encourage you to dive into more items in our Visualising Peace Library, especially historic ones. Peace Studies often sits within the framework of International Relations or Political Science, but other disciplines such as History study peace and peace-making too, and we all have a lot to learn from each other’s disciplinary materials and perspectives.