Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power, and the Early Medieval Political Imagination

By Bruce, Scott G. | Canadian Journal of History, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power, and the Early Medieval Political Imagination


Bruce, Scott G., Canadian Journal of History


Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power, and the Early Medieval Political Imagination, by Paul J. E. Kershaw. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2011. xviii, 313 pp. $120.00 US (cloth).

In Wim Wenders' haunting film, Der Himmel uber Berlin (1987), an old man who personifies the ancient Greek poet Homer ruminates on the topic of peace in human history, while leafing through a copy of August Sander's book of photographs, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. He laments that no poet has ever succeeded in singing an epic of peace: "Was ist denn am Frieden dass es nicht auf die Dauer begeistert und dass sich von ihm kaum zu erzahlen lasst?" [What is wrong with peace that its inspiration does not endure and that it is almost untellable?] This sentiment is particularly appropriate for the early Middle Ages.

Paul Kershaw's book is the first comprehensive study of the theme of peace in the imagination of the court advisors, imperial biographers, and royal panegyrists who formulated and promoted the ideals of Christian rulership in the period between the end of the western Roman Empire in the late fifth century and the waning of Carolingian authority at the close of the ninth century. This study argues forcefully that the theme of peaceful kingship was pervasive in political discourse throughout the early Middle Ages. Moreover, it demonstrates clearly that this discourse drew upon a centuries-old lexicon of literary models from Roman antiquity and from the Hebrew scriptures, most notably the examples provided by King David and his son Solomon. But political ideals do not always translate into political practice. In this respect, Kershaw's well-researched book falls short of the mark that it sets for itself. This study catalogues many references to peace as res regia ("the business of the king") in this period, but there is no attempt to reconcile this prevalent political ideal with the equally abundant evidence that the primary political activity of most early medieval rulers was warfare. Looming behind this study is a larger, unanswered question: given the persistence of peace as an attribute of idealized kingship in the early Middle Ages, why did its inspiration not endure as a tenable political reality?

The scope of Kershaw's study is admirably broad. The introduction lays out the premise that many early medieval thinkers linked peace with power and explored this connection in many different genres, from epic poetry to historical annals to peace treaties, for a wide range of personal and political purposes. Chapter One looks for definitions of peace in early medieval sources (the Latin pax and its many vernacular equivalents) and ranges widely from Northumbria, where Bede defined the peace of Edwin's reign in terms of "freedom from robbery, rape, or violence [and] security to travel at will" (p. 31), to Rome and Constantinople, where the notion of the pax Romana endured in monuments like the Ara Pacis and the Church of Hagia Eirene, and in the prayers preserved in the Old Gelasian Mass. Ultimately, it was biblical models like Hezekiah, Solomon, and Christ to whom early medieval authors would turn when they described the peaceful qualities of their kings.

Chapter Two surveys the use of peace in the political vocabularies of the barbarian rulers of Vandal North Africa, Gibichung Burgundy, Ostrogothic Italy, Visigothic Spain, and Merovingian Francia, with a digression on the notions of peace found in the works of Pope Gregory the Great. …

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