Academic journal article Parergon

The Just King and De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi

Academic journal article Parergon

The Just King and De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi

Article excerpt

Locating the development of speculum principum literature within the political landscape of early medieval Britain and Ireland allows a glimpse into the constitution of regal authority. As a discourse on kingly prerogative, insular advice literature reveals the unfolding relationship between ruler and cleric as the texts progress from admonition to encouragement. The ninth abuse of De Duodecim Abusiuis Saeculi is a pivotal text in understanding the influence and evolution of this literature. A detailed manifest of contemporary Western political concepts of Christian theocratic kingship, this mid-seventh-century text is implicitly concerned with the 'just' exercise of a king's authority. Its rulership terminology presents a cohesive clerical vision of the model king, and can be assessed against contemporary Irish texts that attempt to circumscribe the geo-political reach of a king within a Christian social framework.

There is an abundance of scholarly discussion on the genre of speculum principum covering a variety of chronologies and countries. Limited interest, however, has been directed towards understanding the development of this genre in early medieval Britain and Ireland. In part, this is because early documentary evidence from Britain is slender whilst Irish evidence is often in the vernacular and ignored due to perceptions of its sui generis nature. Nevertheless, as will be shown, evaluating this genre against the changing political landscape of Ireland and Britain reveals concurrent developments in consolidating kingship and the increasing influence of clerics on social organization. Whether clerics were attempting to re-frame kingship in light of political developments or whether they were directing political change, by the beginning of the eighth century a symbiotic relationship between king and bishop existed that increased the geo-political authority of both offices. Anglo-Saxons, Britons, Gaels, and Picts moved simultaneously towards redefining the institution of kingship under the direction of Western political ideas transmitted through clerical agents. This paper argues that the insular speculum principum genre was a consciously developed literate discourse, participating in Western Christian political ideas, in response to changing political circumstances and the implementation of a Christian normative social structure.

The documentary evidence of advice to kings discussed in this essay is principally drawn from Irish texts. This is due to the predominance of Old Irish documents surviving from the period and the interest that these texts evince in the nature of power and authority (both temporal and spiritual), and in their manifestation and control. In relation to kings, the Old Irish legal and status texts, in particular, indicate that political changes provided an impetus for the discourse. Previously, scholars assumed that these texts merely displayed the reconciliation of existing pagan sacral kingship under Christianization. (1) Indeed, documentary texts of this period can rarely be separated from a clerical agency, and Anglo-Saxon and Pictish evidence for the development of a Christian office of kingship is primarily ecclesiastical in authorship and, sometimes, audience. Despite the uneven distribution of textual evidence there is certainly a case to be made for the transmission of key political ideas on constituting a Christian society amongst insular clerics who, in turn, advised their kings. (2) Insular clerics directly engaged with the discourse on the constitution of Christian government that was exercising the minds of their brethren across the Catholic world.

At an early stage in the process of the Christianization of Britain and Ireland, clerics attempted to define actively the correct behaviour of a Christian populace. This process of definition took the form of admonitory advice literature, predominately directed towards the king. In the same period the institution of insular kingship was being transformed into one of larger territorial consolidation. …

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