Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages

By Theodor Meron | Go to book overview

12
Conclusions

By its very nature medieval society was not an ideal environment for the development of clear, logical, and humane laws of war. There were, for example, few independent states and even fewer states that could be seen as equal. Government depended on a tangled web of hierarchical relations between princes, and between princes and knights. Class allegiance to the order of knights was more important than national loyalty. Unclear notions of statehood made it difficult to gauge which princes enjoyed sufficient sovereignty to wage a lawful war. The unclear notion of sovereignty blurred the distinction between international wars and civil wars. There was no clear differentiation between subjects and aliens and therefore between enemies and rebels. Vague and misused concepts of guilt and innocence often served as yardsticks for treatment of adversaries. The adequate distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello was still embryonic and often ignored, and not infrequently led to refusal to grant combatant privileges to the other party's soldiers when the justness of the war was challenged. Moreover, complicated distinctions separated privileged from unprivileged civilians, reserving protection only for the privileged classes. The difference between normative, disciplinary, and tactical rules was often blurred. Various rules and rituals protected the knightly class in their contests and combats, especially in the field; however, no comparable rules governed behaviour of the combatant towards the civilian population. The development of the law lagged behind the transition from contests between individual knights to battles between armies of warring nations,1 which was already taking place. Finally, medieval society accepted an artificial distinction between combat in the field and assaults (sieges) of towns and fortresses which often resulted in the cruel treatment of townspeople.

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1
LW 245.

-208-

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