Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power, and the Early Medieval Political Imagination.
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. It argues that these new regimes used peace as part of "a recognizable language of political power to assert and secure authority" (p. 76). Chapter Three examines the Carolingian period, during which Charlemagne and his heirs presented themselves as the keepers of the peace in Francia in order to legitimize their family's deposition of the Merovingian dynasty. By the ninth century, "peace had become Charlemagne's legacy to his descendants, part of the burden of Frankish rulership and part of the Carolingians' myth of themselves" (p. 136). This chapter considers Alcuin's understanding of peace at great length before turning to representations of Carolus magnus et pacificus himself. Kershaw is undoubtedly correct when he traces the provenance of this terminology to the language of imperial acclamations in Byzantium, but does not address the relationship between this title and the three decades of continuous warfare that the great king waged against the Saxons.
Chapter Four considers the heirs of Charlemagne. The identification of Charlemagne as King David made it easy for contemporaries to conflate his son, Louis the Pious, with David's son, King Solomon. Kershaw considers a wide range of sources produced throughout the ninth century for the insight that they provide on notions of peaceful kingship: Smaragdus of St-Mihiel's Via regia (a mirror for princes written for Louis), Amalarius of Metz's Liber officialis (an exegetical reading of the Christian liturgy), Ermoldus Nigellus' epic poem in praise of Louis (Carmen in honorem Hludowici Christianissimi caesaris augusti), the polemical writings of Agobard of Lyon, the anonymous Song of Count Timo (Carmen de Timone comite), and Florus of Lyon's poetic lament for the destruction caused by the civil war between the sons of Louis the Pious (Querela de divisione imperu). The chapter concludes with an analysis of the deployment of this imagery in the court of Charles the Bald, including Flincmar of Rheims's treatise De regis persona et regio ministerio and Sedulius Scottus' Liber de rectoribus Christianis. Somewhat out of place in this sprawling chapter is a final digression on Pope Nicholas's response to questions about the ideal conduct of Christian kings sent to him by the newly converted Bulgar Khan. The books closes with a comparatively short chapter on the notions of peaceful rulership in Anglo-Saxon England, with particular attention to the place of peace in the political thought of Alfred the Great.
Kershaw has amassed a huge inventory of references to peace in the political vocabulary of early medieval rulers, but his book does not bridge the gap between the ideals of imperial courtiers and the realities faced by the kings they served. Readers looking for information on techniques of peace-keeping in the early Middle Ages (diplomacy, hostage exchanges, envoys, and gift-giving) will not find this book very satisfying. And while Kershaw argues persuasively that the concept of peace was pervasive in the political discourse of the post-Roman period, it remains unclear why its inspiration never endured as a political reality.
Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder
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|Author:||Bruce, Scott G.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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