The Medieval Review 11.11.25

Benham, Jenny. Peacemaking in the Middle Ages: Principles and Practice. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011. Pp. Xii, 250. 60 UK. ISBN 978-0-7190-8444-7. . .

Reviewed by:

Yvonne Friedman
Bar-Ilan University, Israel

In contrast to the voluminous treatments of the history of medieval war and warfare, medieval peacemaking has long been a neglected topic of historical scrutiny and research. An illustrative example is Antony Adolf's recent one-volume Peace: A World History, (Polity Press, 2009), in which Adolf sweeps through the history of medieval peace in a mere nine pages. Clearly, room remains for expansion of the study of medieval peace and peacemaking.

Some advances have been made, however. The past decade has seen the publication of a number of articles on medieval peacemaking, and Jenny Benham's book is a welcome addition to the field. If Nicholas Offenstadt's work on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century peacemaking between England and France focused the discourse on the technical instruments of peacemaking in an age when the customs and rituals in Western Europe were developing into written laws (Faire la paix au Moyen Âge: Discours et gestes de paix pendant la guerre de Cent Ans [Paris, 2007]), Benham continues this line of research, going back in time, however, to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and she compares the English-French encounters to those of Denmark and its neighbors. Thus, peacemaking is becoming a valid topic through which it is possible and imperative to study history. If "war is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural forms, in some societies the culture itself," as John Keegan wrote (A History of Warfare, London, 1993, 12), one could similarly claim that international peacemaking is always a meeting of cultures, a negotiation between different societies that chose to live together and learn new cultural forms.

This comparative history of peacemaking in medieval Europe, including England and its rivals (mainly France, Wales and Scotland) and Denmark and her partners, 1154-1241 (the reigns of the Angevin and Danish kings), is divided into five main parts. The first four parts deal with the non-verbal aspects of peacemaking, and its last part treats the written treaties between the belligerents. This division accurately reflects the importance that medieval societies assigned to ritual and symbolic acts, often of greater significance than written documents.

Part one, "Meeting Places," describes in detail the importance of the choice of meeting place between the parties. Using well- articulated arguments, Benham proves that peacemaking, like war, was the prerogative of rulers, and not a unified action by a specific nation or race. Therefore, the place and location for parley carried great weight. Equals met in the middle, at a well defined, recognizable site between their territories, such as an elm tree or ford, whereas negotiations between a superior and inferior were carried out at the superior's court, forcing the inferior party to come to him. Benham's notion that "the deeper they had to travel (e.g., the Scottish kings to the English ones) the more inferior they were" (50) seems a bit dogmatic. Others factors may have come into play, and the exact distance may not have been of such significance. But the argument regarding the symbolic importance of this act of meeting is forceful and argued with great perspicacity.

The rich, informative second part, "The 'Rituals' of Peacemaking," treats gesture, such as gift exchanges, banquets, and gestures of submission. Benham here follows in the wake of Marcel Mauss, Gerd Althoff, and Phillipppe Buc. Missing from the discussion, however, is Offenstadt's work on Anglo-French peacemaking from the late thirteenth century on.

Part three, "The Envoys," which treats envoys and negotiators, builds on the research of Pierre Chaplais and Donald Queller. Both wrote extensively on the development of diplomatic personnel in the later Middle Ages in line with the criterion of their mandate to negotiate a treaty. Benham chooses another defining criterion, namely their standing in the English court, noting that many were chancellors or vice-chancellors to the king. Her conclusion that "quite simply, envoys and mediators were the most trusted servants of their masters" (137) applies to other cultures as well. The dispatching of anyone less than an important official was seen as a grave insult by the party approached and, because of their rank, negotiators were thus often able to pursue an almost independent policy of peacemaking.

The fourth part, "Guaranteeing the Peace," consists of two chapters: one on oaths, and the second on hostages and sureties. The chapter on oaths relies on examples from a wider geographical and chronological perspective. The November 1190 treaty between Richard I and Tancred, king of Sicily, raises the question of the language of the oath and is compared to earlier, ninth-century cases. This broader scope results in a more nuanced, subtle analysis. The fact that hostages and sureties were required shows that oaths alone did not suffice to make sure the treaties were kept.

Part five, "Treaties, Terminology and the Written Word," was of the greatest interest to me. As a researcher struggling with the scarcity of written treaties in the Medieval Latin East it was illuminating to learn that England, "perhaps the most bureaucratic of the twelfth century Western European polities" (181), fared no better. Most treaties have to be gleaned from the chroniclers' descriptions, and much is a matter of guesswork. For the Mamluk era copies of the treaties themselves have been fortuitously preserved in Al Qalaqashandi's manual for chancellors (Subh al-a'sha fi sina'at al insha excerpts translated by Peter Holt, Early Mamluk Diplomacy 1260-1290, Leiden, 1995). Another point which was thought specific to Muslim-Christian treaties, and which Benham shows was also true for Western countries, is the temporary nature of the treaties. In her conclusion, she demonstrates that most peace treaties ultimately failed, as they did not keep the peace for more than five years. In the East this was clearly stipulated from the start, as treaties were meant to be restricted in time, but apparently the results were the same in the West, even when kings thought they were making perpetual peace. But this in no way detracts from the importance of the study of the history of peacemaking. Perhaps the attempt to understand the perceptions and practices of "small peace" has greater relevance to later periods than the ideals of lasting peace that were not achieved.

Although Benham's study is a very important step forward, a well- written book that makes an important contribution to the history of peace, I question some of her choices. The broadness of the topic-- namely, peacemaking in the Middle Ages, as the title of her book indicates--made it necessary to narrow either the geographical or temporal scope of the study. In my opinion, the choice to restrict the temporal scope was infelicitous. Given the lack of features shared by England and Denmark and the unevenness of the sources for each entity, the comparative method leaves much to be desired. It might have been more fruitful to provide a longue durée or at least relate to a longer time period in order to enable elaboration of developments and changes in the mores of peacemaking over the ages. Benham demonstrates the ability to make such comparisons, but her self-imposed chronological limitations prevent her from doing so here. Comparison with later periods might also have added depth to the discussion of rituals as these are usually slow to develop and the majority of the cases cited could have been compared to Offenstadt's findings for the following century. This also applies to Benham's consideration of envoys and negotiators, and the acts that guaranteed peace, which were in fact often part of ritual, such as oath taking.

A more felicitous choice on Benham's part was to restrict her study to the principles and practices of peacemaking. Much has been written about the general theory of peace in Christianity from Augustine onward, and historians have mainly directed their interest to internal peace in Europe, especially the famous Pax Dei, the tenth-to-eleventh-century peace movements that dealt with internal conflict resolution and the church's restraining of intra-Christian violence. Benham treats these topics in the introduction but devotes her main attention to how peace was in fact made between medieval states. It is to be hoped that by extending her research to later periods the author will make an even more substantial contribution to the study of peacemaking in the future.