essays

Sep 1, 1981

The Idea of Peace: 500-1150

“Early medieval peace theories represent a significant step in the development of the Western mind.”

Thomas Renna
Saginaw Valley State College

“The Idea of Peace in the West, 500–1150.” Journal of Medieval History 6(1980):143–167.

Modern scholars of medieval warfare regularly produce studies on the Crusades, the just war, medieval military tactics, war financing, and the aristocracy. Peace, on the other hand, has not fared so well. Its neglect by scholars is all the more curious in view of the numerous allusions to pax (peace) in much of the Latin writing of the Middle Ages, both secular and ecclesiastical. A knowledge of the development of the notion of peace could reveal much about medieval attitudes toward Church, society, and political theory.

The peace ideas which evolved in Western Europe from 300 to 1150 faithfully reflect the social and cultural forces active during that period. Peace was frequently discussed because it was so sorely wanting. The memory of the Christian Pax Romana only fueled medieval aspirations for peace and for its concomitant, order. Peace during this period always implied more than just a cessation of war. For early medievals, it meant a restoration of the proper harmony of God’s creation. In varying degrees, conceptions of peace presumed a moral order mirroring the justice of heaven.

As early as AD 500, the idea of peace began to sink sociological roots. The ascetic view, for example, exerted tremendous influence throughout the Middle Ages partially because it was concentrated in a very visible social grouping—the monks. The monastic peace stressed inner harmony and holiness either as a precondition for social tranquillity or else as the only peace possible in an evil and chaotic world. Through the centuries, monks and hermits preserved and enshrined the ascetic ideal of peace within a rich literary heritage.

The social importance of monasteries assured that the monastic peace would survive and permeate all other peace theories to some extent. However, when monasticism declined as a major social force after 1150, its view of peace likewise lost influence.

The episcopal peace emerged once bishops became aware of their unique mission in Christian salvation. The episcopate came to understand that salvation could only come from the Word of God and his grace as channeled through the sacraments—areas whose care had been uniquely entrusted to the bishops. As a result, their particular approach to peace stressed the importance of obedience to the teachings and discipline of the Church. In the realm of secular affairs, they laid particular emphasis on bishops’ responsibilities to remonstrate with wayward nobles and to mediate in case of war. The much studied “Peace of God” provides an extraordinary example of the strength and resources of the Western episcopacy, despite its partial secularization during the tenth century. To assure disciplined functioning of the Church, the bishops had to resort to temporal means to fortify Christians and convert the heathen. Personal example, as provided by the monks, would not suffice.

The relative clarity of the monastic and episcopal views of peace was generally lacking in their secular counterparts, primarily because political conditions were diverse and fluctuating. Charlemagne revived the notion of the imperial peace and linked it to the Church’s moral order. In so doing, he tended to co-opt the spiritual authority of the Church. This process would accelerate during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as smaller political units were absorbed into semicentralized principalities. The kings, great princes, and communes gradually transformed ecclesiastical peace concepts (such as the Peace of God) into a secularized public peace. This occurred because lay authorities had little use for the eschatological and ontological dimensions of the pax ecclesiae.

A rapid decline of the Church’s influence on peace thought may be observed particularly in the period following the great religious wars of the sixteenth century. The natural law approaches to peace, developed from that time up until the eighteenth century, were normally established on a purely secular foundation.

Early medieval peace theories represent a significant step in the development of the Western mind. With the demise of the Roman Empire, the culture had to grope for fresh solutions to new problems posed by Europe’s uprootedness. While never losing contact with its classical and patristic roots, the West realized that it needed more than the peace heritage of the past.