Law, Peace, and Justice in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Introducing the New Series

Invocations of peace and justice pervaded the enforcement of law and order in medieval and early modern Europe. As one example, a judge speaking to a Yorkshire jury in 1620 offered an entirely routine linking of pax and justicia: ‘the service that we are to perform at this time’, he said, ‘is to maintain and continue the public peace, by the execution of the public justice, a work so noble and so worthy as I doubt whether any temporal business that can be done in the life of man be comparable to it. What a worthy and marvellous work it is to maintain the public peace of your country…’ He elaborated on the well-known maxim from Psalm 85: Justitia et pax osculatae sunt. Painters sometimes offered erotic depictions of this verse, but this judge opted for something more maternal and generative: Justice was the ‘mother and nurse of peace’, he observed, while Peace was the ‘mother and nurse of plenty’. And so he encouraged his hearers to set about the business of trying petty thieves and other criminals.

I am pleased to be working with an international editorial board on a new book series that seeks to bring together work on medieval and early modern ‘peace-keeping’, broadly understood: from criminal justice to transitional justice, from the resolution of interpersonal conflict to treaty-making between states, from feud to refuge to reparations, from criminal trials to cultures of toleration.

My interests in this broad area derive partly from the links that have emerged across my own research in English history from c.1485–1689, and partly from the more recent past of the place I live and work. My first major project examined the functions and meanings of pardons granted by the Tudor monarchs, whether given to everyday lawbreakers or to rebels in the wake of revolts. Whether a royal sheriff making the most of a last-minute gallows pardon of a condemned horse thief or Queen Mary offering a grand Good Friday celebration of her God-like mercy to a gathering of her one-time foes, such performances could serve to bring peace, of a sort. A more recent project focused on homicide and its ‘criminalization’, through efforts to subsume individual vengeance first to ‘the king’s peace’ and then ‘the public peace’. In a wide variety of ways—so many waiting to be properly studied—the people of medieval and early modern Europe used the mechanisms and language of law and justice to try to effect peace between themselves and their neighbours, near and far.

Such conventions also shaped European interactions with the people they encountered in their global travels. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia—or Kjipuktuk—on land governed by ‘treaties of peace and friendship’ agreed upon from 1726 between representatives of the British Crown and leaders of local Indigenous nations, the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqey. More broadly, across Canada we now mark September 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, to recognize the harmful history and legacy of the ‘Indian Residential Schools’ described in the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that concluded in 2015. The language of peace, friendship, and reconciliation in these documents and endeavours is sometimes popularly understood to derive from Indigenous groups, with little awareness of its long, fraught histories within European traditions. I can’t help thinking that reconciliation here and now might be aided in some small way by a better understanding of the conventions of ‘peace and friendship’ – concordia et amicitia – in the longer history of European treaty-making.

Concordia et amicitia, like pax et justicia, suffused ostensible peace-making ventures both high and low, across borders and within local communities, throughout medieval and early modern Europe. My fellow series editors and I hope to promote work that helps us understand how law and justice were implicated in the ways in which people in the past imagined, implemented, and used ‘peace’, both within Europe and beyond, as Europeans moved out around the globe. While my own research has focused on England, other editors focus on Nordic, French, Italian, and other European territories. We want to cross conventional boundaries between medieval and early modern. While we are primarily historians by training, we hope the series might bring together a range of disciplinary approaches to subjects at the intersections of law, theology, art, political philosophy, and social practice. We are open to a variety of formats, including both monographs and edited collections, from scholars both senior and junior. In short, we hope to encourage a rich variety of conversations about law, peace, and justice. If you think the series might be the right home for your work, please visit the Durham University IMEMS Press web pages to find out more about how to submit a proposal, and please feel free at any stage to get in touch directly with me.


This guest post was written by Krista Kesselring, General Editor of the Law, Peace, and Justice series and Professor of History, Dalhousie University, Canada.

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