The Peace of God in France

The role of a medieval king is not only to expand the reach of Christianity, but also to bring peace and justice to his lands. In the 11th century the call for peace gets louder and louder, in particular in France. Peace is not so much the absence of large international war. What the population suffered most from were the incessant feuds between rival lords. When two rival lords had a disagreement, they rarely went on to fight it out as men. No, no, no, that would actually be dangerous. Much better to burn down the rival’s fields and murder his peasants. Unarmed peasants could not inflict much harm on an armoured rider and when the rival lord comes with his equally well-equipped men, you can always race back into the safe stone castle you had just built.

The simple equation is more stone castles equals more feuds equals more peasant misery. A king who wants to have peace in his lands needs to do one thing first and foremost, which is preventing his nobles from building castles. In an ideal world only the king would build and man castles. However, the 11th century is far from being an ideal world.

The world is particularly far from the ideal in France. King Henri I (1031-1060) is considered one of the weakest French kings in history. He was off to a bad start since he had to give the duchy of Burgundy to his brother Robert, shrinking the already modest royal possessions even further. Check on the map. The light blue bit is the only part of France King Henri I directly controlled.

His brother was not one of Henri’s most pressing problems. He also had to deal with his overbearing magnates. The two most irritating ones were the Counts of Anjou (dark green) and the Counts of Blois-Champagne (yellow) who would usually fight each other. Count Fulk III “the Black” of Anjou was famous for building castles. He is said to have built almost 100 of these, mostly in stone, the ruins of which are still terrifying.

Then you had the Dukes of Normandy (dark brown) and the Dukes of Aquitaine (mid green) who were a bit further afield from Henri’s direct zone of control, but often intervened in the struggles. New powers rose as well like the Counts of Flanders and the Counts of Toulouse. But even the magnates were not able to maintain order much beyond their castle walls, which meant every little count, baron or castellan built his own castle(s) and went merrily along brutalising the villeins. In this chaotic environment the Peace of God or Truce of God movement gained traction. The idea was to bring the perpetrator of violence to heel by threatening them with sanctions meted out by heavenly intervention. The Church took the lead and held several councils, the first in Le Puy in 975, but then quite regularly during the early 11th century with a frenzy of activity in the 1030s, the millennium of Christ’s passion and potential date for the arrival of the antichrist.

According to the monk Adhemar, these events were religious festivals where the bishops would whip the crowd into a frenzy through a generous display of relics and calls upon the saints to intervene. The warriors in presence would then declare their intention of making war on those who violate the peace of God. These attempts of pitching an army of saintly warriors has more than the whiff of crusaders to it and indeed the crusader movement incorporates elements of the Peace of God movement. It takes them to its logical conclusion which is sending the most violent and aggressive thugs out of the country. That being said, these holy armies or more accurately holy militias were rarely successful against the battle hardened Seigneurs.

That is why from the 1030s onwards a more manageable Truce of God was sought. The concept was that the lords would make vows on powerful relics promising to suspend warfare during the weekend, Saturday to Monday or even Wednesday to Monday as well as on high days and holy days. If they breached this obligation, they would be subject to all sorts of spiritual sanctions like banning from mass up to full excommunication. The imposition of these sanctions as well as the whole management of the Treuga Dei was initially in the hands of the church, mainly the bishops and abbots who regularly suffered from incursions by secular lords. The Abbey of Cluny became a key sponsor and coordinator for the Treuga Dei.

The Treuga Dei was needed most in the parts of France where central power was weakest. The dukes of Normandy whose duchy was tightly run were able to maintain public order by themselves without having to take recourse to the church.

Equally by 1035 the empire did (yet) not feel the need for a Treuga Dei. The central power was strong under Henry III and entirely capable to prevent feuds and control the construction of stone castles.

The continuation of this story is in Episode 27 of the History of the Germans

Map by Zigeuner – Own work, from France about 1035, in William R. Shepherd, The Historical Atlas, 1911 Data from the same and: Olivier Guyotjeannin, Atlas de l’histoire de France IXe-XVe siècle, Paris, 2005 François Menant, H. Martin, B. Merdignac & M. Chauvin, Les Capétiens – Histoire et dictionnaire 987-1328, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1999

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