The Peace of God

In the late 10th century, a series of meetings took place across Burgundy and Aquitaine at which Bishops attempted to use the powers of their office – namely excommunication and penance – to bring the warring Counts of the Franks to heel. The ‘Peace of God’ that these councils brought into being eventually spread northwards into Francia, eastwards into the Holy Roman Empire, and even across the Pyrenees. Over time it mutated into the ‘Truce of God’, an attempt to ban violence within Francia on certain days.

By the time of the Council of Clermont in 1095 at which Pope Urban II declared the first crusade, the notion that Christian should not harm Christian was strong enough that the martial excesses of the emerging French knightly class could easily be bent towards the heathen Turks. By working to domesticate ‘horsemen’ into ‘knights’, the Peace of God that began in those Aquitanian fields helped to formalise and settle the relationships between nobility, clergy and commoners. In doing so it played a part in the establishment of a cultural order within the Christian world that marked out certain kinds of people as labourers, and certain others as exempt from labour.

Peasants and commoners were a key part of the Peace of God, although historians and contemporaries disagree on precisely what role they played. The Benedictine monk Radolphus Glaber, whose Histories are one of the major sources about the Peace that is left to us, calls out the attendance of we might translate as “ordinary people” at these councils, although his phrase vulgaris plebs has a different connotation (Cowdrey, 46). Glaber’s account tells us that the relics of Saints were brought to a field outside the city, where miracles of healing were carried out. At the climax of the council, the Bishops led the assembly as, with hands held out to God, they cried out in unison, “peace, peace, peace!” (palmis extensis ad Deum, Pax, Pax, Pax, unanimiter clamarent, Cowdrey, 44-45, MacKinney, 191n2).

Glaber is not the only source who notes the presence of commoners at these councils. According to an anonymous monastic chronicler from the Monastery of Saint Pierre du Puy, Bishop Guy of le Puy called a council in 979 at which he asked all the armed men (milites) and farmers (rustici) together so that “he might hear from them whatever advice they might give him on how peace might reign” (Head, 667). The Book of the Miracles of Saint Faith, written by Bernard of Angers in the early 11th century, tells of the council of Rodez. It describes the relics of four saints being brought to a pavilion in a field a mile from the city, and miracles being worked that elicited a great roar from the crowd of commoners (vulgi) that watched it (Koziol, 48-9)

Far from simply gathering them to ask them what they thought about peace, both the Bishops who called the councils and the monastic observers who chronicled them had their own reasons to include the vulgari. For the chroniclers, the vulgari and the plebs were part of a millenarian story of redemption from the plague in time for the Second Coming. Radolphus Glaber contextualises the Peace Councils amongst the “manifold signs and prodigies which came to pass in the world … about the thousandth year from our Lord’s birth (FM).” These signs included endemic outbreaks of the ignis sacer, the “holy fire”, which caused blisters, rot, and widespread death, and were understood by the Monks as a punishment visited by God. Adhemar of Chabannes mentioned the plagues as one of the reasons to call the Council of Limoges in 994 (Cowdrey, 49).

In these sources, the Councils acted as penance, which prompted God’s forgiveness in the form of miracles. Glaber wrote that there were “innumerable sick folk healed in those conclaves of Holy men; and, lest men should think lightly of mere bursten skin or rent flesh in the straightening of arms and legs, much blood flowed forth also when the crooked limbs were restored; which gave faith to the rest who might have doubted.” (FM) Adhemar says that at Limoges, “everyone was filled with immeasurable joy” and “All sickness everywhere ceased” as a result of the Council (Cowdrey, 49).

The miracles “inflamed” the crowds “with such ardour” that they swore an oath of Peace with God, and promised to renew the covenant in five years. As a result, “so great was the plenty and abundance of corn and wine and other fruits of the earth, that men dared not hope to have so much during all the five years next to come; for no human food was aught accounted of save flesh or choice Victuals, and this year was like unto the great Jubilee of ancient Mosaic times (FM).”

However, the people failed to keep the covenant with God as promised:

“But, alas for shame! the human race, forgetful of God’s loving kindness and prone from its very beginning to evil, like the dog returning to his own vomit again or the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire, made the covenant of their own promise of none effect in many ways; and, as it is written, they waxed fat, and grew thick, and kicked. For even the princes of both orders, spiritual and secular, turned to covetousness and began to sin in theft and greed as grievously as before, or even worse. Then those of middle rank and the poorer people, following the example of the greater, declined into horrible Crime (FM).

Radolphus Glaber, The First Millennium

Geoffrey Koziol argues that this sort of representation conforms to a commonly held 10th century eschatological narrative in which “God threatens; mankind repents; God forgives; mankind backslides (45).” The vulgari or plebs in the monastic sources are therefore important as the vector for God’s wrath and as stand-ins for the ‘mankind’ that needs to repent.

It is harder to ascertain what role the Bishops who called the councils imagined for the vulgari. It’s notable that that anonymous monastic chronicler claimed that Guy of le Puy wanted to “hear from them whatever advice they might give him on how peace might reign”. Thomas Head argues that the Council was a strategic opportunity for Bishop Guy to take advantage of a moment of relative peace, rather than an antagonistic attempt to enforce peace on the nobility by using the masses of the commoners as allies (669-70).

Koziol points out that at Rodez, when the Bishop, the Countess, and the other nobiles heard the “racket” from the pavilions in the fields, some distance away,

…they asked each other, “What is all this clamor from the people about [ista popularis conclamatio]?” They did not know because they and the people were at entirely different locations. The “commoners” [vulgi] were with the saints in the field; the “lords of the council” [seniores concilii] were with each other.

Koziol, The Peace of God, 48-9

It seems clear that the vulgari, plebs, or rustici did not engage in the Councils on equal footing to the nobles and bishops, but beyond that it’s hard to say just how active they were in Council proceedings.

The Peace of God was part of the establishment of what we understand as ‘feudalism’, although wit is probably better termed ‘seigniorialism’. Though the Peace criticised the abuse of power by the emerging knightly classes, it was not a radical attempt to undo that power. It provided a justification for a mutually-enforced civility between the powerful in the Christian world. The Truce of God which followed laid down laws prohibiting violence between Christians. Rather than restructure medieval France, it aimed to first repress the nobility’s violent enthusiasms, and then redirect it outwards towards the Heathen.

The Peace and Truce of God thus helped to elevate marauding bands of armed horsemen into what we would today recognise as ‘knights’, and to set out the relationship between them, the Clergy, and the rustici, vulgari, or plebs. According to Georges Duby, these three groups can be described as those who pray, the oratores; those who fight, the milites; and those who work the fields, the laboratores or agricolatores. The three groups were arranged in a mutually-supporting hierarchy, in which the milites protected the other two groups from worldly threats, the oratores ministered to their heavenly souls, and the laboratores toiled to feed both of the other groups. The benefit of this arrangement for the peasantry, at least conceptually, was that neither their bodies nor their souls were in danger.

The Peace and Truce of God thus belong at the beginning of a history of work, because labour is deeply implicated in how events unfolded. Between the late 10th and mid-11th century in France, the clergy and nobility were forced by the very presence of commoners to think about where they might fit in their imagined Kingdom, and to articulate the relationships between themselves and those otherwise mute commoners. Duby’s Three Orders which followed articulated a justification for why only some people had to labour, while others did not.

In my next post, I will look in more detail at Duby’s concept of the Three Orders and the obligations it allotted to the oratores, milites, and laboratores.


  • Cowdrey, H. E. J., “The Peace and the Truce of God in the Eleventh Century,” Past & Present 46 (1970)
  • Glaber, Rodolphus, The First Millennium
  • Head, Thomas, “The Development of the Peace of God in Aquitaine (970-1005),” Speculum, 74:3 (1999)
  • Koziol, Geoffrey, The Peace of God
  • MacKinney, Loren C. “The People and Public Opinion in the Eleventh-Century Peace Movement,” Speculum 5:2 (1930)

Header image is The Coronation of Hugh Capet, taken from Wikimedia Commons

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