Peace of God:
Pax Dei

The Pax Dei was a conciliar movement which began in southern France in the late tenth century and spread to most of Western Europe over the next century, surviving in some form until at least the thirteenth century. It combined lay and ecclesiastical legislation regulating warfare and establishing a social peace. The participation of large, enthusiastic crowds marks it as one of the first popular religious movements of the Middle Ages. The timing (two waves in the decade preceding the year 1000 and the year 1033), the language used by some of the ecclesiastical sources (hagiography and historiography) and the descriptions of the populace at these councils (penitence giving way to mass expressions of joy) indicate a strong millennial element. The sources use images from Jubilees and the prophetic works, including Isaiah’s famous depiction of messianic peace appear, suggesting that participants in these councils, both lay and (some) clerical believed that, at the advent of the millennium, God’s peace was at last descending on earth.

Its origins coincided with the failure of the last Carolingian rulers to keep order in West Frankland, and the accession of Hugh Capet, founder of a new dynasty in 987. Throughout the kingdom, the decentralizing forces that had plagued Charlemagne’s empire from its inception, intensified, with, in some places an intensification of regional power bases (counts, dukes) and in others the appearance of independent warlords with new fortifications (castellani) and bands of retainers (milites). In the ensuing disorders, local initiatives to reestablish social order found expression in a variety of measures, the most spectacular of which were Peace assemblies.

Typically, these councils were held in large open fields around exceptional gatherings of saints' relics, brought from the surrounding regions. Each relic brought with it a throng of faithful, enthused both by their novel proximity to the sacred, and the miracles that these relics "performed." In the presence of the large crowds of commoners attracted by these relics, the elders of the council (dukes, counts, bishops, abbots) would proclaim Peace legislation designed to protect civilians (unarmed churchmen, peasants, merchants, pilgrims) and control the behavior of warriors. Often the warriors would swear an oath on the relics in the presence of all assembled.

In a sense this constitutes the first time that we find popular attempts to establish civil society in medieval Europe. Instead of royal administration preserving the peace, these councils combined ecclesiastical decree (the Peace canons), public accords (the oaths before the populace). In the early phase (980-1040), the blend of relics and crowds, miracles and enthusiasm stamped the movement with its exceptionally popular character. Indeed, the extraordinary reliance of the Peace on non-coercive, spiritual sanctions (excommunication, interdict, anathema) depended on the combined force of divine will and popular pressure. Some historians call this phase the "sanctified peace," a generic term we might better describe as the "millennial" peace, where the collective enthusiasm and the "rule of the saints" signaled for the participant – if not the retrospective narrator and the modern historian – that the sabbatical millennium had arrived after a 1000 years of waiting.

After a lull in the first two decades of the eleventh century (post-apocalyptic let-down), the movement takes up speed again in the 1020s, this time spreading to the north with the support of king Robert, the Capetian whose popular piety (humility, peace, pilgrimage) established the legitimacy of his dynasty. There, the high nobility (including the king) sponsored Peace assemblies throughout their lands (Flanders, Burgundy, Champagne, Normandy, Amienois, Berry). An ideology of Peace pervaded the language of political conciliation on an international scale, most notably at the meeting in 1024 on the Meuse where Robert II and emperor Henry II proclaimed a universal peace. This official and exceptional involvement in an international peace movement, rode yet another wave of popular support. Commoners began to share in the oaths and the responsibilities of the Peace Assemblies, the crowds and the assemblies multiplied, and the movement began to develop legislation.

According to the contemporary chronicler, Raoul Glaber, the Peace as a popular movement came to a climax in the apocalyptic atmosphere of the millennium of Christ's Passion, the year 1033. In his account, after three years of famine, the king called for councils to be held throughout his realm. These councils sought to establish a fundamental social peace ("absolute peace") and were attended by vast crowds who embraced the peace enthusiastically, their palms extended to heaven, shouting "Pax! Pax! Pax! They believed, Glaber tells us, that they were making a covenant of peace between God and men, the Peace of God. This shout represents the first popular millennial voice recorded favorably by clerical writers who, since Augustine, had expressed enormous hostility to millennialism. According to Glaber, the social covenant sworn at these rallies carried over for about four years of such peace and abundance that they were "the Jubilees of old," an exceptionally long period of time for millennial enthusiasm to sustain civil society in a world that had never known such a thing.

Of course, as with all millennial movements, popular enthusiasm and official support could not transform overnight the behavior of the aristocracy which repeatedly, again according to Glaber, reneged on its oaths and commitments. This led in some places to the formation of Peace leagues, which organized militias to enforce the peace. In the mid-1030s a league at Bourges summoned all men over fifteen years old to join a sworn league to enforce the peace. This popular army of peasants and townsmen, led by priests carrying banners, seeing themselves as the children of Israel fighting the Canaanites, had considerable initial success against the local nobility. In 1038, however, they fell before the mounted onslaught of the local great Lord, the Count of Déols. In some areas of southern France, evidence indicates such leagues (and even a "peace tax" to support them) existed as late as the thirteenth century.

While this may have marked the end of the millennial, popular phase of the peace, by the 1040s, the high aristocracy began to use the movement to consolidate their own power. The organizational thrust and the tone of the movement changed towards what Max Weber called routinization or institutionalization. The Truce of God (Treuga Dei) became the center of legislative action and aimed, by declaring Thursday through Sunday a days of peace, at restricting controlling feuds and private warfare. The Truce led to the emergence of public institutions for the control of violence. Its roots lay in religious sanctions against occupations inappropriate to holy days, and represents an extraordinarily ambitious effort to impose upon the secular world the rhythms of sacred time practised in the monastery. Cluny’s involvement in the spread of this institution to Germany and Italy places Odilo, perhaps the greatest religious man of his age, at the center of an effort to implement a millennial program, what we would now call post-millennialism.

Peace and Truce became synonymous. At Narbonne (1054) the organizers established the general principle that to kill a Christian was to shed the blood of Christ, a notion that was as demanding for Christian civil society as it was ominous for those – Jews, heretics, and Muslims – who were not included in the pact. Indeed, this principle reflects a fundamental change in the Peace movement – from repressing the aggressiveness of the warrior class to redirecting it against the enemies of Christendom. At the council of Clermont in 1096, and in the next two years at Rome, Pope Urban II mobilized the warriors of all Western Europe by declaring at one time a perpetual peace among Christians and war upon Islam. The call of "Deus le volt!" which chroniclers tell us was on the lips of so many represents a second popular millennial voice recorded, this time with the more familiar characteristics of millennialism in power – sacred violence, totalitarian zealotry.

Calling a peace assembly became an option for responses to anarchy and violence all over Western Europe. When civil war raged in the imperial lands as a result of the Investiture Contest, bishops declared the Peace at Liege (1082), Cologne (1083), and Bamberg (1085), while German princes declared it for Swabia (1083) and Bavaria (1094). Similarly, in Normandy, the first Peace Council in that area responded to the violence and uncertainty after the death of Duke Robert I and preceding the ascendancy of William the Conquerer. A council at Caen (1042), complete with relics and masses of common people, attempted to rectify the situation. Even England, which was organized under the strong government of the Duke of Normandy after 1066, had recourse to the Peace and Truce during the anarchy of Stephen of Blois.

Traditionally, historians have dismissed the Peace of God as an interesting failure, a movement which only briefly occupied an important place on the historical stage. In trying to control warfare without the use of physical coercion it rapidly foundered on the rocks of a violent feudal reality. Already by the 1050s the movement was giving way to more efficacious ones, such as would give medieval Western culture its stamp: the King's Peace, the Church Reform, the Communes, and the Crusades. That traditional view, however, by concentrating on the failure of the movement to accomplish its quasi-messianic goals, misses the indirect impact it had. More recently historians accord a central place to the Peace in the transformations of European culture in this period, a period often characterized as the birth of Western (as opposed to Mediterranean) civilization. But even this change in historiography has yet to grapple with the Peace as a millennial movement, indeed the first one in which the elites did not crush popular millennialism at its first appearance. (See Year 1000, Apocalyptic)

In fact, the lack of coercive power, so often cited as the cause of the movement's failure, may have been precisely what made the Peace of God so influential. For without recourse to force, it had to depend on more fundamental cultural activity: building a wide and powerful social consensus, developing courts of mediation, educating a lay populace, high and low, to internalize peaceful values. In this sense, the Peace movement laid the groundwork for later developments:

Thus, the better-known social movements, the Communes, the Crusades, and the Reform of the Church, did not replace the "failed" Peace of God; to a large extent they arose directly from it. The communes of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, for example, gained their independence through popular militias modelled on those of the Peace movement: all men over a certain age swore to protect an urban (rather than diocesan) Peace (Vermeesch 1966). The Papal Reform, drew on the sanctified Peace for themes (the purification of the church), methods (interdict and excommunication), and the support of popular opinion. Finally, the First Crusade not only capitalized on a century of warrior violence restrained and redirected away from Christendom against the infidel, but its unexpectedly large contingent of poor peasants attests to the continued existence of those currents of popular enthusiasm that were first aroused by the sanctified Peace at the turn of the millennium.

The movement for the Peace of God changed the history of Europe by virtue of its grass-roots success as well as its political failings. Insofar as it succeeded it did so on the strength of its moral vision and the sense of nonviolent community it gave to whole populations. Insofar as it failed, it did so because, as Augustine would say, we are all fallen creatures. The logic of the Christian desire for peace compelled some to sharpen the boundaries between those who were Christian, excluding sections of the population from its protection. This is already detectable in the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1010s, the heresy executions of the 1020s, the appeal of the Reconquista of Spain from the Muslims throughout the 11th century. From the "Peace Peace Peace" in 1033 to Deus le volt! in 1095-99. Through its high moral vision and its appeals to communal action, the Peace of God furthered the peaceful organization of a violent society. Through rising exclusivity and intolerance as its expectations were frustrated and various leaders sought to exploit the movement, the Peace of God gave way to the sanctification of war. For better or worse it introduced the populace as an autonomous actor on the stage of European history.


Cowdrey, H.E.J., "The Peace and the Truce of God in the Eleventh Century", Past and Present, 46 (1970), 42-67; Georges Duby, "The Laity and the Peace of God," The Age of Chivalry, tr. Cynthia Postan (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 19 ); The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France around 1000, ed. Thomas Head and Richard Landes (Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, 1995).

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