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Reviewed by:
  • Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power and the Early Medieval Political Imagination
  • David James Griffiths
Kershaw, Paul, Peaceful Kings: Peace, Power and the Early Medieval Political Imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. 336; R.R.P. £65.00; ISBN 9780198208709.

Paul Kershaw’s fairly sprawling analysis attempts to seek out and illuminate the uses of peace in the construction of kingship and regal authority across the early medieval West, cementing the relationship between the ruler and the ruled through the promise of stability and surety with the king acting as both peacemaker and peacekeeper. He opens with an Introduction that highlights specific narrative and analytical arcs and frames the scope of his study, using episodes from the Carolingian division of the 800s and Beowulf to make real some of the particular tropes he wishes to identify.

Although Kershaw’s book is finely researched and well written, some of the assumptions regarding audience knowledge and its structure are already apparent in the Introduction, which splits itself into various subheadings, each subsection forming a particular site of analysis, focused on a given text, a given year, a given example of kingship and its construction, but with little connective tissue between each example and the next. In that sense, the Introduction is not as strong as it could have been; the examples overwhelm the reader with a lack of context and little concrete consideration of the theoretical framework Kershaw is attempting to create.

Each chapter deals with a particular context, again split up by subheading and subsection, and again, this assortment of separate textual and historical analyses adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This is not to say that the individual analysis is not good, or that the examples are anything other than interesting. But in the first chapter alone, Kershaw jumps from Bede’s depiction of Edwin as a Solomonic king, to the obliteration of pagan associations between rule and peace with the Christianization of Rome’s ceremonial geography, to the adoption of those Roman ideals in some scant form through Augustinian awareness and potential rejection of them, and the shaping of the Vulgate and associated commentary, to liturgical associations between peace and rule in prayers and the state of peaceful kingship outside the Pax Romana. The separate subsections each have an interesting idea or two, a useful point to note, and are clear in their detailed use of text and commentary. But the ride is a roller coaster one, through each subsection, and it is not entirely clear what the overall narrative or conceptual framework is. Kershaw’s approach seems to be to hope he can throw ‘peace’ at the edifice of kingship enough times and make it stick – and certainly it sticks and stays there, but what is the larger point? What is the meaning of it all? [End Page 223]

The subsequent chapters each draw on a particular narrative arc: traditions of kingship after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, constructions of the wise, peacekeeping ruler in the age of Charlemagne, those leaders explicitly compared to Solomon in terms of the peace and the stability they brought, and the adoption of these tropes by the various courts and regal circles of Anglo-Saxon England. The book has its origins in a PhD thesis, and this perhaps hints at some of the epigrammatic nature of its approach to evidence – the book as given reads like a wonderful assemblage of specific examples of the association between peace and ‘kingship’ in the early medieval West. Considering the historical trajectory of a heap of post-Roman kingdoms, besieged by internal strife, kin disputes, the encroaching existential concern posed by Islam, and the ways in which Christianity and the Papacy situated themselves in the post-Roman world, the association of kingship with a desire to see good kingship as involving peace and stability is perhaps not inconceivable. Indeed, in some ways this association reads as common sense, and as a given, based on the wealth of particular examples which Kershaw picks through.

The ways in which Kershaw does not seem to go beyond that to present a coherent and connected analysis of what each example...


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pp. 223-224
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