My favorite analogy for medieval geopolitics is a bowl of spaghetti: individuals might owe allegiance based on land tenure to three other nobles and two kings, some of whom were probably at war with each other. In England, even peasant tenants might have a tract of land whose legal ownership was split among multiple manors. And that’s to say nothing of the eternal “But what do you mean by *Burgundy* question.
I open with this because if medieval geopolitics is a bowl of spaghetti, medieval European international law of war in light of geopolitics is a bowl of spaghetti on fire.
Theological wrangling over *jus in bello* aside, Western scholars didn’t really get around to attempting to systematize laws of war until the 14th century or so. With respect to truces, things wouldn’t really shake out *formally* until the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century. As Randall Lesafer has pointed out, as late as 1630, the Treaty of Madrid had to specify it was binding on heirs and successors!
But before you click away thinking “okay, the game got it right,” let’s take a closer look.
I opened with the sovereignty analogy because truces are intimately connected with two ideas of sovereignty: the central authority’s sovereignty over their territory in the international system, and the central authority’s sovereignty within their own territory. Both of these played major roles in the effectiveness and survival of truces in the Middle Ages.
The balance of internal and external sovereignty is visible in treaties from around 1500. The older practice of individual nobles, free cities, and powerful ecclesiastical lords co-ratifying or approving international treaties was starting to fade: kings were consolidating internal sovereignty on a legal level. The idea of sovereignty resting in office rather than person was in play as well. In 1492, England and France signed the Peace of Etaples (not really part of an actual war), which was to last one year past whichever king died second. So at least the hope and expectation was that successors would also be bound by the earlier decision, and perhaps renew the armistice.
This wasn’t a new idea, either. The 1389 Treaty of Leulingham (Hundred Years’ War) was originally planned to last 3 years; it was renegotiated to 27. No one could know what the state of kingship could be at that time. As it happened, Richard II used the period of relative peace to make a lot of people very angry and get himself deposed. When Henry IV took the throne, he affirmed the truce. This shows two things: first, the idea that treaties could/should apply to successors was floating around. Second, this was an *idea*, not a given (a law, if you will.)
The aftermath of Leulingham, however, shows the ways that the instability of internal sovereignty could destabilize truces. Especially in English-held northern France, there was a lot of martial action by individual lords and mercenaries. Did this constitute breaking the truce? How much did a lord represent his king? What about mercenaries who switched sides by day and by pay? And hey, what about wars against Muslims, especially since Muslim scholars and lawyers had been working out law of war for centuries before the Europeans? We’re talking about *Crusader Kings*, after all, do let’s talk about some, you know, crusader kings.
And more to the point, let’s talk about one crusader lord, Renaud of Chatillon, who was a one-man pox on any sweeping, streamlined idea of “sovereignty.”
Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was a pretty slick military commander in his youth, but his youth was all he had; he was gradually being incapacitated by leprosy. In 1177, he appointed a mercenary/lord named Renaud of Chatillon to be his acting regent for the periods he could not adequately rule; nevertheless, Baldwin was well enough to sign a truce with Saladin in 1179.
But only just. In 1182, still designated regent, Renaud personally launched a series of raids by sea on Islamic territory. He claimed the truce still stood; he was not bound by it as sometimes-acting regent.
Saladin did not agree. Hostilities flared, and Baldwin found it fitting to appoint a more *permanent* regent, his brother-in-law. Then he changed his mind and backed the rival faction, choosing Raymond of Tripoli as regent for his designated heir, his nephew Baldwin V.
As regent for Baldwin V, Raymond managed to pull things together and negotiate a new truce with Saladin in 1185. The interesting thing is that medieval chronicles record rumors of a secret deal between Raymond and Saladin to help Raymond acquire the Jerusalem crown. True or not, the rumors offer key insight into current ideas of sovereignty. That is, even though not the ruler, Raymond was considered a legitimate party to be treated with. But also, to be treated with *as an individual*, not just as a synecdoche for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Baldwin V died almost right away, and the best laid plans of mice and medieval nobles from two continents went to naught as Jerusalem exploded into an internal succession crisis. The disgraced former regent and brother-in-law to Baldwin, Guy of Lusignan, ended up on the throne by right of his wife, Baldwin’s crafty sister Sybilla.
Guy didn’t really have a chance to keep or break the truce. Our good friend Renaud of Chatillon, happy to break the peace while regent, was just as happy now. He started raiding Muslim caravans. Saladin, again, considered this a legal breach of the peace, a broken truce. He thought Renaud was acting as a representative of Jerusalem under a treaty signed by a previous ruler. For Saladin, this was reason to go to war not against Renaud, but against Jerusalem.
It was no accident that medieval treaties specified their duration and were often very short term. The spaghetti bowl of sovereignty and loyalties, the weakening and strengthening of central authority, and the clashes between legal cultures at different degrees of systematization and codification made each truce its own specific case to study. The idea of treaties lasting past the death or deposition of a ruler was absolutely in play. But throughout the Middle Ages, it seems to have been more of an option than a guarantee. And the other path was certainly traveled from time to time with great vigor and fireworks.
Follow up question: what would be the typical result of breaking a medieval European truce? Would it be a big deal that would tarnish the country’s reputation for years or just sow distrust with the specific country being attacked?
For example, Byzantine John Tzimiskes was accused of truce-breaking when he attacked the Rus’ Svyatoslav in Bulgaria, but it didn’t prevent John from being able to keep successful truces with Arab countries at the same time.