In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval International Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Handbooks
  • Bibliographical Resources
  • Western Europe: Transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (476–1000 ce)
  • Western Europe: The High Middle Ages (1000–1300)
  • Western Europe: Late Middle Ages (1300–1500)
  • Periodizations and Geography in the History of International Law
  • Islam
  • Africa
  • Pre-Columbian Americas
  • China and East Asia
  • South and Southeast Asia

International Law Medieval International Law
Ignacio De La Rasilla Del Moral
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0112


The object of study of medieval international law has traditionally been coincidental with the examination of the particular intellectual and legal-political western European genealogy. This classical historiographical perspective is embodied by the Encyclopedia Britannica, for which “international law is the product of a process initiated in the Western world,” the first stage of which was “the disintegration of the medieval European community into a European society.” Such a Western genealogy of medieval international law is often seen to culminate in either 1625, with the publication of Grotius’s De Jure Belli ac Pacis, or in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia, understood as the etiological mythical birthdate of the modern European state system within a partially secularized post-imperial sovereignty-based jus publicum europaeum. Thus framed, the field of study traditionally covered by medieval international law begins with the fall of the Roman Empire, traverses the theocratical monarchy of the Carolingian period and the early development of European feudal institutions to culminate after, respectively, the Gregorian Reformation (1075) and the rediscovery of the Justinian Digest in the late 11th century, with the examination of the effects that the emergence of the twin branches of study of canon law and jus civile (with its three conceptions of jus gentium) had in shaping a late medieval sovereignty of concurrent legitimate authorities within the conceptual unity provided by an European Respublica Christiana. However, the reiterative and overlapping focus of most available scholarship on such a Western prehistory for a modern state-centric and Eurocentric international legal system, which was partly influenced in its development by natural law thought under the hybridized influence of both Christian and classical Stoic moral doctrine and Roman legal foundations, has historically marginalized and neglected the global history of international law in the Middle Ages. Therefore, according to a universal perspective, which is undergirded by the socio-legal understanding ubi societas inter potestates, ibi ius gentium, the field of study of medieval international law extends well far beyond western Europe. Indeed, against the historically untenable pretension that international law is the exclusive historical offspring of a medieval Christian European civilization, the proper object of study of medieval international law is that of examining the existence of a sheer diversity of legal orders between independent political entities in different regions and ages, as well as the examination of their cross-cultural mutual influences during what still remains a largely unexplored thousand years-long period for the history of international law.

General Overviews

Two contemporary parallel lines of international scholarship have spurred a new interest on medieval international law as an intellectual space before the constitution of the traditional attributes of state sovereignty, which were mythically enshrined for western Europe in the Peace of Westphalia. Firstly, a neo-medievalist international legal pull has followed in the wake of the decline ensued following the decline or relative demise of the sovereign state as the traditional main actor and the sole legal subject of international law and relations. Secondly, the study of medieval international law has benefited from postcolonial approaches in international law which, since the 1960s, have notably attempted to open up the classic Eurocentric Western historiography of international law to the precolonial experiences of non-European peoples and regions. In the late post–Cold War era of multicultural globalization and rising multipolarity, both Eurocentric and state-centric prejudices, which had weighed heavily on the study of the history of international law before the genesis of the early modern European state system, are being, even if slowly, dispelled. However, the treatment of medieval international law in general overviews of the history of international law remains considerably less developed than that dispensed to early modern scholarship of international law and subsequent periods. To this day, studies on medieval international law for Europe, and much more acutely so for other regions of the world, remain the exclusive domain of rare erudite specialization or occasional amateurish excursus. Moreover, this lack of scholarly treatment is compounded by the fact that western European medieval international law makes for the lion’s share of scholarship in this area, and therefore very little can still be said about general overviews emerging from non-Eurocentric perspectives. An accessible background perspective on European medieval legal thought can be found in Canning 2005. Lesaffer 2009, in its turn, provides a highly enjoyable perspective of European legal history that spans three millennia. On the other hand, the works of the Italian scholar Paradisi, including Paradisi 1974, feature among the most well-regarded pioneering contributions to the study of the history of international law during the Middle Ages. The important role of canon law in the European tradition of international law receives an extensive treatment in Muldoon 1998. An interesting contribution on the role of medieval political thought in the origins of international law is provided in Spanish by Weckmann 1993. The referential character of Grewe 2000 makes this work a must in any bibliography of medieval international law. Finally, Haggenmacher 1983 provides one of most authoritative works on the history of just war in the European Middle Ages. See also Schmitt 2003.

  • Canning, Joseph. History of Medieval Political Thought, 300–1450. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    Originally published in 1996. Delves in detail into the Christian context bequeathed by Late Antiquity as a fundamental factor for the development of political ideas in the Middle Ages up to the mid-15th century, when the development of early modern territorial monarchies led to the rising influence of Renaissance humanism in the generation of new types of political-legal discourse. Reprinted with new introduction, 2005.

  • Grewe, Wilhelm G. The Epochs of International Law. Translated and revised by Michael Byers. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110902907

    A large part of this pivotal work is devoted to examining the Western medieval foundations of modern international law. It is the most influential representative of the epochal approach to the history of international law and its division into stages of particular development under the predominance of specific hegemonic powers.

  • Haggenmacher, Peter. Grotius et la doctrine de la guerre juste. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983.

    Other than being one of the most authoritative works on Hugo Grotius, this is also considered one of the best works on just war in the Middle Ages. Rather than focusing on Grotius’s influence over his successors, it attempts to restitute the work of the figure who crowned the scholastic tradition of jus belli, in its primitive intention and own truth. Republished in the eHeritage Publications of the Graduate Institute in 2013, which is available online

  • Lesaffer, Randall. European Legal History: A Cultural and Political Perspective. Translated by Jan Arriens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    A very rare combination of erudite and accessible writing that places the history of the civilian law tradition in a broader cultural and political context. Spanning three milennia, the treatment of medieval legal history in western Europe is highly enlightening and full of details. The reading flows almost like that of a novel. A must read.

  • Muldoon, James. Canon Law, the Expansion of Europe, and World Order. Variorum Collected Studies Series. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

    A collection of essays on the key role of medieval canon lawyers in developing the language of international law on the basis that humanity forms a single, legally structured community. The volume also includes a bibliographical essay on the influence of the late-19th-century and 20th-century historiographical contest over the Catholic origins of international law.

  • Paradisi, Bruno. Civitas Maxima. Studi del diritto internazionale. 2 vols. Florence: Olschki, 1974.

    Referential recollection of essays on the history of international law in the High and Late Middle Ages by a pioneering figure in the study of international law in the Middle Ages. Paradisi devoted a large body of scholarship to examining the doctrine and legal institutions of the history of international law in close relationship with the political and social history of those periods.

  • Schmitt, Carl. The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum. Translated and introduced by G. L. Ulmen. New York: Telos Press, 2003.

    Polemical and original work on the origins and historical evolution of international law, including through the Middle Ages, that received much scholary commentary in the post–9/11 literature of international law. Available annotated translations from German also exist in Spanish (edited by Peter Haggenmacher, Franco Volpi, and José Luis Monereo, 2002), Italian (edited by Volpi, 2003) and French (edited by Haggenmacher, 2008).

  • Weckmann, L. El pensamiento politico medieval y los origenes del derecho internacional. 2d ed. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.

    Written by a distinguished Mexican diplomat, this work examines the historical evolution of political thought in the Middle Ages, and its role in the conformation of modern notions of sovereignty, the state, and nationalism. Delves into the possible role of medieval ideas in a promoting a better internationalism.

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