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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 November 2013


This paper begins to consider the meanings of a word that was ubiquitous in early modern culture, but which has been surprisingly neglected by historians. Focusing on printed sources and taking advantage of recent advances in digital technology, it outlines the changing uses of ‘peace’ between 1500 and 1700 and its predominant meanings at particular moments in time. The paper suggests that while these meanings were clearly derived from Christian and civic republican sources, the political conflicts of the seventeenth century saw the term politicised, appropriated and popularised in new and unexpected ways. It also argues that the semantic confusion which often attended ‘peace’ – most evident, perhaps, in its capacity to legitimise and sanction violence after 1640 – stemmed from its simultaneous role as a descriptor of society and self, and of spiritual and civil life. As a result, who should define, police and enforce peace became deeply contested issues of the course of the period. In tracing the semantics of the term in this way, the article serves as a contribution to the burgeoning historical literature on the paradigmatic vocabularies of the early modern era. It also illuminates the complicated relationship between words and concepts and the importance of both in motivating and legitimising social and political action.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 2013 

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I would like to thank the Centre for Peace Studies at the University of Sheffield and the Royal Historical Society for the first invitation to lecture on the semantics of peace.


1 Anon., Peace and Plenty Comming unto Us (1643), 1, 5.

2 Ibid., title-page; Anon., Whereas the Committee for the Militia of London (1644), 1 sheet broadside. For the political context of Salter's Hall, see Lindley, Keith, Popular Politics and Religion in Civil War London (Aldershot, 1997), 311–12Google Scholar.

3 Anon., Peace and Plenty, 1.

4 Ibid., 1, 3; Niccolo Machiavelli, The Florentine Historie. Written in the Italian Tongue, by Nicholo Macchiavelli, Citizen and Secretarie of Florence. And Translated into English, by T.B. Esquire (1595), 56.

5 Anon., Peace and Plenty, 3.

6 Anon., Peace and Plenty (1643), 7–8.

7 Lindley, Popular Politics, 314.

8 Ibid., 1, 5.

9 Anon., At the Sub-Committee at Salters Hall (1644).

10 Barry, Jonathan, ‘Civility and Civic Culture in Early Modern England: The Meanings of Urban Freedom’, in Civil Histories: Essays Presented to Sir Keith Thomas, ed. Burke, Peter, Harrison, Paul and Slack, Paul (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; Goldie, Mark, ‘The Unacknowledged Republic: Office-Holding in Early Modern England’, in The Politics of the Excluded, c. 1500–1850, ed. Harris, Tim (Basingstoke, 2001)Google Scholar; Withington, Phil, The Politics of Commonwealth. Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Raymond Carver, What We Talk about when We Talk about Love (1989).

12 Discussions include Hindle, Steve, ‘The Keeping of the Public Peace’, in The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England, ed. Griffiths, Paul, Fox, Adam and Hindle, Steve (Basingstoke, 1996), 213–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gajda, Alexandra, ‘Debating War and Peace in Late Elizabethan England’, Historical Journal, 52, 4 (2009), 851–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rivett, Gary, ‘Peacemaking, Parliament, and the Politics of the Recent Past in the English Civil Wars’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 76, 3 (2013, forthcoming)Google Scholar. See also Roberts, Penny, ‘The Languages of Peace during the French Wars of Religion’, Cultural and Social History, 4, 3 (2007), 297315CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Parker, Geoffrey, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, 2013)Google Scholar; Keith Wrightson, ‘The Politics of the Parish in Early Modern England’, in The Experience of Authority, ed. Griffiths, Fox and Hindle, 10–11.

14 For a useful overview of revisionism and post-revisionism see The English Civil War, ed. Richard Cust and Ann Hughes (1997).

15 Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580–1680 (1982).

16 Archer, Ian W., The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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18 Wrightson, Keith, ‘Sorts of People in Tudor and Stuart England’, in The Middling Sort of People. Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550–1800, ed. Barry, Jonathan and Brooks, Christopher (Basingstoke, 1994)Google Scholar.

19 For example, see Tadmor, Naomi, ‘The Concept of the Household Family in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 151 (1996), 110–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wood, Andy, ‘The Place of Custom in Plebeian Political Culture: England, 1550–1800’, Social History, 22 (1997), 4660CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Withington, Phil, Society in Early Modern England: The Vernacular Origins of Some Powerful Ideas (Cambridge, 2010)Google Scholar.

20 Early Modern Research Group, ‘Towards a Social and Cultural History of Keywords and Concepts’, History of Political Thought, 31 (2010), 427–48Google Scholar

21 Rollison, David, ‘Conceits and Capacities of the Vulgar Sort: The Social History of English as a Language of Politics’, Cultural and Social History, 2, 2 (2005), 141–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Watts, John, ‘Public or Plebs: The Changing Meaning of “the Commons”, 1381–1549’, in Power and Identity in the Middle Ages, ed. Watts, John (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar; Withington, Society in Early Modern England, ch. 6; Early Modern Research Group, ‘Commonwealth: The Social, Cultural, and Conceptual Contexts of an Early Modern Keyword’, Historical Journal, 54, 3 (2011), 659–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Richards, Jennifer, Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2003), 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Walsham, Alexandra, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500–1700 (Manchester, 2006)Google Scholar, 1, 4.

24 Ibid., 5.

25 Shagan, Ethan, The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2011), 89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Ibid., 10, 9; Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabetical (1604).

27 Shagan, Rule of Moderation, 9.

28 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651), ed. Malcolm, Noel (Oxford, 2012), 260–2Google Scholar.

29 The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2005); (consulted 6 Feb. 2013).

30 Hitchcock, Tim, ‘Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic Writing Lost the Plot’, Cultural and Social History, 10, 1 (2013), 2545CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Withington, Society in Early Modern England, 9–10, 79–80.

32 Cited in J. H., Saint Augustine of the Citie of God with the learned comments of Jo. Lodovicus Vives (1610), preface. Subsequent references are from Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans ed. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge, 1998).

33 Augustine, City of God, 938.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid., 919, 940.

36 Ibid., xxvii.

37 Ibid., 938.

38 Marsilius of Padua, The Defence of Peace: Lately Translated out of Laten into Englyshe with the Kings Most Gracious Privilege (1535). Subsequent references are from Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, ed. and trans. Annabel Brett (Cambridge, 2005). See also Lockwood, Shelley, ‘Marsilius of Padua and the Case for Royal Ecclesiastical Supremacy’, in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth ser., 1 (1991), 89119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Marsilius, Defender, xxii.

40 Ibid., 13.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., xxii–iii.

43 Ibid., xxviii.

44 Ibid., xxxi.

45 Thomas Elyot, The dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538); Jones, Richard Foster, The Triumph of the English Language (Oxford, 1953)Google Scholar.

46 To give some examples: ‘Caduceato’ was an ‘ambassador . . . sent for peace, or to take a truce’; ‘Conciliare affinitatem, uel pacem’ was ‘to make alliance or peace’; ‘Dicere leges’ was ‘to appoint laws or conditions of peace’; ‘Indutiae’ was ‘truce, or peace for a certain time’; ‘Inire foedus, to make a league or treaty of peace’; ‘Conventa pax, peace, accorded’; and so on. Likewise ‘ST’ translated as ‘a voice of him that commands silence, as we say in English, bush, what we wold have one to hold his peace’ and ‘Quiescas, uel quiesce, Hold thy peace, Leave.’ Peace translated ‘Quin taces? Wilt not thou hold thy peace?; Tacemodo, de{us} respiciet nos aliquis, peace now, some god will have pity on us’; ‘Reticeo, cui, ticère, to hold ones peace, to speak no word, to keep secret, to say nothing’; ‘Segrega sermonem, taedet, Hold thy peace, I am weary, or it irks me to hear thee’; ‘Tacitus, he that holds his peace, and is secrete.’ And ‘Bat, is a word that is spoken to one, when we will have him speak no more, as peace or hush.’ This sense of enforced quiet or voluntary silence merged with ‘peace’ as a referent for terms associated with political authority. ‘Conticeo, ticui, ceere’ were ‘to hold my peace with another’. Just as ‘Conventus maximus, may be taken for a parliament’, so ‘Minores conventus’ was the ‘sessions of the peace’. ‘Perpaco’ was to set all things in peace’.

47 William Lambarde, Eirenarcha: Or Of the Office of the Iustices of Peace (1599).

48 Ibid., 5.

49 Ibid., 5.

50 Ibid., 5–6.

51 Ibid., 6.

52 Ibid., 6–7.

53 Ibid., 7.

54 Michael Dalton, The Countrey Justice (1619), 7.

55 For one aspect of judicial peace, see Hindle, ‘The Keeping of the Public Peace’, 213–48; for religious discourse see Roberts, ‘The Languages of Peace’, 297–315; for diplomacy see Gajda, ‘Debating War and Peace’, 851–78, and Rivett, ‘Peacemaking’.

56 Bossy, John, Peace in the Post-Reformation (Cambridge, 1998), 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid., 99–100.

59 Hindle, ‘The Keeping of the Public Peace’, 213.

60 Cust, Richard, ‘Reading for Magistracy: The Mental World of Sir John Newdigate’, in The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England. Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson, ed. McDiarmid, John F. (Aldershot, 2007)Google Scholar.

61 Anon., Will and Law, Reason and Religion, Treasons and Rebellion, Peace and War, Payments and Punishments, People and Parliament, Are Words of Wonder to Weak and Wise Men, and by Them Malignants Deceive the Multitude (1643).

62 Robert Aylett, Peace with her Four Garders (1622), sig. A3r.

63 By the King. A Proclamation for the Establishing of the Peace and Quiet of the Church of England (1626), two sheets.

64 Ibid.

65 See for example Zaret, David, Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Princeton, 2000)Google Scholar; Peacey, Jason, Politicians and Pamphleteers: Propaganda during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum (Aldershot, 2004)Google Scholar; Michael J. Braddick, God's Fury, England's Fire. A New History of the English Civil Wars (2008).

66 His Majesties Speech Spoken to the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonaltie of the Citie of Oxford, and to the High Sheriffes of the Counties of Oxford and Berks, with Divers Justices of Peace in the Said Counties, at a Generall Summons (1643), 5.

67 The Kings Maiesties Intention concerning the Setting up of his Standard, and Levying of Warre against both Houses of Parliament (1642), 6.

68 The Kingdomes Case, or, The Question Resolved whether the Kings Subjects of this Realm of England May or Ought to Ayd and Assist Each Other in Repressing the Persons now Assembled together under the Name of the Kings Army (1643).

69 Ibid., 2–3.

70 Richard Bernard, An Epistle Directed to All Iustices of Peace in England and Wales (1642), sig. A2r.

71 John Saltmarsh, A Peace but no Pacification, or, An Answer to that New Designe of the Oath of Pacification and Accomodation Lately Printed (1643), sig. B3r.

72 Ibid., sig. B3r–v.

73 John Norton, The Miseries of War (1643), 2.

74 Ibid., 2, 5.

75 Prince Rupert, A Speech, Spoken by Prince Robert (1642), sig. A3r.

76 Henry Robinson, Liberty of Conscience: Or The Sole Means to Obtaine Peace and Truth (1643); Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, Discussed, in a Conference betweene Truth and Peace (1644).

77 George Bishop, A Little Treatise concerning Things Indifferent, in Relation unto Worship (1663), 21.

78 Humphrey Smith, To the Meek and Open Hearted Lambes, and Flock of Heaven, in Meekness of Love, with Greetings of Peace from the Seat of Infinite Mercy (1662).

79 Ibid., 5.

80 Ibid., 4.

81 Adam Littleton, The Churches Peace Asserted upon a Civil Account (1669), sig. Ar–v.