Justifying action
Law, responsibility, and deterrence
in International law in Europe, 700–1200
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In the modern period, no states claim to be above the law or that international law does not bind them. This chapter argues likewise that, in the medieval period, rulers and political entities justified their actions in legal terms when they departed from a legal norm. In the later medieval period, the issue of justification has been explored mainly through the development of the ‘just war’ doctrine and canon law. The chapter builds on that historiography by examining how in the period before 1200, treaties, diplomatic documents and narratives often give evidence of such justifications, thereby providing strong indications that rulers followed the rules of international law as a matter of obligation and not only as a matter of choice or on moral grounds. To explore this fully, the chapter returns to familiar questions about violence and peace, e.g., how and in what circumstances violent action was justified, and who had the authority to carry out such violence. It further identifies what constituted breaches of international law and how parties dealt with such breaches, thereby revealing medieval conceptions of responsibility and liability. Examining justifications hence demonstrates something of how deterrence worked in the medieval period and the effectiveness of this.

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