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Mark Noll


A Peace of God?

Within 150 years from the death of Charlemagne in A.D. 814, much of Western Europe had fallen into anarchy created by the private wars of feudal outlaws. From about the year 1000, representatives of the church joined with a few secular lords to see what they could do about this parlous situation. Their response was to seek a "Peace of God" by excommunicating bandits who violated churches, beat up unarmed clergy, or stole the livestock of the poor, and by forcing warring subjects to accept formal terms of peace with each other. Although the "Peace of God" did not bring the fractious warfare of the middle ages to a halt, the initiatives did make a difference. Guided both by self-interest in protecting its own property and by altruism in seeking to protect the powerless, the Western church applied the gospel practically in a destructive, unruly environment.

Because institutional churches do not today have much purchase in the academy, the chances for a Peace of God being imposed on disputes concerning the nature and practice of historical knowledge are slim. Moreover, considering just how counterproductive efforts by churches to speak authoritatively about intellectual questions often turn out to be, it is probably the course of wisdom for modern ecclesiastical organizations to seek subtle rather than overt forms of intellectual influence. Still, the laudable record of the medieval church in providing at least some relief from bitter strife does offer encouragement to think about how classical Christian faith might mediate battles over the practice of history—even if warring factions of objectivists, multiculturalists, traditionalists, postmodernists, patriots, pragmatists, along with all those who employ history to defend the special claims of special populations, do not seem eager for a Peace of God.

One can imagine two kinds of reasoning leading toward such a goal—an indirect means appealing to the moral common sense of those who pursue historical knowledge, ...

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