“On earth peace, good will toward men”: On the Medieval Origins of the Christmas Peace

The proclamation of the Christmas peace from the balcony of the Brinkkala Mansion at the Old Great Square in Turku has been a cornerstone of Finnish Christmas celebrations for about 150 years. Inhabitants of the rest of Finland have been able to take part in the custom first through the radio and later the television screen. According to tradition, the proclamation of the Christmas peace has continued without interruptions even since the Middle Ages. Only some exceptional years of crisis, such as the war and Russian occupation known as the Great Wrath in the eighteenth century and the Winter War in 1939, have formed exceptions.[1]

As surely as Christmas comes every year, the media publishes articles on the history of the Christmas peace. This is why even I have finally decided to pen a blog text on the Christmas peace from the perspective of my own research on medieval peace legislation and court records.

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Eero Soikkanen, Secretary of the Magistrate, declares the Christmas Peace on Christmas Eve 1965 in Turku. Photo: Museovirasto, JOKA Journalistinen kuva-arkisto, V. K. Hietasen kokoelma.

As articles on the Christmas peace usually mention, it is based on the medieval tradition of peace legislation. In this context, the peace legislation, issued by Earl Birger in mid-thirteenth-century Sweden, is usually mentioned as the historical background of the proclamation of the Christmas peace. It is quite true that both are manifestations of the same development. However, as things tend to be more multi-faceted in science, I must explain the connection more broadly.  

In the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church attempted to make feudal societies less violent and belligerent in different ways. The peace movement arose in France and thence spread to the rest of Europe. Local ecclesiastical proclamations of peace aimed at protecting certain times, groups of people, places and social activities from violence and war (pax Dei; treuga Dei).[2] Certain groups were especially protected, as they were considered incapable of defending themselves with arms. These included clerics, women and children, peasants at the field, pilgrims and merchants. The Church attempted to ensure peace from armed conflicts mainly through excommunication. Even socially important occasions could be included in the protection of the peace of the Church.

Peace norms were soon to be part of the toolkit of both ecclesiastical and secular authorities as worldly rulers understood the potential of the peace movement. The kings’ duty of guaranteeing peace, a standard element of kingship, became emphasized and gained momentum. The role of kings as guarantors of peace is also reflected in coronation oaths and kings’ assurances (Sw. konungaförsäkran). In Germany, local peaces known as Landsfrieden restricted feuding among lords. Rulers also guaranteed peaces buttressed by oaths that magnates had sworn to keep. It is in this form that we first have certain information of Swedish peace legislation, and even the name of Swedish peace legislation (edsöre) suggests taking an oath.

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Earl Birger is generally considered the father of Swedish peace legislation. Joel Ballin’s steel engraving of the sculpture by Bengt Erland Fogelberg (1854). Photo: Museovirasto, Historian kuvakokoelma, Antellin kokoelmat/Wadströmin kokoelma.

The first Swedish peace legislation is normally credited to Earl Birger (r. 1248–1266), but the first surviving document on the topic, the so-called Statute of Alsnö, is dated to ca. 1280. Then, King Magnus Barnlock (r. 1275-1290), son of Earl Birger, and the Swedish secular and ecclesiastical magnates confirmed certain peaces guaranteed by the King. Those who breached the peaces of the home, church and legal assemblies or abducted women were to be penalized with outlawry within the whole realm and forfeiture of property. If the culprit wished to be readmitted into the king’s peace, the culprit had to settle with the injured parties, satisfy them and pay the king the high 40-mark fine.[3]

The peaces of the home, church, legal assemblies and women came to form the core of peace legislation. In this form, it was incorporated first in the Swedish provincial laws at the end of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and in the royal laws in the mid-fourteenth century. The oldest surviving document in the Finnish National Archive, the royal letter of protection to the women of Karelia from 1316, is another indication of the expansion of the sphere of peace guaranteed by the kings.[4] Statutes and laws limiting the carrying of weapons are part of the same tradition of medieval Swedish peace legislation.[5]

The Swedish medieval royal laws were in force until 1736. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas peace was not part of this royal legislative package even if it is linked to it historically and content-wise. Rather, it is connected to the local peaces in medieval Swedish towns. Although Swedish urban- communities were small, generally less than a thousand or some thousands at the most, they contained relatively many people in a small space. Therefore, especially towns needed to restrict the carrying of weapons by law and ensure the peace of socially and economically important events – such as local markets and fairs – with higher fines.

The Catholic Church prohibited normal work on the most important ecclesiastical feasts such as Christmas, the Nativity of Christ. It was even forbidden to solemnize marriages between Advent and Epiphany. Instead, Christmas was celebrated with much eating and abundant drinking as the long festivities interrupted people’s usual business. As everyone carried a knife for eating, revelry could quickly transform into fighting. This is why urban communities felt a special need to ensure peace during Christmas. The beginning of the Christmas peace was proclaimed to the townspeople. Breaches of the Christmas peace by brawling or violence were usually punished by doubling the ordinary fines.         

The Flemish Simon Bening’s (n. 1483–1561) interpretation of the Nativity (ca. 1525–1530), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 19, fol. 19v. Published courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.

The proclamation of the Christmas peace in Turku is said to be a continuous tradition, originating in the fourteenth century. It is certainly a medieval custom although we lack original sources from the town of Turku that would definitively confirm when the custom was established or that it indeed has been uninterrupted. However, we can contextualize this with evidence from other Swedish medieval towns with surviving later-medieval court records. 

For example, the medieval court records of Arboga (that have survived since 1451) contain several cases in which men were guilty of assault or breaking the peace during Christmas. Brief entries reveal, for example, that Olof Orre was sentenced to a 40-mark fine for damages done in another person’s home and another 40-mark fine as the deed was done during the Christmas peace (xl mark jwl fredh). The court records of Stockholm also contain breaches of the Christmas peace for which higher fines were sentenced. For example, Olof Jensson, who had made three wounds on Ingemar during the Christmas peace, was fined 88 marks in January 1478.

We also find mentions regarding Christmas peace in later court records. For example, on 16 December 1594, the town council of Stockholm exhorted the townspeople to be careful when handling fire and candles particularly during Christmas. Moreover, everyone was to behave and keep the Christmas peace. In Nya Lödöse, the predecessor of Gothenburg, Christmas peace was proclaimed on 22 December 1595. Rioters and assailants were threatened with double fines for breaking it. In Vadstena, Hans Hindriksson broke the Christmas peace (i jwlehelgedager) by brawling and wounding for which his fines were increased in 1606.

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The declaration of Christmas Peace, photographed by Johannes Schalin, in Turku in 1904. Photo: Turun museokeskus, Valokuva-arkisto, Valokuvat VAL.

Summing up, one can conclude that Finnish proclamations of Christmas peace are undoubtedly part of a medieval tradition one can feel proud of. Even in these Covid 19 times, Christmas peace will be declared from the balcony of the Brinkkala Mansion at noon (Finnish time) on Christmas Eve – albeit extraordinarily without an audience. Yet, the event will be broadcast, seen and heard through the media all around the world.[6] Many of us will remember the pandemic year of 2020 as an unusually straining time. For this reason in particular, I would like to wish the readers of this blog an especially peaceful Christmas!

Mia Korpiola

Professor of Legal History, University of Turku

The medieval Cathedral of Turku in the winter of 2020. Photo by Mia Korpiola.

[1] E.g.. https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joulurauha (visited on 17 Dec 2020).

[2] See e.g.: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_and_Truce_of_God (visited on 17 Dec 2020).

[3] The original text of the Statute of Alsnö can be accessed digitally at:

https://sok.riksarkivet.se/sdhk?EndastDigitaliserat=false&Innehall=alsn%c3%b6+stadga&TrycktUtgava=true&TrycktRegest=true&Brevtext=true&Extratext=true&Sigill=true&Original=true&MedeltidaAvskrifter=true&MedeltidaRegest=true&EftermedeltidaAvskrifter=true&EftermedeltidaRegest=true&AvanceradSok=true&page=1&postid=sdhk_1122&tab=post#tab (visited on 17 Dec 2020).

[4] E.g. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9195164 .

[5] More on the medieval peace legislation in Sweden, see e.g. Mia Korpiola, “’The People of Sweden Shall Have Peace’: Peace Legislation and Royal Power in Later Medieval Sweden,” Expectations of the Law in the Middle Ages, ed. Anthony Musson. The Boydell Press, Bury St Edmunds, 2011, 35-51.

[6] E.g. https://www.turku.fi/en/christmas-city/declaration-christmas-peace (visited on 17 Dec 2020).

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