The mirror to the princes (9th - 16th centuries)

The " mirror to the princes », If we stick to the definition proposed by the historian Einar Már Jónsson, is a literary genre, correlated with the political treatise, which appeared within the Carolingian world during the ninth century, and which emerged in the German historiography at the beginning of the twentieth century, first with Albert Werminghoff, then with Ernst Booz. These works were intended for princes, as their name suggests. They consisted of collections presenting a sum of moral precepts to be followed by the sovereign in the perspective of the best possible religious government.

The medieval "mirror to the princes"

In the Middle Ages, according to " mirrors to princes ", Only the will of God was to take precedence in the government, in the exercise of sovereign power. The most striking work in this area was the Speculum regale, in other words the Royal mirror, written in Norway and probably dating from 1260, according to historian Einar Már Jónsson, who identifies the existence of four kinds of " mirrors to princes ". The first type of work only enumerates the virtues with which the prince must be invested, as well as the vices which he must at all costs avoid. These are primarily moral considerations. The second uses examples of famous rulers, to define what is essentially an "ideal prince", the perfect ruler. The third relates to works which describe the virtues of the perfect ruler, taking care to apply them to concrete and real situations. Morality is no longer only explained, but it is explained to the reader. In short, it is made intelligible. Finally, the fourth type of work is intended to represent a more general reflection on the function of monarch and / or sovereign, extended to tangible and realistic cases. Jónsson has shown that these different types of works actually consist of a diachronic evolution, a progress, even a chronological precision of the genre. However, the " mirrors to princes Medieval times contained for the most part only moral precepts, and for those who offered a reflection on the prince and his activity, the absence of an ideological sum was then striking. It was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that the genre was upset, "revolutionized".

The humanist "revolution" of the genre

Humanists, whether they came from Italy or northern Europe, became, from the 15th and during the 16th century, the privileged advisers of sovereigns. Nicolas Machiavelli and Leonardo Bruni were very characteristic examples of this phenomenon, they who vigorously served the interests of the Florentine Republic, by integrating the Chancellery, but also and above all by offering "advice" works intended for their rulers, at " princeps ". The reborn ideas found unsuspected echoes until the 16th century, especially in the " well-established humanist belief in the extreme strength of the links between good education and good government ", According to English historian Quentin Skinner of the Cambridge School. The systematic production of educational and political treatises was then strongly encouraged at this time, and we find revealing examples of this, whether in the work On education by Spaniard Juan Luis Vives, or in The Good Education of Boys by Italian Iacopo Sadoleto. Other essential - and quite introductory - works followed, notably the illustrated Teacher by Roger Ascham, Education of the prince by Guillaume Budé and, above all, The Education of a Christian Prince of Erasmus. You can therefore be faced with a host of treatises, political advice books which, according to Quentin Skinner, " addressed not only to kings and princes, but also to courtiers, nobles, advisers and magistrates. "In this regard, the most famous example remains The Courtier's Book scored by Baldassare Castiglione. The " mirror to the princes Is no longer content only to present its reader with moral precepts. From now on, it is a question of proposing an education to be followed, to which the sovereign must conform, in the perspective of good government, of " buon governo ". In any event, and therefore, it is the advent of the state reason - as a literary genre - at the beginning of the 16th century, which changed the situation. A transition therefore seems to be taking place.

The role played by reason of state within the genre of "mirror to princes"

From then on, religion was relegated to the background in the reflection on the exercise of power, in the government of the prince, and in his unwavering sovereignty. Also questions relating to state reason, to conservation per fas and nefas of power by princeps, are they characterized by a desire for political affirmation and emancipation, and not intrinsic reflection on religious practice. This is more than a break with the medieval tradition of " mirror to the princes », To propose to the rulers precepts which are henceforth purely political, and stripped of any religious and / or moral dimension. We must also compare this shift from religious to political with the advent of the modern state at the same time. Morality is then replaced by pragmatism. The Florentine Nicolas Machiavelli, moreover, very well illustrated the phenomenon, in his major work which is The prince. Of course, the Machiavellian ruler must be ontologically invested with moral virtues if he is to carry out his government. Nevertheless, he should not hesitate to upset his ethics, if the sustainability and security of his State are in danger or put at risk by various and varied causes. It is for this precise reason that the papal power put The prince index in 1559, year of the end of wars in Italy and the signature of Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. In short, nothing is more important than the reason of state for Machiavelli, who wanted to provoke reflection in his reader. Félix Gilbert, in a work devoted to the Florentine and his compatriot and friend Guichardin, said of him that he: " Gave free rein to his penchant for paradoxes […] he wanted his writings to have practical effect. His purpose was to teach those in power what he had learned about the nature and workings of politics, and to make them act in accordance with his science.. »

The aim of this short article was to establish a general overview of the history of the literary genre of " mirror to the princes ", Halfway between the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. Over the centuries, as States structure and consolidate themselves, the concerns that are at the heart of issues relating to the exercise of power change and are transformed. We then pass, in the space of a few centuries, from a religious and moral authority to the practice of an essentially political government. In this, humanism and the Renaissance cheerfully contributed to the phenomenon.


- JÓNSSON Einar Már, “Are the“ mirrors to the princes ”a literary genre? », In Medieval, 51 (2006), p. 153-166.

- GILBERT Felix, Machiavelli and Guichardin. Politics and History in Florence in the XVIcentury, Paris, Seuil, 1996.

- BORGNA Romain, FAGGION Lucien (dir.), The Prince by Fra Paolo. Political practices and forma mentis of the patriciat in Venice in the XVII century, Aix-en-Provence, University of Provence, 2011 [development on the genre of “mirror to princes”, p. 115-118].

Video: The Corporation - Feature Film (June 2021).