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.
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