Mirrors for princes

Mirrors for princes (Latin: specula principum), or mirrors of princes, form a literary genre – in the loose sense of the word – of political writing during the Early Middle Ages, Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and are part of the broader speculum or mirror literature genre. They occur most frequently in the form of textbooks which directly instruct kings or lesser rulers on certain aspects of rule and behaviour, but in a broader sense the term is also used to cover histories or literary works aimed at creating images of kings for imitation or avoidance. Authors often composed such "mirrors" at the accession of a new king, when a young and inexperienced ruler was about to come to power. One could view them as a species of self-help book – a sort of proto-study of leadership before the concept of a "leader" became more generalised than the concept of a monarchical head-of-state.[1]

One of the earliest works was written by Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840–860), the Irish poet associated with the "Pangur Bán" gloss poem (c. 9th century). Possibly the best known European "mirror" is The Prince (c. 1513) by Machiavelli, although this was not a typical example. Some further examples are listed below.

Classical texts

Greek and Roman

Eusebius of Caesarea's Life of Constantine may be a mirror for princes. This text's precise genre, audience, and aims has, however, been a subject of scholarly controversy.



Western European texts

Early Middle Ages

  • Augustine of Hippo, City of God V.24, "The true felicity of Christian Emperors."
  • Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks which warns against internal strife.
  • De duodecim abusivis saeculi, 'On the twelve abuses of the world' (7th century), a Hiberno-Irish treatise by an anonymous author sometimes referred to as Pseudo-Cyprian. This work, though not a 'mirror for princes' per se, was to be of great influence on the development of the 'genre' as it took place on the Continent.
  • Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People specifically states that the purpose of the study of history is to present examples for either imitation or avoidance.

Carolingian texts. Notable examples of Carolingian textbooks for kings, counts and other laymen include:

Irish texts

  • see De duodecim abusivis saeculi above. The vernacular mirrors differ from most texts mentioned here in that the ones who are described as giving and receiving advice are commonly legendary figures.
  • Audacht Morainn ('The Testament of Morand'), written c. 700, an Old Irish text which has been called a forerunner of the 'mirrors for princes'.[3] The legendary wise judge Morand is said to have sent advice to Feradach Find Fechtnach when the latter was about to be made King of Tara.[4]
  • Tecosca Cormaic, 'The Instructions of Cormac', in which the speaker Cormac mac Airt is made to instruct his son Cairbre Lifechair about a variety of matters.
  • Bríatharthecosc Con Culainn 'The precept-instruction of Cúchulainn' (interpolated in Serglige Con Culainn), addressed to Lugaid Réoderg.
  • Tecosc Cuscraid 'The instruction of Cuscraid'
  • Senbríathra Fithail 'The ancient precepts of Fíthal'
  • Briathra Flainn Fína 'The Sayings of Flann Fína'[5]

High and Late Middle Ages



Byzantine texts

Islamic texts

  • Abu Yahya ibn al-Batriq (d. 815) Sirr al-Asrar (سر الأسرار) 'Secretum Secretorum'
  • Al-Farabi (c. 872–950), Fusul al-Madani 'Aphorisms of a Statesman'[10]
  • Abu'l-Qasim al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Maghribi (981–1027), Kitab fi'l-si'yasa[11]
  • Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik (fl.1053, Damascus), Mukhtār al-Hikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (مختار الحكم ومحاسن الكلم) 'Selected Maxims and Aphorisms'
  • Nizam al-Mulk, Siyāset-nāmeh 'Book of Government' (c. 1090) (Persian)
  • Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), Nasihat al-muluk 'Counsel to Princes' (Persian)
  • Qabus nama (1082) – a Persian example of the genre
  • Yusuf Balasaghuni, Kutadgu Bilig (11th century)
  • At-Turtushi, Siraj al-Muluk 'The Lamp of Kings' (c. 1121)
  • Ibn Ẓafar al-Ṣiqillī's Sulwan al-Muta' fi 'udwan al-atba 'Consolation for the Ruler during the Hostility of Subjects'; published in English (1852) as, Solwān; or Waters Of Comfort[12][13]
  • Bahr Al-Fava'id 'Sea of (Precious) Virtues', compiled in the 12th century.[14]
  • Muhammad al-Baqir Najm-I Sani, Mau‘izah-i Jahangiri 'Admonition of Jahāngír' or 'Advice on the art of governance' (1612 x 1613).[15]
  • Saadi's Gulistan, with first chapter on "The manners of kings" (13th century, Persian).
  • Hussain Vaiz Kashifi's Aklhaq i Muhsini (composed in Persian AH 900/AD 1495), translated into English as "The Morals Of The Beneficent" in the mid 19th century by Henry George Keene

Slavonic texts

  • Neagoe Basarab (1512–1521), The teachings of Neagoe Basarab to his son Theodosie, one of the earliest literary works in Wallachia

See also


  1. Compare: Wilson, Suze; Cummings, Stephen; Jackson, Brad; Proctor-Thomson, Sarah (2017). Revitalising Leadership: Putting Theory and Practice into Context. Routledge Studies in Leadership Research. Routledge. ISBN 9781317418122. Retrieved 2017-10-22. Monarchy was then the most common form of governance in Europe, and the truth about leadership could be found in a genre of books known as 'mirrors for princes' [...].
  2. A. Dubreucq (ed.), Jonas d'Orléans, Le métier du roi (De institutione regia). Sources Chrétiennes 407. Paris, 1995. pp. 45–9.
  3. Rob Meens. "Politics, mirrors of princes and the Bible: sins, kings and the well-being of the realm." Early Medieval Europe 7.3 (1998): 352
  4. Kelly, Fergus (ed.). Audacht Morainn. ISBN 0901282677.
  5. Ireland, Colin A., ed. (1999). Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína Maic Ossu. ISBN 0866982477.
  6. M. Pinto de Mencses (ed.). Espelho dos Reis por Alvaro Pais. Lisbon, 1955.
  7. Jean-Philippe Genet (ed.). Four English Political Tracts of the Later Middle Ages Camden Society, 4th ser. 18 (1977). 177-9.
  8. Salter, F.M. "Skelton's Speculum Principis" Speculum 9 (1934): 25–37
  9. Olden-Jørgensen, Sebastian (ed.). Alithia. Et dansk fyrstespejl til Christian IV. UJDS-Studier 14. Copenhagen, 2003.
  10. Dunlop, D.M. (tr.). Fusul al-Madani: Aphorisms of the Statesman. University of Cambridge Oriental Publications. Cambridge, 1961.
  11. Bosworth, C.E. (1998). "al-Maghribī, al-Ḥusayn ibnʿAlī". In Meisami, Julie Scott; Starkey, Paul (eds.). Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, Volume 2: L–Z, Chronological Tables, Index. Routledge. p. 488. ISBN 0-415-18572-6.
  12. Michele Amari (1852) Solwān; or Waters Of Comfort by Ibn Zafer, vol.1.
  13. Michele Amari (1852) Solwān; or Waters Of Comfort by Ibn Zafer, vol.2
  14. Meisami, Julie Scott (tr.). Sea of Precious Virtues. Salt Lake City, 1991.
  15. Sajida Sultana Alvi. Advice on the art of governance. An Indo-Islamic Mirror for Princes. State University of New York Press. 1989.
  16. "Mirrors For Princes (2010): Torino Film Festival".

Further reading

  • Anton, H.H. Fürstenspiegel und Herrscherethos in der Karolingerzeit. Bonner Historische Forschungen 32. Bonn, 1968.
  • Anton, H.H. "Fürstenspiegel (Königsspiegel) des frühen und hohen Mittelalters: Ein Editionsprojekt an der Universität Trier"
  • Finotti, Fabio (ed.), "I volti del principe". Venezia: Marsilio, 2018.
  • Handy, Amber. "The Specula principum in northwestern Europe, A.D. 650-900 : the evolution of a new ethical rule". Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Notre Dame, 2011. Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame, 2011. Retrieved May 17, 2015. Univ. of Notre Dame Online theses & dissertations
  • Konstantinos D.S. Paidas, He thematike ton byzantinon "katoptron hegemonos" tes proimes kai meses Byzantines periodoy(398-1085). Symbole sten politike theoria ton Byzantinon, Athens 2005.
  • Konstantinos D.S. Paidas, Ta byzantina "katoptra hegemonos" tes ysteres periodoy (1254–1403). Ekfraseis toy byzantinoy basilikou ideodous, Athens 2006.
  • Lambton, Ann K.S. "Islamic Mirrors for Princes." In: eadem, Theory and Practice in Medieval Persian Government. London. 1980. VI: 419–442.
  • Smith, Roland M. "The Speculum Principum in Early Irish Literature." Speculum 2 (1927): 411–45.
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