Mirrors for princes: Wisdom for the 21st century

Mirrors for princes (Latin: specula principum) or mirrors of princes, are an educational literary genre, in a loose sense of the word, of political writings during the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, the late middle ages and the Renaissance. They are part of the broader speculum or mirror literature genre.

The term itself is medieval, as it appears as early as the 12th century, under the words speculum regum, and may have been used earlier than that. The genre concept may have come from the popular speculum literature that was popular between the 12th through 16th centuries, which focused on knowledge of a particular subject matter.

These texts most frequently take the form of textbooks which directly instruct kings, princes or lesser rulers on certain aspects of governance 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 prototypical self-help book or 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 Niccolo Machiavelli, although this was not the most typical example.


Greek and Roman


Western European texts

Early Middle Ages

  • Gregory of ToursHistory of the Franks (late 6th century) which warns against internal strife.
  • De duodecim abusivis saeculi, ‘On the twelve abuses of the world’ (7th century), a Hiberno-Latin treatise by an anonymous Irish 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 (731AD) 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




Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867) studied by generations of British monarchs for its insight on their role in a constitutional monarchy.

Byzantine texts

Pre-Islamic Persian texts

  • Ewen-Nāmag (“Book of Rules”): On the Sasanian manners, customs, skills, and arts, sciences, etc. (Between 3rd – 7th century AD)
  • Andarz literature. (Between 3rd – 7th century AD)

Islamic texts

  • Nizam al-Mulk, Siyāset-nāmeh ‘Book of Government’ (c. 1090) (Persian)
  • Al-Imam al-Hadrami (d. 1095) – Kitâb al-Ishâra
  • Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), Nasihat al-muluk ‘Counsel to Princes’ (Persian)
  • Yusuf Balasaghuni, Kutadgu Bilig (11th century)
  • At-Turtushi, Siraj al-Muluk ‘The Lamp of Kings’ (c. 1121)
  • Ibn Ẓafar al-Ṣiqillī’s (12th century) 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[16][17]
  • Bahr Al-Fava’id ‘Sea of (Precious) Virtues’, compiled in the 12th century.[18]
  • Ibn Arabi, Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom (At-Tadbidrat al-ilahiyyah fi islah al-mamlakat al-insaniyyah) (1194-1201AD/590-598AH)
  • Saadi’s Gulistan, chapter I, “The Manners of Kings”, (1258, 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
  • Lütfi Pasha Asafname (Mid-16th century)
  • Muhammad al-Baqir Najm-I Sani, Mau‘izah-i Jahangiri ‘Admonition of Jahāngír’ or ‘Advice on the art of governance’ (1612 – 1613).[19]

Slavonic texts

Chinese texts


  • Tao Te ChingLao Tzu Chinese philosopher (Can be interpreted as a mystical text, philosophical text, or political treatise on rulership) (late 4th century BC)
  • Mencius – moral advice for a ruler (late 4th century BC)
  • Han Fei ZiLegalist text advice for a ruler and the art of statecraft (mid-3rd century BC) dedicated to Qin Shi Huang
  • The Book of Lord Shang (Multiple authors spanning centuries, starting from c. 330BC) text advice useful for a ruler and statecraft
  • Shizi (c. 330BC) particularly section 15, The Ruler’s Governance

Imperial Dynasties

Han Dynasty

Tang Dynasty

  • Ouyang Xun (624AD) Yiwen leiju 藝文類聚 (“Classified collection based on the Classics and other literature”)
  • Kong Yingda (642AD) Wujing Zhengyi 五經正義 (“Correct Meaning of the Five Classics”)
  • Liu Zhi (7th century AD) Zhengdian 政典 (“Manual of politics”), a political encyclopaedia useful for young boys taking the Imperial Examination

Song Dynasty

Ming Dynasty

Qing Dynasty

In popular culture: folklore see