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.
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
- Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus (c. 370BC)
- Isocrates, To Nicocles and Evagoras
- Philodemus, The Good King According to Homer
- Dio Chrysostom, The First Discourse on Kingship and The Second Discourse on Kingship and The Third Discourse on Kingship and The Fourth Discourse on Kingship
- Cicero, De Officiis (44BC)
- Seneca, De Clementia (55-56AD)
- Plutarch, Moralia (c.100AD)
- Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine may be a mirror for princes. This text’s precise genre, audience, and aims has been a subject of scholarly controversy. (c. 339AD)
- Ambrose, De officiis ministrorum (c. 391AD) although the book is for clergy, many of its lessons can be applied to secular lords due to its inspiration and criticism of Cicero’s original.
- Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book V, chapter 24, “The true felicity of Christian Emperors.” (c.413-426AD)
- Vishnu Sharma, Panchatantra (Between 200 BC – 300AD)
- Chanakya, Arthashastra (Between 200BC – 300AD)
- Narayan Pandit, Hitopdesha (c. 770 – 860AD)
Western European texts
Early Middle Ages
- Gregory of Tours‘ History 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:
- Cathwulf, Epistolae (775) written for Charlemagne.
- Paulinus of Aquileia, Liber exhortationis (795), for Count Heiric of Friuli.
- Alcuin, De virtutibus et vitiis (c. 799–800), written for Count Wido of Brittany.
- Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel, Via regia (813), arguably the first true European mirror for princes, dedicated to Louis the Pious, when king of Aquitania.
- Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni (c. 814) which idolises Charlemagne’s reign as something for other rulers to aspire to.
- Jonas of Orléans, De Institutione Laicali (818-828), (originally) written for Count Matfrid of Orléans.
- Jonas of Orléans, De Institutione Regia (c. 831), written for Pepin I of Aquitaine, apparently on the basis of a council at Orléans.
- Dhuoda, (841-843) Liber manualis, written for her son William.
- Agobard of Lyons, his letters, A Comparison of Ecclesiastical and Political Government and Wherein the Dignity of the Church Outshines the Majesty of Empires and the Liber Apologeticus.
- Sedulius Scottus, De rectoribus christianis ‘On Christian rulers’ (c. 855-9), addressed to King Lothar II of Lotharingia.
- Hincmar of Reims, De regis persona ‘The Person of the King’
- Hincmar of Reims, De ordine palatii ‘On the management of the palace’ (882), which sets out the moral duties of a king and includes an account of the organisation of the palace.
- 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’. 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.
- 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‘
High and Late Middle Ages
- Stephen I of Hungary, Admonitions (1010s), written for his son and heir presumptive Saint Emeric.
- John of Salisbury, Policraticus = ‘The Statesman’s Book’ (1159).
- Godfrey of Viterbo, Speculum regum (c. 1183), dedicated to his Staufian imperial patrons, father Frederick Barbarossa and son Henry VI.
- Pseudo-Plutarch, Institutio Traiani (first quoted in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus).
- Gerald of Wales, De instructione principis (c. 1193)
- Jean de Limoges, Somnium morale Pharaonis (c. 1234-60), written for Thibaut IV or Thibaut V
- Konungs skuggsjá or Speculum regale, (c. 1250) Norwegian treatise originally written for King Magnús lagabœtir.
- Vincent of Beauvais, De eruditione filiorum nobilium = ‘On the Education of Noble Children’ (c. 1250).
- Guibert of Tournai, Eruditio regum et principum = ‘The Education of Kings and Princes’ (1259), written for Louis IX.
- Guibert of Tournai, De modo addiscendi = ‘On the Method of Learning’ (c. 1260) written for John de Dampierre, provost of Bruges, son of Guy of Flanders.
- Thomas Aquinas, De regno (c. 1260), often conflated with the De regimine principum of Ptolemy of Lucca
- Vincent de Beauvais, De morali principis institutione = ‘On the Moral Instruction of the Prince’ (c. 1262), probably written for Louis IX.
- William Peraldus, De eruditione principum = ‘On the Education of Princes’ (c. 1265), formerly attributed to Thomas Aquinas.
- Brunetto Latini, Li livres dou trésor (1266), written for Charles of Anjou.
- Giles of Rome, De regimine principum = ‘On the Rule of Princes’ (c. 1278), written for Philip the Fair.
- Engelbert of Admont, Speculum virtutum moralium (c. 1310), written for Otto, Duke of Austria and Albert II, Duke of Austria
- Paolino Veneto, Trattato de regimine rectoris (1313×1315), written for the Marino Badoer, duke of Crete
- William of Pagula, Speculum regis, written for Edward III of England (c. 1331).
- Don Juan Manuel, Tales of Count Lucanor (1335).
- Alvarus Pelagius, Speculum regum (1340s), written for Alfonso XI of Castile.
- Um styrilsi kununga ok höfþinga (1350s), Old Swedish treatise
- The III Consideracions Right Necesserye to the Good Governaunce of a Prince (c. 1350), a translation of a French treatise from 1347, intended for King John II of France.
- Philip of Leyden, De cura reipublicae et sorte principantis (“On the care of the state and the role of the ruler”) (c. 1355), dedicated to William V of Holland
- Evrart de Trémaugon, Le songe du verger (1376).
- Der Fürsten reget, (c. 1370-1380) dedicated to William, Duke of Austria
- Christine de Pizan, Epistre Othea a Hector (c. 1400), Livre du corps de policie (1407), Livre de la paix (between 1412 and 1414).
- Pierre Salmon, Dialogues (1409, rev. 1412/15), dedicated to Charles VI of France
- Thomas Hoccleve, De regimine principum (early 1410s) written for Henry V of England.
- Duarte of Portugal, Leal Conselheiro (1438), a practical manual of ethical guidance for the nobility of Portugal.
- John Ireland, The Meroure of Wysedome, (1490) written for James IV of Scotland.
- Phillipus de Bergamo, Spiegel der regyrunge (15th century) translated into middle German
- Eyn kurz ordenunge in gemeyne allen den die da regieren huß, dorffere oder stede, (15th century) short text written on how to rule a household, village or city
- Von der regeronge der stede, (15th century) text written on how to govern a city
- John Skelton, Speculum principis (1501), lost work written for the then future Henry VIII. A copy of this treatise, which may not be entirely the same as that presented to Henry, resides with the British Museum.
- Erasmus, Institutio principis Christiani ‘Education of a Christian Prince’ (1516), written as advice to King Charles of Spain (the later Charles V).
- Martin Luther. On Secular Authority (1523), a letter dedicated to John, Elector of Saxony
- Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528), based on experiences of the courts of Urbino.
- Antonio de Guevara, Relox de príncipes (1529), inspired by and dedicated to Charles V, a bestseller of its times, translated during the 16th Century to English, Latin, Italian, German, French and Dutch.
- Justus Menius, Oeconomia christiana (1529), dedicated to Sibylle of Cleves for a right ordering of a Christian Lutheran household
- Machiavelli, Il Principe (c. 1513, published in 1532).
- George Buchanan, De iure regni apud Scotos (1579), a work in the form of a Socratic dialogue on ideal kingship dedicated to the young James VI of Scotland
- Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State (1589), a criticism of Machiavelli’s Prince.
- Johann Damgaard, Alithia (1597), written for the young Danish monarch King Christian IV.
- Juan de Mariana, De rege et regis institutione (Toledo, 1598); The King and the Education of the King
- James VI of Scotland, Basilikon Doron (1599) written as a gift to his eldest son.
- Francisco de Quevedo, La política de Dios, y gobierno de Cristo (1617–1626) The Politics of God and the Government of Christ
- Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis (1625) dedicated to Louis XIII of France
- John Gauden, Eikon Basilike (1649) published after Charles I of England was beheaded.
- Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture (1709) dedicated to the future Louis XV of France.
- Frederick II of Prussia, Anti-Machiavel (1740) a critique of Machiavelli’s Prince.
- Frederick II of Prussia, Letter addressed to his nephew, Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg (6 February 1744) 
Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867) studied by generations of British monarchs for its insight on their role in a constitutional monarchy.
- Synesius, Bishop of Cyrene, De regno, speech delivered to emperor Arcadius.
- Agapetus the deacon, speech delivered to emperor Justinian I. (c. 530s)
- Basil I the Macedonian, Admonitory chapters I and II to his son emperor Leo VI the Wise
- Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, De Administrando Imperio, a domestic and foreign policy manual for the use of Constantine’s son and successor, the Emperor Romanos II. (948 – 952)
- Kekaumenos, Strategikon (1075/1078), chapters 77 – 91.
- Archbishop Theophylact of Ohrid, Paideia Basilike (Lat. Institutio Regia) (c. 1088), addressed to his pupil Constantine Doukas, son of Emperor Michael VII Doukas.
- Spaneas or Didaskalia Parainetike, modelled on the Isocratean Ad Demonicum (12th century)
- Nikephoros Blemmydes, Andrias Basilikos (Lat. Regia statua, “Statue of a King”), written for Theodore II Laskaris, the future Nicaean emperor (c. 1250)
- Thomas Magistros, La regalita addressed to Andronikos II Palaiologos. (14th century)
- Manuel II Palaiologos, Paideia Regia dedicated to his son, John VIII Palaiologos. (15th century)
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)
- Abd al-Hamid al-Katib, letter to Abdallah son of the Umayyad caliph Marwan II (c. 750)
- Ibn al-Muqaffa, Kalila wa Dimna (c. 750)
- 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’
- Abu’l-Qasim al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Maghribi (981–1027), Kitab fi’l-si’yasa
- Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik (fl.1053, Damascus), Mukhtār al-Hikam wa-Maḥāsin al-Kalim (مختار الحكم ومحاسن الكلم) ‘Selected Maxims and Aphorisms’
- Qabus nama (1082) – a Persian example of the genre
- 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
- Bahr Al-Fava’id ‘Sea of (Precious) Virtues’, compiled in the 12th century.
- 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).
- Patriarch Photios I of Constantinople, letter addressed to Boris I of Bulgaria (867AD)
- Poucheniye (Instruction) of Vladmir Monomakh to his children (1120s).
- Izmaragd (c. 14th century) moral guide and education for children
- Patriarch Antony IV of Constantinople, letter to Vasily I of Moscow (1393).
- Domostroy (c. 15th century)
- Neagoe Basarab (1512–1521), The teachings of Neagoe Basarab to his son Theodosie, one of the earliest literary works in Wallachia
- Mikhail Lomonosov, (1760) Panegyric to the Sovereign Emperor, Peter the Great
- Tao Te Ching – Lao 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 Zi – Legalist 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
- Lu Jia (c.200BC) Xin Yu 新语 (“New Discourses”), treatise on why empires rise and fall.
- Ban Biao (c.50AD) Book of Han, Volume 23, Treatise on Punishment and Law
- Ban Biao (c.50AD) Treatise on the Mandate of Kings (王命論) covers the concept of sovereignty that would influence later Chinese texts.
- 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
- Ouyang Xiu (1060AD) New Book of Tang, carries a treatise on how to select and appoint officials.
- Sima Guang (1084AD) Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance)
- Zhu Xi (1172AD) Zizhi Tongjian Gangmu
- Zheng Qiao (12th century) Tongzhi 通治 (“Comprehensive Treatise on Government”)