Exeter Medieval Studies Blog

Using the Past to Negotiate a Time of Change: A Medieval Perspective

Posted by Sarah Hamilton

25 October 2016

Last month in the baroque splendours of the Brevnov monastery in Prague, HERA launched its third joint programme of European research on ‘Uses of the Past’.  Amongst the 18 projects being funded for the next three years is one based, in part, at Exeter on Europe in the long tenth century: After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, c. 900 c. 1050 (UNUP).

Charlemagne (768-814) is remembered now as the ‘father of Europe’, establishing an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the frontiers of modern Hungary, and from the English Channel to Catalonia and Central Italy, which came to an end only in 888.   In the century and a half which followed frontiers shifted, established centres became peripheral and peripheral regions became central within new power structures.   A time of turmoil, social and political change, the tenth century has also, since at least the seventeenth century, been seen as witnessing the emergence of  modern nations.   This project seeks to go beyond these modern nationalist teleologies to provide a comparative and cross-European perspective on developments, an aim which has acquired fresh resonances since it was orginally conceived in a pre-Brexit world.

In recent decades the period of Carolingian rule has attracted a good deal of attention from scholars, but the time between the end of empire and the mid-eleventh century remains largely ignored.   This three-year project (2016-19) will investigate the social, political and cultural developments in this century and a half from a fresh perspective.   In early medieval Europe the absence of clear structures meant that action in the present often drew authority from claims about the past.   Crises and change led to a search for legitimacy in the past.   Our hypothesis is that the changing landscapes of Europe and the increase in instability and uncertainty in the long tenth century are connected to the variety and complexity of attitudes to the past manifest in sources from the time.   Our aim is to explore that relationship from a number of dfferent perspectives (social, political, cultural) in order to offer a case study of post-imperial transition in a time of rapid change, and to allow comparison with uses of the past in other periods.  Some members will focus on materials from areas which had been the Carolingian heartland in the ninth century whilst others will investigate the ways in which people in regions which had been peripheral, including England and Catalonia, looked to the ninth century and the Late Antique pasts to legitimise their authority.

This is a collaborative project with other members being based in Barcelona, Berlin, St Andrews and Vienna.   It is an international team of 5 established scholars with 3 PhD students and 2 postdocs, and together we come from Austria, France/Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK.

The Exeter-based team comprises myself and Lenneke van Raaij, who has just begun her PhD, having recently complete her masters at the University of Utrecht.  We will both be focussing on the plentiful liturgical manuscripts produced in this period.  We’ll explore the ways in which Carolingian texts were taken up both in prestigious manuscripts, like this prayerbook (left) made for Otto III (980-1002), and in seemingly more practical manuscripts like this one made for Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (960-78):

Now almost two months into the start of the project we have (almost) cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles of government and university bureaucracy to do with new appointments, and begun research, developing our plans for engagement (including a website, to be launched in the spring, and a public exhibition) and a ‘kick-off’ international conference in Berlin in May 2017.


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