Social and Cultural Communities across Medieval Monastic, Civic, and Courtly Cultures in High and Late Medieval Central Europe

This project part aims at relating the central research categories of VISCOM – religion, ethnicity, and empire – to those of ‘the court’, ‘the city’, and ‘the cloister’, all of them being spatial, discursive and social categories, effectively operating ‘on the ground’ of rather regional societal levels. It concentrates on social and cultural communities and their political roles in the framework of the Holy Roman Empire between 1250 and 1500 CE. The focus is on processes of community building in Austria and Bohemia, two neighbouring regions in which the formation of identities evolved in a parallel and yet different manner in that period. Identifications with the country (Land) and/or with language communities and allegiance to courtly, urban, and monastic milieus interacted in a complex way. This perspective allows for analyzing contextually specific relations between visions of community on a larger scale and communities of practice, i.e. forms of community building and its maintenance, sometimes consistent with, but sometimes also cutting across visions of communities extant on a more general discursive level. We will look for coherences, but also ambivalences between social practices, e.g. in the context of trade relations or widespread filiations of religious orders, and discursive strategies, e.g. stereotyped forms of ethnic and religious "othering" in times of conflict.

While interrelations of ethnic and religious forms of belonging played an important role in early and high medieval Christian Europe and then again from the 15th c. onwards, it may seem that between the 12th and 14th centuries in many Central European regions "ethnicity" was only one among other sometimes conflicting categories of affiliation, while the Christian religion provided a more or less stable socio-cultural horizon. Respectively, this seems to be the case in the region under investigation up to the end of the 14th century, the period which the current first phase of the project (2011-2014) predominantly deals with. Social affiliations and feelings of belonging seem to have been mostly located within small groups and communities, basically resting upon kinship and personal relations of different kinds. Thus, the current case studies focus on the social spaces where these relations, affiliations, and forms of belonging were articulated or negotiated: the ducal court and its entourage, nobility and local gentry, monasteries and cities.

The case of late-medieval Bohemia, esp. from the beginning of the Hussite movement on at the beginning of the 15th century on, however, seems to mark a significant change of the sketched balance of categories of identification that was not confined to the region. As in other marginal zones of Central Europe territorial conflicts increasingly would be articulated in terms of "ethnic" attributions and arguments intensified by differentiated forms of religious commitment. Thus, it seems that categories of identification and belonging varied significantly according to their temporal and spatial context and that the decades at the beginning of the 15th century characterized by a multiplication and intensification of conflict provide a particularly interesting example to study societal changes in terms of visions of community. The latter aspect will be dealt with in a second phase of the project.

Shared key questions about visions of community in the first phase of the project that are currently approached by means of several case studies drawing on different types of source material (historiography; hagiography; material culture; charters, administrative and economic records) are:

  • What are contemporary notions of identification and belonging?
  • Which languages are employed, what are the functions of their uses?
  • Which textual, pictorial, material, and architectural genres serve as media for cultural representation/memory within communities?
  • Which cultural, spiritual, and political models of identification can be traced in courtly and noble, civic, and monastic environments? How are they used in different social and political situations?
  • How do textual, pictorial, and performative strategies of representations and visions of community operate, e.g., forms of emotional imagery and its moral-political significance?
  • Which effects do visions of community and practices of community building have on personal relations and on the stability of social groups?

Illustration: Zisterzienserstift Zwettl, Stiftsbibliothek, Hs. 2/1, fol. 8r, 13. Jhdt.: Stifterbuch „Bärenhaut“

Last Update: 16.05.17