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Citizenship Discourses in the Early Middle Ages

About the project

Citizenship Discourses in the Early Middle Ages, 400-1100

NWO VICI, 1 September 2017-31 August 2022
Project leader: Prof. Dr. Els Rose

Western Europe in the early Middle Ages (c. 400-c. 1100) witnessed fundamental changes in social, political, and cultural structures due to the fall of the Roman Empire and the development of new political formations. The project studies the use of citizenship terminology in the redefinition of public identity that this complex period required. The early medieval West is not generally associated with “citizenship”, as it predates the modern state and lacks large-scale urbanisation. However, written sources from this period employ ancient and biblical citizenship terminology. This continuous use of citizenship terminology is marked by a radical change of meaning. As Christianity assumed the role of dominant religion, it introduced its own citizenship “discourse”, one that provided new legal and symbolic meaning and sat often in paradoxical opposition to the ancient definitions. The examination of these shifts in meaning will be our tool to study the formation of identity in Western Europe during the first millennium.

The project will apply discourse analysis, performative theory, and a socio-philological approach to sources that reflect and frame processes of identity formation in the early medieval West. These include accounts on Christian role models (saints), reshaping political and social relationships; prayers and sermons, redefining social and spiritual life in their close interrelation; and legal and theological texts, rephrasing civic identity in accordance with Christian thinking. Civic identity in this period is a dual belonging: both to social and political life in the terrestrial world and to the spiritual community in the hereafter, envisaged as “the heavenly city”. The sources under investigation express the tensions and ambivalences this dual belonging caused in human relationships, and use terminology rooted in ancient and biblical citizenship discourse in order to shape new patterns of social in- and exclusion, membership, belonging and participation. The project investigates the social and legal implications of these new citizenship discourses that redefined legal and social alliances and oppositions (e.g. from “citizen vs. barbarian” to “Christian vs. non-Christian”).

The project collaborates with social partners in secondary education and Utrecht urban cultural institutions. Thus the project links conceptions and performances of citizenship in relation to religion and identity in the historical period of the early Middle Ages with present-day discussions of these issues.