Principal Investigator: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Walter Pohl

The period between 400 and 1200 AD saw the emergence of new fundamental modes of identification in Europe. Firstly, strong religious identities took shape and became hegemonic over vast regions where Christian communities developed. And secondly, new kingdoms with ethnic denominations were formed, and the Roman Empire gave way to a pluralistic political landscape. Most ethnic designations for medieval and modern states in fact go back to that period. Both processes, not least through their interaction, created new forms of social cohesion, but also of conflict, and had a deep impact on European history up to this day that has not been sufficiently understood yet. Universal religion and ethnic/national particularism have always been regarded as opposite principles. But that is only part of the picture, and the proposed project is intended to look systematically at the ways in which religious and ethnic identities interacted, both as forms of discourse and as social practices.

In studying the Early Middle Ages, the project addresses a period that has been neglected in debates about ethnicity and the rise of the nation. By choosing a long-term perspective, it attempts to historicize ethnicity and religion. This should be achieved by a double approach: Careful source studies combined with methodological reflections to avoid modern projections; and comparison with areas beyond the frame of the project, for instance, the early Islamic World. The intention is not so much to study specific ethnic processes, but the cultural and social matrix that made them possible, and shaped them. Specifically, the project will concentrate on the ways in which the Bible inspired new discourses of identity and ethnicity, and in which the formation of Christian communities could enhance ethnic and political cohesion. Important political, affective and cognitive resources for the political role of ethnicity in European history were created in Late Antiquity and the Early and High Middle Ages, c. 400—1200 AD. They provided a potential that could be used at different stages in European history, not least, in the development of the modern nation.

Project Themes

  • 1. Ethnic and Christian discourse in the early Middle Ages
    Several studies deal with a new discourse inspired by the bible about identity and ethnicity (5th to 9th century). The Bible as 'repertory of identification' deals amongst others with exegetical texts of late antiquity, mostly commentaries on the Old Testament and its reception up to the Carolingian period. Christian communities and their media explores other Christian genres (hagiography, sermons, letters) as widespread media of dissemination for emerging concepts of identity. Semantics of narratives of ethnicity examines early medieval terminology for ethnicity in both the Latin and Greek language and vernacular languages.

    Highlights: The database GENS offers a selection of more than 4.200 passages (as of Nov. 2018) derived from Latin works of varied genres, which were written in Latin Europe between 400 and 1200 and are available in modern editions. All these passages provide examples of the use and understanding of ethnic terminology or ethnonyms.


  • 2. Allegiance and agency — social and political uses of identity in early medieval Europe
    The studies of this sub-project deal with ethnic identity as a motivation and explanation for actions. Being Roman after Rome examines which was called "Roman" in the early Middle Ages, for example in papal Rome, the Alps or the Adriatic region. Regional and ethnic identities in Roman and post-imperial Europe highlights the long-term development of ethnic and regional identities in the Roman provinces and border areas.

    Highlights: One highlight in SCIRE was the succession of conferences on ‘Romanness after Rome’, a topic also presented in a strand of sessions at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in 2013. In 2014, a number of members of the project team published articles in a thematic issue of the journal Early Medieval Europe. The collaborative volume ‘Walchen, Romani und Latini’ came out in 2017, the book ‘Transformations of Romanness in the Early Middle Ages: Regions and Identities’ was published in 2018, and a further volume containing mostly archaeological contributions will come out in 2019.
    For more detailed information on the related publications see publications and Clemens Gantner’s summary Transformations of Romanness: Early Medieval Regions and Identities in our Historical Identities Research Blog.


  • 3.Medieval identities as an interdisciplinary field of study
    These studies aim at interdisciplinary cooperation with other fields of study. Genetic history and medieval ethnicity aims to promote the methodological debate between geneticists, archeologists and historians.Social cohesion, identity and religion from a global perspective supplements a comparative study for Latin Europe, Byzantium and the Islamic world, investigated by Spezialforschungsbereich (SFB) VISCOM (starting from  March 2011). Identity, material objects and cultural transfer focuses on an interdisciplinary collaboration with archaeologists, from which a joint workshop and possibly a collaborative volume and an exemplary study are planned. Nations in retrospect — the modern significance of medieval ethnic and religious identities looks into the on-going methodological reflection.

    Highlights: One issue that SCIRE addressed was the fast-evolving field of palaeogenetic studies and their often insufficient historical interpretation, which still tends to take ethnic groups or nations and their genetic similarity for granted. A PhD thesis gave an overview of the state of the art, and several interdisciplinary workshops discussed the implications of genetic research for archaeology and history. Walter Pohl was also member of an interdisciplinary working group that studied genetic and archaeological traces that might be connected with the Longobard migration from Pannonia to Italy in 568. ⇒Genetic History & Medieval Studies