Compte-rendu de l’atelier Empires – 5 octobre 2015 (EN)

The first of the 2015-2016 IMS workshops started with a short introduction by Fanny Madeline on the theme of Empire. This field of research developed considerably in the second half of the twentieth century in the context of the Cold War, but medievalists for a long time were outsiders to these methodological and epistemological renewals which have given impetus to the field since the 1980s. Approaches in medieval studies have been driven mainly by intellectual history (the concept of imperium), and medievalists are still wary of the models of empire that are involved in crafting an overarching, long-term history. Nevertheless things are changing, as the choice of this theme for the 2014 IMC in Leeds indicates. The purpose of today’s workshop is to explore new approaches to this theme in historical research in medieval studies, primarily in France, Germany, and Spain.

The first speaker: Julian Führer defended his thesis on Louis VI and the reform of the canons (published in 2008), and at present teaches at the university of Zürich after completing a 2-year research fellowship at the Institut historique allemand (DHIP) in Paris. He is currently President of the IMS-Paris, and is preparing the proceedings of the IMS symposium held in 2014 on the theme of Charlemagne after Charlemagne. Today he is presenting the results of collective research that was undertaken with   Marie-Laure Pain (Université de Paris-Ouest Nanterre) and Amélie Sagasser (EHESS / Universität Heidelberg) on current historical writing about the Carolingian empire. The volume is scheduled for publication in a forthcoming issue of the journal Médiévales.

Julian Führer began by describing the major trends in Carolingian historiography since the nineteenth century: in France, like in Germany this history served in the writing of national history. On the French side it was less Charlemagne himself than Charles the Bald or Clovis who were mobilized as founding figures of “France”. On the German side there was a drive to germanize Charlemagne, but more especially to legitimize the political form of the Empire (Reich) in an era of nation-states. After 1945 the focus of German historians was less on the Reich than on the nation, and more on the Ottonians than on the Carolingians. Since the 2000s, fresh work in Carolingian studies has centered on three main themes: the figure of Charlemagne, the organization of the empire, and its Christian dimension.

Biography has been renewed particularly on the other side of the Rhine, as well as in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, etc., but there has been very little of it in France, where the biography by J. Favier published by Fayard still has not been replaced.

Concerning the organization of the empire, analyses of modes of government have been undertaken in terms of networks and modes of communication (logistics and personal contacts). There have been approaches mainly on the other side of the Atlantic with the political-military history by B. Bachrach and thesis by M. Gravel. There has also been interest in memorial culture (G. Koziol), which bridges with the theme of the christianization of the empire.

The limits of the Christian empire are probed through the study of its relations with the Byzantine empire, the pope, as well as with the Muslim powers of the Iberian peninsula and Near East, and also internally with the Saxons (L. E. von Padberg). Other studies have focused on the question of strengthening and standardizing the Christian faith, examining the practices and rituals of the local clergy (C. van Rhijn) and liturgical and theological reforms (S. Keefe, F. Close, O. M. Phelan). This presentation on new directions in Carolingian studies concluded, in particular, with a look at critical editions of documents (letters, cartularies, annals, etc.) and considered ways of opening up to comparative approaches in history more generally.

The second speaker was Hélène Sirantoine, lecturer at the university of Sydney since 2013. Her thesis, Imperator Hispaniae. Les idéologies impériales dans le royaume de Léon entre le IXe et le XIIe siècle was published by the Casa de Velásquez (2012). Hélène Sirantoine works on the political and cultural history of the kingdom of Castile-León, and the way in which diplomatic documents are used in the elaboration and communication of ideologies that support the powers in place. Today she returns to a question that she devoted a number of years to while writing her thesis: the title of emperor which was used by some sovereigns of Léon in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. She has expanded this subject by including it within a comparative history on the European scale on the question of imperial experiences in the Middle Ages on the edges of Europe. Her work should also give rise to a thematic issue of Médiévales, to be published in 2016 or early 2017.

Hélène Sirantoine began by showing tourism posters from the 1960s bearing the English slogan Spain is different, connoting exoticism but also shifting away from the dark image of Spain (as a country that has always resisted progress: resistance to the Carolingian and Napoleonic empires, etc.), which has been echoed in intellectual milieus highlighting a particularity of Spanish history: the title of emperor used by some medieval kings of Spain.

Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, as Reconquista was underway, some sovereigns of León/Castile-León, Navarre, and Aragon (associated for some time with the government of the León kingdom) bore the title imperator hispaniae. Yet this occurred irregularly, and was a relatively marginal phenomenon at first, which then developed and intensified during the reigns of Alfonso VI of Castile-León (1065-1109) and Alfonso VII, his grandson (1126-1157), when it takes on a more significant ideological dimension: the style became systematic under his reign, he has himself crowned imperator, and disseminated the imperial image on seals, coinage, etc. Paradoxically, upon his death in 1157, the Spanish imperial title suddenly vanished, leaving only the memory of it.

This memory would nevertheless feed a historiographical myth in the Spain of the 1930s-70s, which would give rise to a debate that was rather bitter and revelatory of Spanish trends in historical writing of the time.

On the one hand, the ‘negativist’ school distinguishes two phases of the imperial phenomenon: 1) under the Asturias-León dynasty, the imperial idea was seen as a way of rhetorically asserting the power and independence of sovereigns + military character of the monarchy; 2) the imperial title was seen as signifying these monarchs’ desire for supremacy over other peninsular powers, with an emulation of imperial models.

On the other hand, partisans of the imperialist thesis, more numerous and loquacious, on the contrary emphasized the originality and univocality of the Spanish imperial phenomenon all throughout the period. It was perceived that there was a shared conscience of unity, ideally embodied by the Visigothic kingdom of the early Middle Ages, which the Muslim invasion destroyed in 711. This school, led by the great philologist, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, whose foundational thesis was published in 1950, has dominated historical writing about the “León imperial idea”, presenting it as a unified, univocal phenomenon.

A thesis which was also to highlight the Spain’s originality within medieval Christendom despite the methodological and chronological problems this approach poses.

In conclusion, we have to wait for Francoism to be over before seeing an end to this historiographical impasse, even if the imperial myth is the one that has attracted the least attention were it not for foreign historians.

The last paper was given by two speakers: Klaus Oschema, associate professor at the Ruprecht-Karls university in Heidelberg, defended his thesis at the EHESS and Dresden on the concept of friendship and physical proximity in medieval Burgundy. It was published in 2006, followed by his habilitation thesis, in 2013, on the subject of Les images de l’Europe au Moyen Âge (‘Images of Europe in the Middle Ages’). Christoph Mauntel, who completed his thesis in 2013 on La violence dans les mots et dans les faits (‘Violence in words and in deeds’) based on narratives and practices in medieval France. In this term he has started a post-doctorate at the university of Tübingen on religious knowledge in pre-modern Europe.

Their presentation set forth the research they have conducted as part of a comparative history project– Asia and Europe in Global context – where the purpose is to consider the pertinence of what might be called the “meta-categories” that pre-modern people used to structure their world, in particular the meta-categories of Empire and Continent which are both political and geographical.

First point: the state of research

German historical research has long neglected the Carolingian empire, concentrating instead on the history of the Ottonians, Salians, and the Staufen, who were really “German”! There was a “glorious” period of the history of the empire up to Frederick II, and then a few great emperors, but overall one is conscious of a decline. For the period between the end of the thirteenth century and the end of the fifteenth century, historical writing has therefore turned more toward the development of political theory (Karl Ubl) and the gap between theoretical claims to universal authority and actual political practices (M. Heidemann, M. Pauly, M. Kintzinger); or toward the history of territorial principalities, such as the reactions of German princes in the light of their failure to impose election of the king of Romans as an actual way of choosing the emperor (E. Schubert, F. Rexroth). This renewal of historical research has been characterized by a reassessment of the role of political rituals and their anthropological value: the ceremonial of the election has thus been reexamined, as have the visits and encounters between emperor and princes (M. Kintzinger, G. Schwedler B. Schneidmüller). Another trend draws upon cross-cultural exchanges and international dialogue among scholars. Empire no longer designates only the Roman or Germanic empires, but may also serve to designate the Byzantine empire and the part the Latins played in the Mediterranean (G. Jostkleigrewe, M. Carr, F. van Tricht, S. Burkhardt). The term ‘empire’ furthermore tends to be used metaphorically, for example as in the Angevin empire. There is still significant hesitation on the part of medievalists to rally to the discourse of the social sciences, which have nevertheless contributed new readings of the imperial phenomenon over the past years.

Second point: provisional results of this project

It must be noted that while there were imperial pretensions in Europe up to the twelfth century, at the end of the Middle Ages no political entity other than the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (HRE) was called an “empire”. Today the term “empire” appears as a key concept in current research, most particularly since 11 September 2001. The way historians are now using it serves both to describe the expansionist policy of European states since the seventeenth century, but also in writing global history, as in the work done by F. Cooper and J. Burbank. However in the view of S. Howe, these usages cause difficulties because of their “diversity, Impreciseness, and ideological deformations”. In fact, the desire to agree on a definition of the concept that is able to describe varying historical situations had led the HRE to be excluded from this definition of “empire”. Some current definitions also lead one to conclude that there was no empire in the Middle Ages (Vogtherr). It would also be indispensible likewise to consider lexical analysis of the Latin term imperium to counterbalance the “modern” definition of empire. Two references for the history of the concept of empire: R. Koebner and J. Muldoon, who also propose two different methodological approaches (see also R. Folz, less recent) to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of this concept in the Middle Ages. Along with the sense which designates the HRE, the term empire was also used to describe and qualify foreign kingdoms. Guibert de Nogent, for instance, called the Fatimid Califate “the Babylonian Empire” (Gesta Dei per Francos). Similarly, the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini called the Mongol Khan “emperor” in the narrative of his voyage (1245). Analyses of the contexts in which the concept of “empire” was used in the Middle Ages still need to be fleshed out for the most part. Within the framework of the project, one such analysis was made of the concept in sources outside of Europe and of what that enables us to see of the continent.

Third point: the question of the ‘Emperor of Europe’

Although Europe never became a political notion in the medieval West, it did for non-Europeans. It has long been known that Charlemagne was called pater Europae, in the words of Leo III, and also that the Carolingian empire was called Europe until the tenth century. But to come across the expression imperator Europae means going at least as far as Irish sources (Annales d’Ulster and Chronicon Scottorum). From the twelfth century on, Europe is once again an issue but only for the empire of Alexander or Arthur or in apocalyptic visions, because the idea of suzerainty over the whole of Europe is no longer anything but a symbolic claim, the real power being gradually organized within kingdoms. And yet in the fourteenth century, another tradition arises out of contacts with peoples from beyond Europe, notably the Mongols and Turks, who lay siege to “Europe” and give rise to the threat of an “emperor of Europe”.

Fanny Madeline

Translation Raeleen Chai-Elsholz

Citer ce billet
irenefabry (2018, 14 février). Compte-rendu de l’atelier Empires – 5 octobre 2015 (EN). Étudier, rechercher, échanger le Moyen Âge. Consulté le 19 avril 2024, à l’adresse

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