The Project

The Transformation of the Carolingian World

Plurality and Its Limits in Europe, 9th to 12th Century

The decades after the formation of the Carolingian empire around 800 and its territorial expansion to encompass most of Western Europe are correctly seen as a formative period for the emergence of a distinct European culture of Western Christendom. However, research in the last three decades has fundamentally changed the ways in which we perceive the Carolingian achievement. It is no longer a story of the restoration of imperial rule and Christian unity after the Dark Ages between the end of the Roman Empire and its renovation under Charlemagne. Instead, the Rise of the Carolingians is now seen as part of a longer history of cultural and social experimentation, of emulation and innovation, after the end of the Western Roman Empire, in which Carolingian politicians, rulers, bishops, theologians, intellectuals and lawyers built on the diverse social and political experiments of post-Roman societies and polities. The Carolingian reforms did not replace post-Roman multiplicity but integrated the inherited diversity in a new imperial framework.

As a result of this new understanding of the Carolingian synthesis the late and post-Carolingian period too looks different. We no longer look at the time as a period of growing feudal anarchy, or fragmentation that saw the decline and eventual dissolution of a (finally) unified Christian world in the Carolingian empire. We have started to understand the late and post-Carolingian period as a time in which models, institutions and structures as they were filtered and transmitted by Carolingian societies were tested and further developed in a variety of contexts. It was above all in their transformation over several centuries that they came to shape European attitudes to religion, politics and society for many centuries to come.

What we observe in this process is on the one hand the emergence of a variety of social, cultural, political and religious forms and structures, a plurality of peoples, of state-forms, of legal orders, a variety of languages, of religious doctrines, and of liturgical practices that came to characterize Europe until this very day. On the other hand it was precisely in these centuries when the notion of Europe as “the occident”, as a shared Western culture, slid more firmly into place. It was in the period from the 9th to the 11th century when “Western Christendom and the idea of permanence came to coalesce.” (P. Brown)

To be sure these ideas of a shared future of the Christian West strongly built on the Carolingian synthesis. But this is equally true for the plurality and multiplicity it helped to frame. The dynamic correlation between the efforts to establish common attitudes to variety and the variety itself has also grown out of the Carolingian empire. Even the intense Carolingian reform movement in the time of Charlemagne’s coronation, the correctio, resulted in many respects rather in the establishment of common standards to accommodate difference than to eliminate the differences themselves. The post-Carolingian world inherited this tension between diversity and difference, between many forms in different regions and their claims to represent universality.

The aim of the project is thus to explore the formation of European societies in the history of diversity and pluralism as well as the strategies for their accommodation and control that grew out of the Carolingian world. In doing so we want to transcend the artificial division created by long held imaginations of a second Dark Age between the early and high Middle Ages which have for a long time obscured the complexity and creativity with which late and post-Carolingian societies built on the Carolingian legacy. How did later generations employ, channel and rework the variety of intellectual, legal, political and religious resources of the Carolingian period. How were they transformed and further developed in various circumstances, in the different geographical and cultural contexts of the late and post Carolingian world, and in encounters between these societies and the wider world around them? How and to what extent did the variety of experiences and experiments contribute to the establishment of specific approaches to pluralism and its limits, to strategies of inclusion and exclusion, and to the definition and delineation of the West?

The project wants to explore the variety and complexity of this process within a large research network of scholars who work together in larger theme-groups, smaller sub-groups or individual projects (or all of the above) for several years to provide a new base line for our understanding of changing balance of continuities and discontinuities from the early to the high Middle Ages. The ideal would be an open network which, once started, continues to grow and expand. New groups can attach themselves to it, new topics, and projects should be developed in the course of the work that would connect the project to ever wider chronological, geographical and disciplinary horizons. The variety, complexity and multifocal design of the project could thus become a reflection of the variety, complexity and multifocal nature of the late and post-Carolingian world.