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Structures of Dependency in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Church

Research Group Leader: Dr. Julia Winnebeck

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The Research Group seeks to investigate structures of dependency within the late antique and early medieval western Church and similar structures linking the Church of this period to its surrounding societies. The main focus will be on dependency structures which developed in the Church of the western part of the Roman Empire including the British Isles.

The politically and socially instable situation in these territories and the conversion of large groups of the indigenous population to Christianity led to the emergence of new (and often shifting) patterns of dependency which transformed or replaced earlier ones until by the 9th century the establishment of Frankish rule over large parts of western and central Europe had created new political and religious frameworks which are outside the scope of the current project.

The three individual projects within the Research Group are case studies of strong asymmetrical dependencies that can be observed in the Church's system of penance, ecclesiastical judiciary, and in monasticism.


The Research Group Will Focus on the Following Four Research Fields

  1. Agency and Dependency among the Clergy
  2. Ethical Norms and Their Implementation
  3. The Church's Jurisdiction and Secular Governance
  4. (In)dependence in Monasticism

Current State of Research and Approach

The traditional view of these power structures is based mainly on normative texts such as canon or secular law, synodal decisions, Church orders, or statements of doctrine. However, these sources represent or define idealized views of order within Church and society. Therefore, a closer approximation to the social reality may be achieved by examining a broader range of sources, i.e. by including letters, sermons, liturgies, the lives of saints and bishops, penitential handbooks, which may shed light on the day-to-day life of the clergy and laity and their interaction.

Thus, while the necessary basis for the methodological approach of the Research Group remains the historical-critical evaluation of the relevant sources, their analysis will require a more sophisticated hermeneutic than hitherto. This can be achieved through a relecture of the sources with regard to socio-historical and praxeological questions as well as a strictly contextualized interpretation that takes into account the historical context in which a source is thought to have originated and, to a certain extent, the influence and reception it may have had (including the dissemination of manuscripts). Furthermore, it is vital that the analysis is informed and controlled by the insights of neighbouring disciplines. For the purpose of comparison, all projects within the Research Group will evaluate the evidence from three perspectives:

  1. the normative or legal perspective;
  2. the theological perspective;
  3. the praxeological perspective.

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