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

Research Group Leader: Dr. Julia Winnebeck22

PhD Researcher: Henriette von Harnier, 3David B. Smith3


The Research Group 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.

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.


Individual Projects of the Research Group

  1. Handling Homicide (Julia Winnebeck).
  2. The Role of Women in the Penitential System of the Late Antique and Early Medieval Church (Henriette von Harnier).
  3. Masculinities, Homoeroticism, and Dependencies in the Early Medieval Penitentials and Ecclesial Law.

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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