Comparative Approaches to Ethnicity, Region and Empire in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism (400-1600 CE)

VISCOM is a collaboration between the University of Vienna(UniVie) and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). The institutes participating in the project are the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO), where the project coordination is located, the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) and the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia (IKGA) for the ÖAW, and the Department for History (IfG), the Institute for Eastern European History (IOG) and the Austrian Institute for Historical Research (IÖG) for the University. The project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

In the second phase of the FWF Special Research Programme VISCOM (start of second phase: 1.3.2015), research has continued under the direction of project speaker Walter Pohl for another four years. In the SFB (Spezialforschungsbereich) the teams of social anthropologists and Tibetologists (Institute for Social Anthropology – Andre Gingrich, Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia – Birgit Kellner, both Austrian Academy of Sciences), historians of Austria and Eastern Europe (Christina Lutter and Oliver Schmitt, both University of Vienna) are conducting comparative studies on the correlation between religious and political ‘visions of community’ in the course of the medieval period based on Christian, Islamic and Buddhist examples.



VISCOM explores interactions between universal religions on the one hand and the different forms of communities on the other – be they local, civic, regional, ethnic or imperial. As universal, proselytizing religions emerged to replace the culturally adaptable and mostly community-oriented traditional religions, relationships between cult and community, religious and political identity became much more complex. What was previously based in civic cults or the idea that kin groups and peoples could boast divine origins gradually came to transcend other forms of community as membership was defined by conversion rather than circumstance. Nevertheless, these new religions often did attach themselves to all sorts of defined political realms, legitimating them and helping them integrate into a larger social whole. This created a dynamic and sometimes paradoxical relationship between religious identity and particular communities – a relationship that led to different results in the case of each of the religions within VISCOM.

In order to study these differences, medieval historians of European and Asian societies are working together with philologists and social anthropologists in a comparative research programme. They are thus bridging the gaps between history and social anthropology, between European and Asian studies, between religious and political history, and between discourse analysis and the study of social practice(s). VISCOM works on several levels. Case studies serve as a basis for comparison of larger questions, and in the process comparative methodology within and between the disciplines is being developed. The main goal here is mid-range comparison: rather than constructing typologies, the project defines a number of areas of comparison and criteria that are viable in each case. To avoid the pitfalls of following too closely a (eurocentric) master narrative, VISCOM attempts to arrive at a level of complexity that can incorporate the internal variety of each political culture and the similarities and differences between them.


Christian Discourse and Political Identities in Early Medieval Europe

The studies within the subproject located at the IMAFO intend to achieve a ‘histoire croisée’ of religion and ethnicity in post-Roman Europe by looking at the ways ethnic identifications and Christian visions of community shaped the political landscape of the early medieval West. It attempts to place the conjunction of ethnic, imperial, historical and religious identifications into a cognitive and narrative matrix. Thus, it addresses the intersections between ethnic identifications and Christian ideologies that have shaped political identities at all levels of society. From the development of kinship metaphors in barbarian histories to the establishment of the Carolingian Empire, this project part also seeks to understand the teleological charge of modern nationalism, and the European way of conceiving of the world as a community of nation states.

selected Publications

Selected Publications

  • Walter Pohl / Veronika Wieser (eds.), Shadows of Empire – Imperial Peripheries in Early Medieval Eurasia (forthcoming).
  • Vincent Eltschinger / Veronika Wieser (eds.), Making Ends Meet: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the End of Times in Medieval Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, München: De Gruyter (forthcoming).
  • Eirik Hovden / Christina Lutter / Walter Pohl (eds.), Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia. Leiden: Brill 2016.
  • Walter Pohl / Gerda Heydemann (eds.), Post-Roman Transitions: Christian and Barbarian Identities in the Early Medieval West, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 14, Turnhout: Brepols 2013.
  • Walter Pohl / Gerda Heydemann (eds.), Strategies of Identification: Ethnicity and Religion in Early Medieval Europe, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 13, Turnhout: Brepols 2013.
  • Veronika Wieser / Christian Zolles / Catherine Feik / Martin Zolles / Leopold Schlöndorff (eds.), Abendländische Apokalyptik: Kompendium zur Genealogie der Endzeit, Kulturgeschichte der Apokalyptik 1, Berlin: Akademieverlag 2013.
  • Walter Pohl / Clemens Gantner / Richard Payne (eds.), Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100, Farnham: Ashgate 2012.

Project Team

Project Team

Project leader
Walter Pohl

Andre Gingrich

Project Coordination
Sophie Gruber
Ingrid Hartl


Team Christian Discourse and Political Identities in Early Medieval Europe

Project Leader

Walter Pohl

Principal Investigator

Cinzia Grifoni • IfG, UniVie

Rutger Kramer • IfG, UniVie

Salvatore Liccardo • IfG, UniVie

Maria Nezbeda • IfG, UniVie


Francesco Borri • ÖAW (FWF)

Albrecht Diem • Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY

Gerda Heydemann • FU Berlin/IMaFo, ÖAW

Irene van Renswoude •  KNAW The Hague/Utrecht University

Giorgia Vocino • Cambridge University

Graeme Ward • University of Oxford/IMaFo, ÖAW

Jelle Wassenaar • ÖAW (UNUP)

Veronika Wieser • IMaFo, ÖAW

The SFB is affiliated with the University of Vienna and with the Austrian Academy of Sciences

For more information please visit the project homepage.