Social Cohesion & Strategies of Identification in Early Medieval Europe

The period between 400 and 1200 AD saw the emergence of new fundamental modes of identification in Europe. Firstly, new religious identities took shape and became hegemonial over vast regions where Christian communities developed. And secondly, new kingdoms with ethnic denominations were formed, and the Roman Empire gave way to a pluralistic political landscape. Both processes, not least through their interaction, created new forms of social cohesion, but also of conflict, and had a deep impact on European history up to this day, which has not been sufficiently understood yet.


Universal religion and ethnic/national particularism have always been regarded as opposite principles. The working group analyses how long-term processes such as the Christianization or the transformation of the Roman Empire influenced the social cohesion of medieval societies. Identifications with large social groupings were rarely only ethnic or only religious; they might well be both, and also include aspects of homeland, language, cultural profile or social status.

The approach adopted in order to achieve these goals is a combination of careful source studies, broad perspectives and methodological reflections to avoid modern projections. The intention is not so much to study specific ethnic processes, but the cultural and social framework that shaped them. How was social cohesion achieved by identification with social groups, and what were its limits? However flexible and changeable social identities might be, they could also be very persistent. In spite of all political ruptures, European large-scale identities have proved to be surprisingly stable since the Early Middle Ages, while their significance underwent fundamental changes. Important political, affective and cognitive resources for the political role of ethnicity in European history were thus created in the period of c. 400–1200 AD. They provided a potential that could be used at different stages in European history, not least in the development of the modern nation.