Approaches to Medieval Ethnicity

Ethnicity is a controversial topic. Some scholars even argue that the term is too opaque and should rather be abandoned, or is not applicable to ancient and medieval history. Avoiding the term, however, will not solve the problem, as long as there is now better concept available to allow studying a rather wide variety of related phenomena from related perspectives. This requires a flexible definition that is adequate to the sources that we have for the period that we study.  I have suggested to regard ‘ethnicity’ as a cognitive and political way to structure the social world, and to distinguish social groups through ethnonyms. These labels often (but not always) correspond to ethnic identities, which are the result of a circle of identifications: self-identification with an ethnic group, collective identification of the group as such by representatives or in collective rituals, and outside perceptions. If this process is successful, a relatively stable identity can emerge. These identifications are usually composite and not exclusively ethnic (the allegiance may also be to an extent territorial, religious or political). The ‘ethnic’ component is more marked if the cohesion of the group is regarded to lie in the people themselves, in its common origin and/or intrinsic quality, rather than in an outward point of reference such as a territory, a polity or a shared religious creed.

With this still rather experimental conceptual tool, early medieval ethnicity can be further explored. The main goal is a monograph about early medieval ethnicity to be submitted to Cambridge University Press, complemented by a number of articles. A further essential line of research is represented by the SFB VISCOM and its Transversal Working group Tribes and ethnicity. It prepares a special isuue of the ‘Medieval History Journal’ on Ethnic origin narratives (2018) and a conference and publication about ‘Ethnicity and Religion’.

This research on ethnicity is closely related to the work by Helmut Reimitz on historiography and the changing significance of ethnicity and by Gerda Heydemann on Christian exegesis and identity, to Salvatore Liccardo’s project on ethnonyms and also to a section of the Transformation of the Carolingian World’ project.


  • Walter Pohl, Introduction: Strategies of identification. A methodological profile, in: Walter Pohl/Gerda Heydemann (ed.), Strategies of Identification. Ethnicity and Religion in Early Medieval Europe (Turnhout 2013) 1-64.
  • Walter Pohl, Christian and barbarian identities in the early medieval West: introduction, in: Post-Roman Transitions: Christian and Barbarian Identities in the Early Medieval West, Walter Pohl/Gerda Heydemann (Turnhout 2013) 1-46.
  • Walter Pohl, Introduction: Meanings of Community and the Uses of Terminology, in: Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia, ed. Walter Pohl, Christina Lutter and Eirik Hovden (Leiden/New York 2016) 1-20.
  • Walter Pohl and Gerda Heydemann: The rhetoric of election – 1 Peter 2.9 and the  Franks, in: Rob Meens et al., Religious Franks (Manchester 2016) 13-31.
  • Walter Pohl, Ethnicity in the Carolingian Empire, in: The ʿAbbāsid and Carolingian Empires. Comparative Studies in Civilizational Formation, ed. Deborah G. Tor (Islamic History and Civilization 150, Leiden/Boston 2017) 102-122.
  • Walter Pohl, Von der Ethnogenese zur Identitätsforschung, in: Neue Wege der Frühmittelalterforschung – Bilanz und Perspektiven, ed. Walter Pohl/Maximilian Diesenberger/Bernhard Zeller (Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 22, Wien 2018) 9-34.