Empire and Ethnicity in the Early Medieval West

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Helmut Reimitz Sr., Princeton University
The renovation of the Roman Empire under Charlemagne was not just a rebirth of the late ancient Roman Empire. The political structures of this new empire were in fact strongly shaped by experiences and experiments of the period in between the two empires. In this paper I want to explore the role of ethnic identity and ethnicity in these experiments from the seventh to the ninth century in historiographical texts, their rewriting and their manuscript transmission. In doing so I will try to sketch out how a specific notion of ethnicity as a social imagination of the world as a world divided among peoples was shaped by its increasing politicization to legitimate rule and social hierarchy in the post-Roman kingdoms. This process, however, did not only involve insiders. The history of post-Roman ethnicity in the Latin West was also strongly shaped by efforts to define one’s place in a post-imperial world vis a vis the successor of the Roman empire: the Byzantine world and came to be connected with claims that a new order of the world had replaced the old one. The future belonged to a world divided among Christian people chosen by God to rule over the former Roman provinces. The renovation of the Roman empire under Charlemagne did not reverse this process. On the contrary, Carolingian rulers and politicians developed an empire that consisted of peoples such as the Franks, Saxons, Aquitanians, Lombards, Bavarians etc. The imperial framing of ethnicity further reinforced and stabilized the social imagination of the world as a world divided among peoples and passed it on to later generations who continued to build upon and further develop its potential throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.