Universiteit Leiden

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Research programme

Collective identities and transnational networks in medieval and early modern Europe, 1000-1800

Recent concerns about cultural identity emphasise the ongoing political and social importance of the question of how, and with whom, people identify. Changing and conflicting identities were highly relevant for pre-modern Europe. Paradoxically, the more powerful states became, the more their rulers tended to depend on good relations with the social elites.

Peter Hoppenbrouwers

Since such elites often identified primarily with local communities, regions or other group interests, the creation of (proto-)national loyalties was problematic. Well-advised rulers, therefore, spent considerable energy on promoting loyalty through patronage networks, which were increasingly operated from their courts. New forms for delivering political messages, such as pageants and spectacles, were added to traditional media. The wide circulation of pamphlets and newspapers gradually changed the nature of political communication, creating new types of religious and political engagement.

Collective identification

In the centuries between 1000 and 1800, state borders certainly were not the primary focus of collective identification. On the one hand, regions within composite states continued to compete with one another. On the other hand, transnational trade networks often proved to be surprisingly resistant to political division and continued to connect Spanish, Flemish and Dutch economic and financial interests.

However, by the end of the fifteenth century the horizon and the scale of activities rapidly expanded. The Mediterranean and the Baltic continued to serve as conduits for commercial, political and cultural exchange between East and West, between Europe, Asia and Africa. At the same time, from the fifteenth-century onwards the world of Europeans expanded to include the Americas, African and Asian coastal areas. This altered the stakes and the involvement of states, with larger parts to play for the Portuguese, the French and the English besides Spain and the Dutch Republic.

International politics

Cultural networks transcended national borders as well. Until 1520, Europe shared one dominant religion. Soon afterwards, the schism in the Roman Church created transnational interest groups and streams of refugees while it also reinforced new religious alliances in international politics. Süleyman the Law-abiding watched the rise of Lutheranism with interest and Francis I of France actively sought his alliance. This French initiative was quickly followed by the English and the Dutch – which was also an expression of innovations in the field of international diplomacy.

Dimensions of collective identity

In this world of constantly shifting borders, strong local political traditions, profitable transnational trade, and dense networks of international relations, ‘identity’ was never monolithic. At the same time a recognisably European intellectual culture, which played an essential role in the transfer of knowledge, religious and political ideas, always prevailed. The changing relationship between local identities and the centres of royal or imperial power was a key concern all over Europe, from relatively unitary states such as France and England to the composite monarchies ruled by the Habsburgs. This constitutes an overarching theme in the historical research of the medievalists and early modernists at Leiden University.

Our current research focuses on three dimensions of collective identity. The first dimension touches upon relations between subjects and rulers. Our research projects study the interdependence of local administrations and supra-local and regional elite formation; the tensions caused by attempts to achieve political and administrative centralisation; and the intercultural comparison of dynastic empires that emerged in Europe, South-Asia and East-Asia. The second dimension deals with the dynamics of diplomatic and commercial networks, including the important aspects of conflict and conflict regulation. Cultural identities and cultural transfers are the third dimension. Here, a major focal point is the way in which Europeans engaged with the past, through historical writing, but also through other memory practices. A major research project on memory and identity formation studies the enduring social, political and cultural impact of civil war on early modern identities.

Connection with other research