Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research programme

Europe 1000-1800: Collective Identities and Transnational Networks

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.

Judith Pollmann

Dimensions of collective identity

Medieval and early modern Europe was a world of constantly shifting borders, strong local political traditions, profitable transnational trade, and dense networks of international relations. In this world, ‘identity’ was never monolithic. At the same time, a recognizably European culture prevailed, which played an essential role in the transfer of knowledge as well as religious and political ideas. 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 and the Jagiellons. The shifts in this relationship constitute an overarching theme in the research done by the medievalists and early modernists at Leiden University.

Our current research focuses on four dimensions of collective identity. The first dimension touches upon relations between subjects (or citizens) and rulers. Our 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 as well as other memory practices. The fourth dimension concerns community formation and the impact on society and power of European scientific, socio-cultural, and religious discourses about the body, in particular in relation to late-medieval medical theory, the metaphor of the body politic, and health regimes.  

Collective identification

Recent concerns about cultural identity emphasize the enduring political and social importance of identity construction processes. Changing and conflicting identities were highly relevant for medieval and early modern Europe. Paradoxically, as state power became greater, rulers increasingly relied on maintaining good relations with the social elites.

As elites often identified with local communities, regions, or other group interests, loyalty to overarching entities—state or nation—was difficult to create. Well-advised rulers, therefore, spent considerable energy promoting loyalty through patronage networks, which were increasingly operated from their courts. New ways of 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. Moreover, the metaphor of the political body presented a concept that sparked the imagination of a national community.  

International trade, politics, and culture

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 all parts of Europe.

However, by the end of the fifteenth century, the horizon and scale of activities rapidly expanded. The Mediterranean and the Baltic continued to serve as conduits for commercial, cultural and political exchange between East and West, North and South. At the same time, from the fifteenth century onwards, the world of the Europeans expanded to include the Americas and the 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 the Italian city states, Spain, and the Dutch Republic.

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 also reinforcing new religious alliances in international politics. Süleyman the Magnificent 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.

Connection with other research

This website uses cookies.  More information.