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Seminar 4: The Formation of Discourse Communities in the Early Middle Ages

  • Kay Boers (Utrecht) en Becca Grose (York)
woensdag 29 maart 2023
Utrecht University
Drift 25 - 302

The Formation of Discourse Communities in the Early Middle Ages, 500-700 CE

Since its inception by John Swales, the term discourse community has proliferated across scholarly literature in various fields. Its use usually implies the existence of an identifiable discourse or set of mutually recognizable objectives or aspirations, an identifiable group within which this shared language circulated, and an external group where it did not.  Even in the case of imagined discourse communities, most models suggest that the participant(s) should consider themselves to be members of the same group, speaking about the same things and pursuing the same goals in a recognizable fashion, despite potentially being removed from each other in time and space. Yet, the relative importance of these traits differs across scholarly models and there has been little investigation into the dynamics that led to these groupings and the elements that could sustain them enough to coalesce.

Our contribution to this seminar will focus on the formation of discourse communities in the early Middle Ages. We will explore how these groups emerge, identify the evidence for the formation and maintenance of these groups, and critically interrogate modern models and assumptions about these processes. We will focus on two themes: the dynamics by which these groups formed or converged in the early Middle Ages, and the formation or identification of discourse communities by modern scholars as a heuristic tool to understand late-antique social dynamics.

While the recent work of Irene van Renswoude and Rutger Kramer has highlighted the use of discourse communities as a model to understand Carolingian practices of disputation, we investigate how well it can help us investigate communication practices in earlier medieval communities that are less associated with reformist tendencies. The two case studies we will present will suggest that early medieval discourse communities were neither static nor uniform, even if they were couched in those terms. Although participants deployed images and language they thought their peers would understand and (mostly) accept, this was not necessarily true nor did the use of shared language necessarily necessitate that a contributor or contribution would be accepted by others. Moreover, membership in the same discourse community did not necessitate an equal or shared form of participation and not all participants would necessarily have realized or intended that their work would be read within any given community. By comparing our two case studies, we will identify a series of similarities and differences, and raise some questions about the extent to which these different dynamics can usefully be studied together as early medieval discourse communities or if we need new terms and distinctions to comparatively approach early-medieval dynamics.

We warmly invite participants to reflect with us on the value of discourse community as a concept, its use in understanding and comparing early-medieval communication and debate, and how these problems intersect with their own research.


Recommended reading:

Swales, John. ''The Concept of Discourse Community." Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990, pp 21-32.

Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 1986, pp. 34–47.

Kramer, Rutger. Rethinking Authority in the Carolingian Empire. Amsterdam University Press, 2019, pp. 43-49

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