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Masterclass: Wondering about 'Reform' in Medieval Sources (4th-11th Centuries) - 1/3 ECTS

donderdag 23 mei 2024 - vrijdag 24 mei 2024
Utrecht University

‘Reform’ is one of the favourite terms with which modern historians like to describe political or religious changes in the past. Charlemagne, for instance, famously ‘reformed’ education, while his bishops ‘reformed’ the structure of the local church; several popes ‘reformed’ the Christian world as a whole. This is, however, a term which only makes sense when we know the outcome of attempts to change things for the better. No historian would claim that X reformed Y when, in fact, nothing came of their intentions to change. So what exactly is the difference between ‘reform’ and, simply, ‘change’ in the eyes of historians? Is it more than a lazy catch-all term, and how do we deal with (intentions to) change in the first place?

To make things even more complicated, authors from the early middle ages hardly used the term ‘reform’ at all, and if they did so, it was mostly with a different meaning than that intended by modern historians. Terms such as ‘correctio’ or ‘emendatio’ sometimes express the hope that something might change for the better, even if no such outcome was guaranteed (but the intentions were there). ‘Reformatio’, on the other hand, could mean anything from the rebuilding of a church that was destroyed by Vikings, to the negative assessment of attempts to impose changes that nobody wanted onto a community. In such cases, rhetoric is more important than reality: when powerful people express the wish to ‘reform’ in a text, when admiring authors claim how their hero is responsible for ‘reform’ – where can we see the boundary between ‘intention’ end and ‘organic change’?

What, then, is reform in the early medieval world?

In the past couple of years, the nature of ‘reform’ has been the subject of intensive debate and re-evaluation, not least by scholars based in Utrecht. During this master-class, several leading international scholars in the field will help participants re-assess their sources – for instance by questioning the nature of ‘normativity’ and ‘universality’, but also by going back to the manuscripts to mine these for clues about the practical implications of such initiatives.

In the course of a two-day seminar, participants will discuss theoretical issues (including the semantics of reform), deal with methodological challenges of incorporating manuscripts and other material sources into their approach to religious change, and present their own ideas about this material based on their own research into a specific text. Students will be asked to prepare a think piece based on a source text of their choosing and the assigned literature. During the seminar, they will discuss their findings in-depth in smaller thematic groups, and also present their findings to the group.

Aimed at

The course is open to (research) MA students and PhD students with a special interest in:

  • Religious history
  • Manuscript studies
  • Monasticism & monastic communities
  • Local priests & local communities
  • (Imperial/Royal/Episcopal/Other forms of) Authority
  • All of the above

We expect a working knowledge of the early medieval history of Western Europe – given the nature of the evidence, this will predominantly be Frankish history, but expertise of early medieval Spanish/Visigothic, Italian (incl. papal), Insular or Byzantine history is also compatible with the aims of this course.


Organisers: Dr. Carine van Rhijn (Utrecht; c.vanrhijn@uu.nl) and dr. Rutger Kramer (Utrecht; r.d.kramer@uu.nl)


  • Dr. Cinzia Grifoni (Vienna)
  • Dr. Emilie Kurdziel (Poitiers)
  • Prof. Dr. Steven Vanderputten (Gent)


The Masterclass/Workshop will be hosted by Utrecht University.

It will take place on 23 and 24 May 2024.

Students will be expected to read and comment upon several key publications on the topic of “reforms”. During the workshop itself, they will engage with primary source material under the supervision of the speakers, with the goal of writing a short paper reflecting on the nature of (religious) change in history.

Participating students will be rewarded 1 ECTS for preparation and presentation at the workshop, with the possibility of gaining another 2 ECTS to research and write a paper afterwards – for a total of 3 ECTS for the program in its entirety. The papers will be graded by Carine van Rhijn and Rutger Kramer.

Participants interested in joining should register by 29 March at the latest, by sending an email to ozsmed@hum.leidenuniv.nl and c.vanrhijn@uu.nl).

For more information, feel free to contact one of the organizers.

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