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Project D2

Knights, Rulers and Heroes: Warrior-Elites as Heroes in the European High Middle Ages


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Dendorfer
Prof. Dr. Birgit Studt
Dr. Steffen Krieb
Dr. Heinz Krieg
Thomas Nitschke
Thilo Treß

Department of History

This project explores alternative models of heroic ascription beyond the established dichotomies between saints and knights, or between militaristic elites who were influenced by the Church and those influenced by lay nobles or the community. The 11th and 12th centuries are understood as a much-debated pivotal period in the formation of knighthood and the culture of knights and the court. Because heroic action based on violence and heroic warriors – as well as the militaristic princes and kings who led them – of this time period have already been researched to a large extent, much of the background for this topic has already been established. Nonetheless, the heroization developing in a changing world in which social relationships were regulated and war had become economized and mechanized has not been sufficiently studied. This project thus analyzes the heroization and deheroization of warriors in relation to the social, economic and legal dynamics of the Middle Ages and the challenges this posed for both heroic acts and the traditional heroic model.
When looking at the differential state of research regarding these new challenges in the High Middle Ages, it becomes obvious that the idea of knighthood does not adequately describe the processes of the heroization found in the Latin chronicles and epics of the 11th to 13th centuries. The project thus focuses on the three following essential phenomena:

1) The representation of violence: Although it was the primary "craft" of the militaristic elite, violence has tended to be marginalized in earlier research as the work of the "knight" through an idealized perspective of the times. The focus of this project will therefore be the heroic meaning of the use of violence as being concurrent with the rationalization for waging war.

2) The presence and reappropriation in the High Middle Ages of alternative heroic models of antiquity that are modeled after the ancient heroes Achilles or Aeneas – for example, in the representation of warrior or ruler figures.

3) The negotiation of different historical heroic constructions in areas of increasing cultural contact; such as in Italy during the High Middle Ages, where three areas influenced by different experiences encountered one another: the kingdom north of the Alps, communal northern Italy and the hybrid societies of southern Italy and Sicily, which were influenced by Latin, Byzantine and Arabic cultures.

The specific theme of this study is structured around the Norman Conquest and rule of southern Italy and Sicily in the 11th and 12th centuries and the conflicts between the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the northern Italian municipalities in the 12th century.

This project analyzes those processes of heroization that strove to legitimize and integrate the new ruling elite as along with the discourse surrounding violent forms of exercising power and waging war. These perspectives are approached from the conflicting points of view of those using violence and the affected societies as well as their elites. Those involved in historiographic communication – that is, those who observe, judge and potentially direct these processes from the outside – are also analyzed. This thus raises the questions: Does this represent a return to distinctive patterns taken from the reservoir of classical heroic models as a response to contemporary challenges regarding the war-waging elite during this pivotal age in European history? And how should the simultaneous and contradicting tendencies of the transformation of a wild warrior into the figure of a demonized ruler and the brutalizing heroization of those using violence be placed in such an explanatory model?

Dissertation project A is concerned with the heroization processes and literary patterns that have been used to describe Norman rulers since their rise in southern Italian chronicles. This project also takes into account the special character of these texts as products of the complex multicultural background of southern Italy.

Dissertation project B addresses ideas of heroization in the context of the Holy Roman Empire's military campaigns in Italy, the Third Crusade under Fredrick Barbarossa as well as Henry VI's Staufian rule of Sicily, for which as of yet few sources, like epic texts, have been intensively researched or compared with thematically similar works of literature from the same time.