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Boundaries and Identity Formation in the Premodern World


Prof. dr. G. Geltner and Dr. A. Witte

Description of the research programme of the research group

Traditionally and especially in scholarship focusing on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, identities are defined in relation to (European) nationalist history. The accepted markers of modern identities include language, a fixed territory, a common cultural heritage, and a shared history framed by a grand political narrative, into which religion and ethnicity are often, if not always, written. Modern and pre-modern societies tend to be contrasted with one another in this context. While modern societies are often assumed to possess a strong connection between state and nation, pre-modern people are seen as bound by religion and family. However, the early twenty-first-century West is beginning to recognize that, despite secularization and the juggernaut of the nation-state, multiple sources of authority (some old, such as religion and medicine, others new, such as technology) do in fact govern individuals and communities and that these sometimes competing and sometimes complementary identities can only be understood from a historical perspective. Studying the formation of identities has therefore much to gain from students of virtually all aspects of pre-modern society and culture. Accordingly, this group, comprised of scholars working across and beyond Europe in the period 500-1600, seeks to demonstrate how identities could be formed and defined by different lines at once: religion, class, gender, sex, health, status, education, language, access, age, etc. In pre-modern times, for each of these (partly overlapping) groups, there were different norms and mechanisms for divulging, celebrating, and safeguarding individual and collective identities, each with its own power structure, spatial organization, intellectual, religious, and artistic forms of expression, and of course attitudes towards the “other”. Geographical, spatial, social, family and religious boundaries were neither fixed nor nonnegotiable, and tracing their dynamics and expression will be the central interest of this research program. More specifically, we will be concerned with the following questions:

  • How were boundaries created, maintained, and made meaningful in various spheres (religious, literary, social, material, political, economic, etc.) and regions of the pre-modern world?
  • What kinds of boundaries were there, who created them, and how did they participate in the process of identity formation in pre-modern societies?
  • What is the cultural heritage of pre-modern boundaries?
  • What are the main continuities and changes we can trace among them?

Envisaged results

The various groups already comprising this program (see and new ones to form will conduct workshops, seminars, lecture series and onsite visits, as well as produce PhD dissertations, articles, monographs, edited volumes and dedicated online content related to this research. Jointly and separately, researchers involved with this program will apply for external funding, collaborate with pertinent research programs and centers, and participate in panels and conferences here and abroad.

Work plan and time schedule

Different groups within this program are at different stages of their projects. Within the span of the next 2-3 years, however, it is envisaged both existing and new formations will recruit new members, apply for external funding, and disseminate their research results broadly. The groups as a whole will hold a regular seminar, serving as a focal point for all groups involved, develop a series of publications on pre-modern boundaries, and present in panels at international conferences.

Societal relevance

Historical studies in general allow us to complicate our understanding of the present and thus reimagine the future. This research program in particular challenges the premise of both scientific and popular debates about identity and its formation, thereby contributing to numerous spheres, from religion and politics, to all aspects of culture and heritage.

Members of the research group

dr. A. Alexander - Bakkerus
prof.dr. J.A.A.M. Biemans
M. Bloem
dr. H.J. Borsje
prof.dr. A.F.W. Bosman
prof.dr. H. Brinkman
prof.dr. J.W.J. Burgers
F.W.G.W. Camphuijsen MA
dr. M. Campopiano
V. Covaci MA
dr. M.J.M. Damen
A.J. van Egmond MA
W.A. Flinterman MA
dr. T.A.M. Smidt van Gelder - Fontaine
dr. P.J. Forshaw
S. Frequin MA
dr. M. van Gelder
prof.dr. G. Geltner
dr. P.S. Gerbrandy
dr. R.W.H. Glitz
dr. M. Hogenbirk
dr. E. Huwiler
T.G. Jasperse
prof.dr. B. Kempers
dr. C.M.H.H. Dauven - van Knippenberg
dr. A.R. de Koomen,
dr. J. Koopmans
dr. K.H. Broekhuijsen - Kruijer
dr. W.T.J.M. Kuiper
dr. K.V.M.P. Lavéant
prof.dr. C.A. Chavannes - Mazel
dr. D.K.W. van Miert
drs. E.M. Mulders
M.G.C. Osnabrugge MA
I. Reesing MA
M.P. Ritsema van Eck MA
dr. M. Simons
A.C. Taatgen MA
dr. V. Tkaczyk
dr. A.A.A. Verhoeven
Y.J.C. Vermijn
dr. W.A.W. van Welie - Vink
H.R. Voeten MA
drs. J.E. Wessel MA
prof.dr. G.A. Wiegers
dr. A.A. Witte
dr. O.J. Zwartjes

External Member: J. van den Bent

Partner Institutions: Monash University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, The Prato Consortium, York University Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Kent Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies