Voluntary Martyrdom and Politics in the High Middle Ages

Voluntary Martyrdom and Politics in the High Middle Ages

Research Unit Voluntariness (Professur für Mittelalterliche Geschichte, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt)
Professur für Mittelalterliche Geschichte, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt
Nordhäuser Str. 63
Gefördert durch
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
Vom - Bis
04.10.2022 - 05.10.2022
Markus Dolinsky, Historisches Seminar, Universität Erfurt

This workshop explores the impact of the concept of voluntary martyrdom on politics during the High Middle Ages, with special attention to Scandinavia from the late 10th century conversion period to the transformative 12th and early 13th centuries.

The event is associated with the interdisciplinary research unit Voluntariness, specifically the Medieval History subproject Martyrdom and Voluntariness.

Voluntary Martyrdom and Politics in the High Middle Ages

The impact of royal martyr saints as prestigious identification figures within medieval dynastic struggles has been examined by a multitude of scholars. Europe’s and especially Scandinavia’s hagiographic landscape provides many examples of slain rulers ascending to sainthood as a reward for their deaths that supposedly occurred in service of Christianity. Hagiography and folklore subsequently immersed these deaths in a light of martyrdom and voluntariness. But how exactly did the concept of voluntary martyrdom itself shape politics from the conversion period of the late 10th century to the 12th and early 13th centuries, yet another transformative period oftentimes associated with political upheaval and significant changes in religious structures? This workshop seeks to explore the period’s mechanics of power, participation and governance through discourses of martyrdom. While there will be a focus on the Scandinavian cultural sphere of influence, scholars specializing in other regions of Europe are more than welcome to provide comparative insight.

In our context, martyrdom is to be understood as the (alleged) act of giving one’s life voluntarily in service of a greater cause. Using this broader definition of martyrdom instead of focusing on officially recognized saints of the Western Christian mainstream, we might include pagans or religious dissidents, saint-like folkloric figures, fallen war participants (especially crusaders and civil war combatants), as well as persons who might not have actually been physically harmed for their beliefs, but allegedly expressed their willingness to suffer and die. As such, there is also little to no clear distinction between martyrdom and specific forms of noble/heroic death, or suicide. All these concepts might overlap, categorizations being a product of discursive interpretation within the sources, in relation to social norms and authorial intent.

The workshop arises from an associated subproject within the multidisciplinary research unit Voluntariness, based at the Universities of Erfurt, Jena and Oldenburg. Together, we follow the assumption that voluntariness is not the opposite of constraint. Instead we assume that it has an antinomic structure, being exercised as an act of freedom, yet dependent on various conditions that lead to certain behaviors being endorsed, expected or even demanded. Inspired by governmentality studies, we understand voluntariness as both a potential means of political and social participation, and as a tool of governance. Therefore, we scrutinize it within the three analytical dimensions of (social) norm, (political or economic) resource, and discursive strategy.

Some logistical notes:

The event is set to take place on site, assuming that covid-restrictions will allow it. For speakers, travel and accommodation costs may be covered with the research unit’s funds; we are also happy to offer you a speaker's fee of 200,00 EUR. Our Academic Coordinator can make room arrangements in Erfurt for you if need be.


Tuesday 4 October 2022
Martyrdom and the Spread of Christianity

Panel 1: Conversion and the Social Economics of Martyrdom
While most martyrdom narratives feature after a country’s “official”, the concept might have been useful to proselytize Christianity in the first place. Were martyr deaths a more practical tool than miracles to establish sanctity, even though Christians were not particularly likely to suffer martyrdom during the middle ages? Furthermore, there are reports of the violent deaths of pagans at the hands of Christian rulers like Óláfr Tryggvason. These pagan martyrs may offer an interesting comparative perspective.

Panel 2: Female Martyrs (or relative lack thereof)
Most of the better known medieval martyrs were men. Women feature comparatively little in Scandinavian conversion narratives and in general only few violent deaths are recorded. Yet still, martyrdom might have been used to try and improve certain women’s status. Probably Northern Europe’s most popular female martyr saint, Sunniva, is an especially interesting case, as her biography seems to be mostly (if not completely) fictitious – therefore there might be some deliberate authorial purpose to her gender assignment. In any case, the apparent differences between male and female martyrdom accounts are worth exploring.

Wednesday 5 October 2022
Martyrdom and Martyrs in High Medieval Propaganda

Panel 3: Martyrdom and Crusading
While church officials remained hesitant to award the title of martyr to fallen crusaders, crusader martyrdom appears to have been a common notion during the High Middle Ages. With people from relatively recently converted countries joining in on expeditions to the Holy Land by the 12th century, such a notion would have made its way north and fused with established ideals of heroic death on a daring voyage into hostile territory. This panel will focus on voluntary martyrdom as an element of identity formation for crusaders and soldiers of fortune.

Panel 4: Martyrdom and Governance
During dynastic struggles, pretenders for the throne often used their familial relations to royal martyrs to claim greater legitimacy. For this they usually cooperated with church authorities. This panel explores the power of martyrdom as a tool of governance to counter political instability and reshape rulership in times of upheaval.


E-Mail: markus.dolinsky@uni-erfurt.de

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