Priests in a post-imperial world, c. 900-1050

The history of Western Europe in the long tenth century (c. 900 – c. 1050) has long divided historians. For some, especially those working in English and French intellectual traditions, it is primarily a history of collapse after the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire; for others, especially those approaching the topic from a German perspective, it is above all a history of unprecedented collaboration between ecclesiastical and secular leaders before the convulsions of papal reform.

This joint UK-German project challenges both these views by investigating systematically for the first time the life-worlds of ordinary local priests in this long tenth century. These priests are currently the ‘dark matter’ of the early medieval church in this period. They represented the bulk of its personnel, and acted as the key brokers between the general lay populace who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population and the educated elites and cultural leaders. If we want to understand the nature of post-Carolingian cultural and social change, and to set the elite politics of the period into a proper context, then we must understand these local priests: their economic standing, what they knew, what standards they were set, how they fitted into their local societies – and how all these things changed. Until now, however, and despite their evident importance and significant archival footprint, tenth-century local priests have barely been studied, sidelined in favour of higher-profile elite figures and communities such as bishops and monasteries.

By combining different methodologies tailored to a range of bodies of evidence to research the variation and change in the life-worlds of these priests primarily in the lands of the successor states to Carolingian Francia (approximately modern-day Germany, northern Italy and France), and by drawing on the expertise of a team that brings together the distinctive UK and German historiographical traditions, this project throws an entirely new light on the dynamics of the long tenth century, and thus on a crucial moment of transition in European history.

This project is jointly funded by the AHRC and the DFG as a UK-German collaborative research project, 2021-2024, grant AH/V002317/1.

Image: St. Oswald's church in Widford (UK) by Michelle Tresemer on Unsplash