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  5. A Digital Humanities Approach to Medieval Sermons

Social Conflicts and Conceptual Change: A Digital Humanities Approach to Medieval Sermons

Dr. Inka Moilanen
Historiska institutionen

Finansierad av Vetenskapsrådet, 2017-2020.

This project examines how the concepts of social order and social conflict were understood, presented and developed in medieval sermons before the drastic increase of popular movements in the High Middle Ages. It implements computational methods in the study of digitized text corpora, and aims to ascertain changes and developments in the social-religious climate during a period that was formative for the rise of a number of popular and heretical movements. The purpose of the project is, on the one hand, to elucidate the conceptual changes prior to a period of increased social intolerance and prejudice and, on the other hand, to test and evaluate the applicability of computational approaches of digital humanities, especially vector space modelling, in the study of medieval sermons that were either produced or circulated in England from ca. 900 to 1200. Combining methods of conceptual history with digital humanities, the project will shed light on the ways people create meanings and meaningfulness in conflict situations. The topic of this project is not only historically significant, but important also to our own times, especially when thinking about the increased polarization of different social groups and the crises related to them. This project helps to understand the development and context-dependent nature of social conflicts, and thus also questions their justification and necessity.

The objectives of this project are:

  • To determine how medieval preaching participated in and shaped the conceptions of social conflicts and normativity prior to the emergence of the vast popular and heretical movements of the High Middle Ages.
  • To identify and specify the conceptual changes in the way ideas about these conflicts were communicated to the public, and to determine the surrounding discourses pertaining to them.
  • To develop, test and determine the usefulness of digital tools, such as vector space modelling and network analysis, in the examination of digitized text corpora comprising medieval normative texts.

The analytical level of this project is on preaching as activity that disseminates conceptions about normativity. The focus is thus on the communicative processes of how knowledge about the limits of normality and their breaching was created and passed on. The project is interested in the ways preachers communicated with – or, rather, to – the public on what they considered to be “wrong conduct”, “wrong opinion” or “wrong belief”, serious enough to have consequences in causing clashes and conflicts in one’s community. The purpose is not to study the causes to individual conflicts as such, but the development of their preconditions. When and why something is seen as a conflict is namely often a matter of interpretation. A situation that may have, in one instance, turned into a reform that addresses problems between social groups, may have resulted in accusations of heresy in another. What, then, are the acceptable frameworks for social normality? When is the border crossed? When does a situation transform into a conflict instead of a reform? The period between 900 and 1200 is an extremely interesting period, as the society in the year 1200 was very different from what it had been in 900. Drastic changes happened during these centuries in the political, social and religious spheres of life. What happened in the religious-social climate during these formative centuries that ultimately led to widespread movements, to disagreements on social rules and to organized persecutions of those who digressed from the norm?

The method of this project is largely exploratory, and the source material comprises hundreds of sermons and normative literature in digital databases. One of the most important objectives of this project is to evaluate the usefulness of digital tools in the study of medieval source material, and to reflect upon the implications for the knowledge we gain from using digitalized source material, digital tools and methods.

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