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Project C1

Between Princely Service and Noble Self-Assertion:
Heroism as Noble Culture and Collective Mentality in the German and the French Late Middle Ages

Gero Schreier

Department of History

This project studies comparatively the functions of the heroic for the identity of noble groups in the late Middle Ages of German, French and French-Burgundian Europe (late 14th to the first half of the 16th century). This period was marked by various transformations in princely politics, diplomacy and warfare as well as by the realigning of the economic and income situation among the nobility. For the lower ranks of noble society especially, these transformations posed multiple challenges, with which not only every individual family was confronted but all of the nobility. In the conflict with competing social groups the knightly and courtly tradition continued to play a central role for the noble society. Their inherent norms and values were summarized in the model of the knightly hero as a general principle of noble existence. This was intended to not only legitimate and defend the social superiority of the nobility in society as a whole, but also made their self-understanding visible to society.

The acculturation of this general principle was to develop in the conflict between individual substantiation and pragmatic service as a prince. On the one hand, this project would like to examine this conflict and how it progressed in light of the performative aspect of heroism, which means in terms of a generally visible demonstration of a claim to the heroic profile. On the other hand, the reflexes of this performative aspect will be traced in historiography and biography, in testimonies and the family traditions of the nobility. Parallel to this the question will be posed, considering the example of the court of the Burgundian Dukes, through which discourses and performative acts did princes attempt to dominantly have their own person included in knightly heroic discourse and placed at the epicenter of the integrative, centripetal dynamic of political and social processes at the court? The focus of this study rests on the competitive elements of conventional knightly and courtly ways of life, i.e. in war and at tournament. In this focus the central question will consistently be how an entire group presented themselves in these discourses and practices, and how a collective tradition was begun through agreement on common heroic role models and actions. Therefore, heroisms in the extent of their social and personal constructions as well as their rivalry are central to this study.

The analysis, which follows an examination of the discourse in knightly heroism, aims on the one hand to assess the noble and knightly culture, which was historically manifesting itself as its integral component, and on the other hand to constantly reflect upon its mediality, that is, the modes by which it was presented in texts and practices.