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"Dynamics of Conventionality (400–1550)"

The Cologne research training group engages in a reorientation of interdisciplinary research regarding the Middle Ages both in terms of content and methodology. Using ‘conventionality’ as our key concept, we aim at reconstructing the dynamics of European societies and cultures for the time period between 400 and 1550. The hitherto neglected concept of conventionality will enable us to reframe the dynamics of change in medieval history, art, architecture, music, philosophy, and literature. Methodologically, we distance ourselves from the narrative of modernization that – operating with key words such as ‘revolution’ and ‘innovation’ – entails describing the Middle Ages as a deficient preliminary stage of modernity. Such narratives preserve rather static conceptions of an era and tend to justify them in alluding to the specific traditionalism and conventionality of the Middle Ages and its societal and cultural manifestations. In contrast, the Cologne research training group aims at reconstructing their complexity and variety by adopting the concept of conventionality that has been theoretically and philosophically developed within the field of cultural studies. Conventionality signifies all rule-based forms of common actions and practical knowledge that are based on social agreement and guarantee cultural and societal stability and are yet intrinsically apt to various forms of modification and adaptation. Thus, conventions are crucial to facilitate processes of transformation whose effects transcend the great narratives of modernization.

For the time period between 400 and 1550, the significance of conventionality is manifest in the pivotal and ubiquitous concept of consuetudo (custom, habit). Based on this concept, reasoning on social change and persistence was carried out, and a corpus of accepted social and artistic rules was developed. Even though these rules claimed to be normative, they were subject to a constant process of negotiation, modification, reformulation and fictionalization—or they could even be dismissed as bad habits. The Cologne research training group plans to investigate the dynamics of conventionality in different spheres of medieval society. It traces a type of practical knowledge that is not based on rational and controlled methods of the production of knowledge, but on rule-based forms of social agreement. Taking three sets of terms contrary to conventionality – norm, science, and originality – as a foil for comparison, we intend to explore a cluster of thematically differentiated configurations of conventionality in an interdisciplinary context.