Political Culture in Three Spheres

Byzantium, Islam, and the West

c. 711 – c. 1453


                 Defining topic, themes and rationale        


‘Political culture’ encompasses both the ideology and the practice of ‘hegemonial’ groups. It involves the self-definition (expressed verbally, visually or symbolically), and the actual practices, customs, and working assumptions of groups of individuals aspiring to large-scale, long-term hegemony, be it internally (within a given community) or externally (against its neighbours or rivals).


‘Political culture’ results from individual actors trying to define and achieve their goals within an agreed set of values, expectations and rules of behaviour. Those rising to or inheriting prominence in this arena make up the political elite of any given society, as do non-players of high birth, substantial means or other forms of leverage who retain the capacity to intervene or obstruct. These elites, furthermore, often sought to transcend and regulate local communities, affiliations and regions; they invoked universal values in vindication of their use of force, role as arbitrator, and exaction of resources. Empires, overseeing a wide variety of regions, local elites and interests, are prime candidates for a study of this kind of political culture. But so are smaller polities governing heterogeneous regions, including kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics, city-states, despotates, governorships, emirates, sultanates,….


The political cultures of such entities were often informed partly by their historical genesis and by the earlier stages of their ascendancy; by their application of force and by their adaptation to changing circumstances over time. Their internal workings – justice, administration, tax-collecting, etc – are obviously relevant, as are the identity, weighting and interplay of political ‘players’, but these ought to be viewed alongside the question of how a ruling elite explained and justified its ascendancy, and of how their subjects, peers and rivals responded to these claims. In addition, attention ought to be given to the ‘branding’ of a polity by its rulers and by others (including outsiders): political cultures often define themselves in apposition to other political cultures, deemed either superior and advanced, or heterodox and deviant. The dynamics of the interplay between all these elements, the penumbra thrown up by a specific polity’s, institution’s or movement’s kudos, is the essence of what, in the present context, is meant by political culture. Concrete features include, for example, endemic tensions and essential religious co-ordinates; ideology and propaganda; dynamics of political power and the interaction between public authority and loci of real power; etc.


Our aim is to commence filling a gap in the historiography and to identify long-term trends, mechanisms and processes in the interplay between the political cultures of Byzantium, the Islamic World and the Latin West. Through the identification of key themes for future meetings and projects, we may take first steps towards reconstructing the “longue durée” of these political cultures’ development and towards understanding the divergences and convergences in their paths from common origins in Late Antiquity to overt confrontation in Early Modernity.


Catherine Holmes                 Jonathan Shepard

Jo van Steenbergen               Björn Weiler