Beyond mission: Willibrord as a political agent between early medieval Ireland, Britain and Merovingian Francia (AD 690-739)


CALL: 2017

DOMAIN: ID - Humanities and Social Sciences





HOST INSTITUTION: Trinity College Dublin

KEYWORDS: Religion, identities, elites, power, source criticism, cultural transfer

START: 2017-09-01

END: 2020-08-31


Submitted Abstract

The aim of the project WILL17 is to re-evaluate the political role played by Willibrord (AD 658-739) during his time in Merovingian Francia from 690 to 739.

Educated at the monasteries of Ripon in Northumbria and Rath Melsigi in Ireland, Willibrord was consecrated bishop of the Frisians by the pope in 695 and received Utrecht as his episcopal base by Pippin II, the great-grandfather of Charlemagne. The project argues that previous analyses of Willibrord’s activity have been embedded in two modern historiographical narratives which have shaped our understanding of the period between c. 650 and

750: the ‘Christianisation’ of Europe and the ‘rise’ of the Carolingian dynasty.

Seen from this perspective, Willibrord was part of a new wave of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ missionaries who gave a new momentum to the ‘Christianisation’ of Europe with the military support of Charlemagne’s ancestors. The project claims that this approach (a) reduces Willibrord’s agency to his role as a missionary and as a harbinger of Carolingian domination over external ‘pagans’; (b) ignores Willibrord’s wide cultural and political network which cannot be reduced to Britain nor to the family of Pippin II; (c) fails to acknowledge the research that has been done on the transition from the Merovingian to the Carolingians in the past thirty years. The project re-assesses Willibrord’s political networks, the geographical context of his activity and the scope of his cultural influences on the basis of historical and archaeological sources. This approach entails a critical examination of the concept of ‘missionary’, itself a modern rather than a medieval concept. Ultimately, the dissertation seeks to gain a better understanding of the social and religious mechanisms that allowed Willibrord to play an important role in secular politics during a key period in the development of medieval Christian Europe.

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