Networks in Medieval History


Recent years have seen a rising interest in the study of networks in various branches of
medievalist research. With respect to economic and trade history, these efforts have
largely focused on the emergence of equity-based business ventures and the role of
state-provided enforcement institutions. For example, it has widely been argued that political
authorities facilitated trade through the generation of reputation mechanisms, the
securing of regular trade routes, and diplomatic guarantees for merchants operating on
foreign soil (cf. González de Lara 2008). Networks thus played a crucial role in linking
distant locations through the creation of personal bonds. Network affiliation allowed merchants
to benefit from mutually-provided agency-services, share information about their
respective markets, and lower transaction costs by reducing the need for travel and judicial
Yet the frequent application of “network” terminologies in a variety of (mainly trade historical)
contexts has not contributed to the creation of a unified theoretical framework.
The principal shortcoming of many historical studies dealing with “networks” relate to the
variety of existing interpretations. The terminology is used in a great many mutually incompatible
senses, while representatives of an historical networks approach often fail to
offer a clear definition.


In this session, we consider, first, different applications of “network” terminologies and
concepts in recent scholarship. Second, we will discuss the potential of comparative studies
to combine existing theoretical definitions of “networks” and thus to provide the
grounding for a general interpretation of social relations in historical data. Lastly, we will
look at the theory and possible applications of network tools in comparative historical
research. Gould’s article provides a useful overview of social-scientific methods and theoretical
frameworks designed to support comparative historical approaches. Chen’s and
Padgett’s studies of elite composition, social mobility and marital strategies in late medieval
China and Renaissance Florence respectively are examples of structural analyses of
social relations, both representing a “connections” model in Gould’s classification. In contrast,
Wickham’s study uses the terminology in a rather general fashion to characterise
towns as social systems; yet, while his approach is not grounded in social network theory,
the described phenomena fall well into its analytical scope. Against this background,
we ask:
1. What are the main advantages and shortcomings of (comparative historical) approaches
that have made use of social network analysis?
2. Could Chen’s and Padgett’s analyses of social structures be expanded to become
comparative studies? How can different sets of network data be analysed within a
single analytical framework without gainsaying the particularities of the historical
circumstances from which they arise?
3. What contributions do “networks” and network analysis make to facilitate approaching
historical questions, specifically in medieval history? What, for example,
is the value of Padgett’s sociological work for historians?
4. Which theoretical approaches used in historical and other social-scientific studies
may work in comparative research? Which ones should be discarded?
5. In what ways could descriptive studies such as Wickham’s book chapter benefit
from the formalisation of social relations?
6. Can comparative historical research contribute to the development of a generally
applicable terminology of social networks?

More generally, we are interested in the experiences made by participants in engaging
with the utility of “networks” both as a concept and as applied to a variety of social and
historical phenomena (e.g. people, institutions, cities etc.), as well as in applying social
network analysis tools to their research. Specifically, we want to enquire about possible
applications outside economic and social history, especially in the domain of political
communication. Participants are invited to present ideas and suggestions for broadening
the scope of network approaches in (comparative) history.

Core reading:

Padgett, John F.: "Open Elite? Social Mobility, Marriage and Family in Florence, 1282-
1494", in: Political Networks Paper Archive Working Papers, 2009.

Chen, Song: "Careers, Migrations, and Marriages of the Elites in Sichuan, 965-1279", in:
mimeo, 2012.

Wickham, Chris: Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-
800, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006. (Part IV: “Networks”).

[Gould, Roger V.: "Uses of Network Tools in Comparative Historical Research", in: Mahoney,
James, Rueschemeyer, Dietrich (Hg.), Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social
Sciences, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press 2003, pp. 241-269.]
--> as a theoretical introduction

Background reading:

Bibliographies of the "Historical Network Research":

Apellániz, Francisco: "Groupements subalternes et Etats Marchands: collaboration des
réseaux en Méditerranée (1360-1400)", in: mimeo, 2008.

Bloch, Francis: "Coalitions and Networks in Economic Analysis", in: Bourgine, Paul, Nadal,
Jean-Pierre (ed.), Cognitive Economics - An Interdisciplinary Approach, Berlin and Heidelberg:
Springer 2004, S. 417-428.

Currarini, Sergio: "Socio-Economic Networks: An Introductory Discussion", in: Christ,
Georg, Burkhardt, Stefan, Zaugg, Roberto, Beihammer, Alexander Daniel, Morche, Franz-
Julius (ed.), Union in Separation - Diasporic Groups and Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean
(1100-1800), Heidelberg : Springer forthcoming.

Currarini, Sergio, Jackson, Matthew O., Pin, Paolo: "An Economic Model of Friendship:
Homophily, Minorities, and Segregation ", in: Econometrica 77 (July, 2009), No. 4, pp.

González de Lara, Yadira: "The secret of Venetian success: a public-order, reputationbased
institution", in: European Review of Economic History 12 (Dec., 2008), No. 3, pp.

McLean, Paul D.: "A Frame Analysis of Favor Seeking in the Renaissance: Agency, Networks,
and Political Culture", in: The American Journal of Sociology 104 (Jul., 1998), No.
1, pp. 51-91.

Mullett, Margaret. “Power, Relations and Networks in Medieval Europe. Introduction.”
Revue Belge De Philologie Et D’histoire 83, no. 2 (2005): 255–259.

Nederman, C. J., “Textual Communities of Learning and Friendship Circles in the Twelfth
Century: An Examination of John of Salisbury's Correspondence”, in Communities of
Learning: Networks and the Shaping of Intellectual Identity in Europe 1100-1500 ed. C.
J. Mews and J. N. Crossley (Turnhout, 2012), pp.73-83.

Padgett, John F., Ansell, Christopher K.: "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434", in: The American Journal of Sociology 98 (May 1993), No. 6, pp. 1259-1319

Padgett, John F., McLean, Paul D.: "Organizational Invention and Elite Transformation:
The Birth of Partnership Systems in Renaissance Florence", in: The American Journal of
Sociology 111 (March 2006), No. 5, pp. 1463–1568.

Preiser-Kapeller, Johannes: "Visualising Communities. Möglichkeiten der Netzwerkanalyse
und der relationalen Soziologie für die Erfassung und Analyse mittelalterlicher Gemeinschaften",
in: mimeo, 2012.

Rougeulle, Axelle. "Medieval trade networks in the western Indian Ocean (8-14th centuries):
some reflections from the distribution pattern of Chinese imports in the Islamic
world." Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean (1996):

Selzer, Stephan. “Netzwerke Im Europäischen Handel des Mittelalters Konzepte – Anwendungen
– Fragestellungen.” In Netzwerke Im Europäischen Handel Des Mittelalters
(Vorträge Und Forschungen), edited by Hans-Jörg Gilomen. Konstanz: n.a., 2008.

Youngs, D., “Cultural networks”, in Gentry culture in late medieval England, ed. R. Radulescu
and A. Truelove (Manchester, 2005), pp. 119–133.

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