Friendship and Social Networks in the Medieval West – The Evidence of Letter Collections


This paper will explore the use of letter collections as evidence for elite social networks, especially friendship networks, in the medieval West.  Friendship has long been recognised as a formal bond central to political ties and to the construction of political order in the medieval West, but while its incidence in specific high-profile political contexts has often been described, and while the transmission of the classical theory of ideal friendship to the Middle Ages has been studied in great detail, the structure of the networks to which friendship gave rise, or in which it was embedded, have been studied far less frequently.  Letter collections are a major source of evidence for social and political relations in the medieval West, but their highly selective and rhetorical nature presents numerous challenges.  In particular, role relations such as friendship cannot be evidenced directly from these sources.  This paper explores a method for deriving evidence of social relations from letter collections, using what I have termed a transaction-based approach to close the gap between the evidence of individual exchanges, transactions and communications on the one hand and complex socially embedded role relations like friendship on the other.  A surprising finding is that friendship does not correlate closely to other effective social relations, suggesting a re-evaluation of the role of friendship in network structure.  The paper will also suggest how Western medieval networks reconstructed using this method might be compared with networks from other period and cultures. In relation to the questions which participants are invited to consider, I would like to explore the possibility that comparability of sources might not necessarily be a prerequisite for applying a comparative perspective to political communication if it were possible to establish comparability of the transactions or relations between individuals derived from different genres of source.

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