Investigating notions of empire in pre-modern texts can be a tricky task. As scholars of empire and medievalists alike have shown, what was considered to be 'empire' or 'an empire' in the Middle Ages is not identical--though clearly etymologically and conceptually related--to what is meant now, and the same is true for related terms. (1)
Historians have noted that some of the usual ways of defining empire in historical and structural analyses--a rimless wheel comprised of a hub and spokes; a dominant core and a dominated periphery, often established by or reliant on violence--fit uncomfortably with some entities that are considered to be, or considered themselves to be, empires in the Middle Ages. (2) 'Empire', imperium, and cognate terms in the Middle Ages, scholars point out, could be used exclusively to mean the Holy Roman Empire; could retain their Roman meaning of right to command (imperium); could refer to the specific right of rulership believed to be inherited first by Constantinople, then by the Franks, in the person of Charlemagne, from Roman imperial rule; they could refer to territories acquired by conquest or far-flung possessions; or simply a territory governed by a sovereign ruler. An empire could exist without an emperor, and vice versa. (3) As Reynolds notes, the combination of difference from and overlap with modern usages can create difficulties for those engaged in investigating and comparing empires in the Middle Ages. However, the works of scholars such as Robert Folz and James Muldoon show us that the history of thought concerning empire in the Middle Ages can be productively investigated from a different perspective. Folz's and Muldoon's usage-based, conceptual-historical approaches--particularly influential on this article--aim instead to trace the meanings and connotations of empire in particular spaces, contexts, and situations. (4) Nonetheless, works like those of Folz and Muldoon are political and legal, top-down histories. They tell us what powerful or influential thinkers, papal and imperial courts, and their propagandists thought or wanted others to think about empire. As Leonard Scales has pointed out, though, it is not reasonable to assume that imperial ideologies simply radiated out from propaganda produced by their proponents to be passively absorbed by 'inert populations'. (5) To assume this would be to entirely strip agency from all members of an empire's polity other than its rulers. And, as Peter Crooks has observed, for those who considered themselves (willingly or unwillingly) part of one, empire was not only a political structure, but also, following Benedict Anderson's formulation, an 'imagined community'. (6) Like any other imagined community, imperial communities were continually produced, contested, and renegotiated in locally specific, differentiated ways.
In order to understand this process of production, contestation, and renegotiation, it helps to turn to culture, and, specifically, texts. It is not news, of course, that literary studies can advance our understanding of imperialism's social and cultural dimensions. In medieval studies, the trajectory of Robert Folz's work on the Holy Roman Empire indicates the centrality of the study of cultural representations to an understanding...
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