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Greifswald Research Project

Communal Culture – Communal Power:
Parish Republics in the Holy Roman Empire c. 1500-1800

The centuries between the Reformation and the Enlightenment are usually associated with processes like centralization, state building and confessionalization. This project uses two exceptionally autonomous case studies – the village republic of Gersau in the Central Alps and the parish federation of Dithmarschen in Northern Germany – to highlight the existence of alternative trajectories in the Holy Roman Empire. In contrast to the ecclesiastical, legal and economic priorities of much previous work on pre-modern parishes, the focus lies on political and socio-cultural dimensions. Combining historiographical and conceptual approaches from both Germanic and Anglophone scholarship, the following research questions are addressed:

  • What were the specific features of cultural life in highly autonomous communities?
  • How did such parishes represent themselves to the outside world and how were they perceived by others?
  • Do these case studies allow us privileged insight into genuinely ‘popular’ politics and religion?
  • What were the limits of local autonomy and how did the power balance shift between c. 1500-1800?
  • Can the study of highly independent parishes enrich our understanding of rural republicanism in particular and the early modern period more generally?

Research for this project was supported by a grant from the British Academy and a Senior Research Fellowship of the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg at Greifswald/Germany, where I spent the autumn / spring terms of 2012-13 and co-organize a related conference in July 2015. First results appeared in an article for the Zeitschrift für historische Forschung.


The parish church of St Marcellus, Gersau (Switzerland), with the golden tower capsule containing local chronicles. Pic: BK.

This project is supported by:

The British Academy

The Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg at Greifswald/Germany