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Thomas Wittkamp

PhD Thesis Project: Benefices and Vassalage – Feudalism and the Feudal System in the Carolingian Era from the perspective of Historical Anthropology (working title)


Personal Information

Date of birth: September 10th, 1983 in Essen (Germany)


  • 2003 High-School-Diploma (Abitur), Gymnasium Essen-Werden
  • 2003 Studies of Biology (Diplom), Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany), cancelled
  • 2004-2009 Studies of Modern History and Historical Anthropology, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br. (Germany)
  • 2009 University Degree "Magister Artium" (M.A.)
    Topic of M.A.Thesis: Benefices und Vassalage – Feudalism in the Carolingian Era from the perspective of Gift Theory (supervised by Prof. Dr. Thomas Zotz)
  • Since 2009 PhD Studies, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br. (Germany)
  • Since December 2009 PhD Scholarship at PhD research group (Graduiertenkolleg 1288) "Friends, Patrons, Clients. Practice and semantics of friendship and patronage in historical, anthropological and cross-cultural perspectives", Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i. Br. (Germany)


Research interests

  • The early medieval Feudal System and theories of Feudalism
  • History of the Early Middle Ages, focus on the Frankish Empire in the Carolingian Era
  • Historical Anthropology (Freiburg School), History of terminology and research concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), Concepts of History, Historiography
  • Gift Theory, Economic Anthropology, Political Economy (Pierre Bourdieu)


PhD Thesis Project

Benefices and Vassalage – Feudalism and the Feudal System in the Carolingian Era from the perspective of Historical Anthropology (working title)
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Thomas Zotz (Freiburg)

Throughout the 20th century Feudalism and the Feudal System had been classified as key categories in the research of medieval societies. Therefore the deconstruction of these categories by the british medievalist Susan Reynolds in 1994 shocked the international medievalist community. Susan Reynolds described Feudalism and the Feudal System as theoretical constructs invented by scholars of constitutional history. Those scholars referred to the discussions of feudal rights by academic jurists since the 12th century. Thus Susan Reynolds disproved the existence of a Feudal System regulated by public law in the Early Middle Ages, in particular in the Carolingian Era.

But Susan Reynold's deconstruction of the early medieval Feudal System could not deny the existence of its phenomena. Benefices and vassals are proven historical facts. These phenomena and the corresponding terminology of the early medieval sources need further investigation. It is absolutely essential to reinterpret the meaning of words like beneficium and vassus and to revaluate the impact of these phenomena on Carolingian society.

The projected doctoral thesis will carry out this new investigation by concentrating on the political, social and economic function of benefices and vassals as well as the relationship between the aristocracy of the Carolingian Era and their entourage. Therefore it seems necessary to regard benefices and vassalage as political phenomena to avoid the perspective adopted by scholars of constitutional history who mainly saw benefices and vassalge as legal phenomena. As a consequence special attention will be paid to the historical and political contexts of grants of benefices and relationships between lords and vassals. This is intended as the first step towards a reassessment of these phenomena in the political Economy of the Carolingian Era.

The project utilizes the Freiburg school's approach to Historical Anthropology. Furthermore, Gift Theory and theories on patronage and rituals will be considered. The project aims to achieve a better understanding of benefices and vassalage in the process of their negotiation by historical actors between normative standards and political practice.

For this purpose a number of case studies will investigate a great variety of different sources. In particular, the case studies will focus on the development of clientelism and its political cycles. In addition, the common classification of the Carolingian Era into a period of centralised government under Charlemagne and a period of late Carolingian 'feudal' decline under his successors will be challenged.
Accordingly, the framework of the PhD research group "Friends, Patrons, Clients" requires further discussions of the relation between patronage and clientelism on the one hand and the state and state legislation on the other hand. Last but not least the formation of social groups and societies through patronage and clientelism is of special interest in a project dealing with Feudalism and the Feudal System.




  • Postadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    c/o Historisches Seminar
    Rempartstr. 15 - KG IV
    79085 Freiburg 
  • Besuchsadresse:

    Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
    DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 1288
    Erbprinzenstraße 13
    79098 Freiburg
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