Ambiguities of Hospitality: Intercultural Integration and Conflict in Host-Guest Relations on the European Borderlands, c. 1000-1350

Research project
Active research
Project size
Project period
2021 - 2024
Project owner
Department of Historical Studies

The Swedish Research Council

Short description

This international project studies the linguistic and ritualistic expressions of hospitality as means of intercultural integration and conflict in the European borderlands in the high Middle Ages, c. 1000-1350.

The objective of this project is to analyze the ambiguous character of the practices and discourses of hospitality pertinent to the intercultural meetings on the borderlands during the expansion of the Latin European culture in the High Middle Ages, c.1000-1350. This analysis will occur along two lines: 1. a mapping of the semantics of hospitality during this period in large European text corpora 2. against this background, an analysis of concrete cases of host guest practices in two borderlands: the Western European conquests in the Middle East and in north-eastern Europe. Where scholars hitherto have focused solely on the integrative potential of hospitality, this project also foregrounds its disintegrative and ambiguous aspects.

The social norms and expressions of hospitality – e.g. reception of guests, conviviality, and gift-giving – are considered universal phenomena. However, the ways in which they are articulated is contextually variable and culturally contingent. Hospitality is thus highly relevant and suited for historical inquiry. Occasions of hospitality are often considered to play a socially positive, integrative role and during the Middle Ages they were routinely used to create social bonds, assure peace, and establish participants’ identities. What has not been sufficiently explored, however, are the risks associated with host-guest relations and the ways hospitality had to be negotiated or could potentially fail to produce trust between parties. Focusing on the ambiguous aspects of hospitality will thus not only help us understand how medieval people conceptualized and exercised it in intercultural relations.

The project will also shed light upon our contemporary ways of thinking about hospitality in times of heightened concerns about the confrontations of people with diverse cultural backgrounds, the role hospitality can play in multicultural yet polarized societies, and our wider humanitarian responsibilities.

Our research questions provide a comprehensive view on the ambiguity:
1. How and why did the semantics of hospitality and associated linguistic patterns and actions change during 1000-1350 in general and in the two selected regions in particular?
2. In what ways did host-guest relations shape the identities of the participants in different
contexts and periods?
3. How did hospitality affect intercultural cohesion or enmity?
4. How was the ambiguity of hospitality managed in ritualistic and linguistic terms?
5. How were differing cultural notions and rules of hospitality negotiated by the participants?

We answer those questions through the mapping of semantic shifts as well as through case studies of intercultural contacts and confrontations from two European frontiers, adopting a mixed-methods approach. This project showcases the universal problem of the ambiguous nature of hospitality and the impact its language and practices might have on the production of trust and distrust, here exemplified by pre-modern societies. It also shows the use of and negotiation between different norms of hospitality from biblical, classical, pre-Christian, or other creeds’ traditions, and how they evolved over time.

Research members

Wojtek Jezierski, Associate Professor at:
Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg
Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo
School of Historical and Contemporary Studies, Södertörn University

Lars Kjær, Associate Professor, Head of Faculty & Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at New College of the Humanities (London)

Tim Geelhaar, Associate Professor at Historisches Seminar, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main.