Our Research

Our Research


In 380 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius (d. 395) made Catholic Christianity the official religion of the state. Theodosius was the last ruler to govern a united empire; soon after his death the western part of the realm began to fragment into smaller political units. Larger kingdoms emerged during the fifth century, such as the Visigoths in Spain, the Vandals in northern Africa, the Merovingians in Gaul, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. Most of the barbarian elites of the new kingdoms were adherents of Arianism, a Christian theology that differed from the Catholic faith of their Roman subjects. Further political changes occurred in the sixth century, as the Byzantine Empire conquered Africa, the city of Rome and Sicily, while the Lombards occupied the rest of Italy, and the Anglo-Saxons strengthened their rule in Britain. During this century, almost all of the western kingdoms converted to Catholicism, and more decisively supported the church within their kingdoms. Regional churches exercised a great deal of independence; they often followed different liturgical traditions, enacted particular ecclesiastical laws, and held conflicting views about the hierarchy and structure of ecclesiastical offices. The ideal of a united church, however, survived throughout this period; clerics still portrayed themselves as representatives of a ‘universal’ institution, often used common laws to defend their positions, and appealed to Rome in some cases of conflict. At the end of the century, the Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) claimed his supreme authority over Christianity, and his papacy is traditionally considered a landmark in the construction of the medieval church. Even though the late antique church was never as united and coherent as contemporary sources suggest, the system acquired a substantial level of compliance and accountability, which is still more remarkable considering the context of political fragmentation.

Aims and Hypothesis

This project (CONNEC) seeks to investigate what generated regional differences across the western regional churches, and how despite these variances, clerics were able to construct a supra-regional institutional framework with increasingly formal regulations. CONNEC poses the hypothesis that informal relationships across regional churches were key in the construction of the institutional structure of the church as they contributed to establishing widely recognized norms and legislation, spreading discourses that legitimated ecclesiastical institutions, and disseminating a code of expected clerical behaviour that fostered peer pressure, accountability and compliance.

Brief State of the Art

The construction of the church is a major historical process of world history, and its analysis has understandably received vast historiographical attention in the past. Older scholarship primarily focused on the structure of ecclesiastical offices and the norms that governed their functioning, and largely conceived the late antique church as an effective, formal organization. More recent research, however, has concentrated on explaining late antique clerics in their specific social context. This perspective has fundamentally challenged previous views, showing the diversity of cases and the inconsistency of ecclesiastical law and authority. Nonetheless, the lesser attention paid to institutions has left unanswered some important questions, such as how clerics built a more formal set of ecclesiastical relationships and offices, and how the latter shaped clerical behaviour and political strategies.


The present project will assess old yet unresolved questions of late antique Christian historiography using a methodology that combines social network analysis and new institutional theory. Only very recently has this approach been implemented for analysing processes of institution-building in contemporary society, and has proved verifiably effective as a means for explaining how social interactions and existing organizational structures co-constitute one another. This approach allows a multi-angled analysis of how informal connections among individuals shape the law, the ideology, and the patterns of behaviour that work together to reinforce institutional structures, while considering the impact of these institutions on social interactions. In conducting this analysis, CONNEC will adapt the available network analysis software to the characteristics of late antique material, developing a digital tool that will facilitate the processing of sources with problems of uncertain chronology and the analysis and visualization of evolving networks. This combination of cutting-edge technologies, strong theoretical frameworks and thorough textual analysis will help to provide a more nuanced analysis of specific social contexts without overlooking the impact of formal structures on individuals.


Beyond its scientific aims, CONNEC also targets issues of wider concern for European citizens and policy-makers. The construction of the late antique ‘universal’ church amidst the emergence of smaller polities with strong ethnic identities is a topic of current interest. Many contemporary European nations still trace their origins to this formative period in the history of the Continent, while Christianity has been frequently brandished as a symbol of a common European identity. More recently, the challenges to the process of European integration have shown how difficult is for supranational institutions to foster legitimacy and belonging. Late antique clerics faced similar problems, and this project seeks to reveal how they confronted them.

Research Strands

The Visual Prosopography Strand
This strand provides the technical framework for the project, developing adapted network software, mapping episcopal networks, and conducting a macro analysis of their evolution.
The Ecclesiastical Law Strand
The Ecclesiastical Law strand analyses how clerical networks negotiated the increasing legal diversity of the post Roman world and contributed to shaping the formulation and application of different ecclesiastical laws. This section largely, although not exclusively, focuses on legal documents such as canon law and papal or episcopal letters with a normative value, i.e. those that contain enforceable rights and obligations.

The Connected minds strand

The Connected minds strand provides the theological and ecclesiological framework of the project, focusing on how clerics constructed and disseminated conflicting discourses that underpinned different views about the church and its hierarchical organization.

The Ecclesiastical government strand

The Ecclesiastical government strand explores how late antique clerical interactions shaped the organizational structure of the church and its functioning, and contributed to the creation of an increasingly hierarchical framework of ecclesiastical offices, which were regulated by more formal sets of relationships.

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