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Friendship was for a long time regarded by medievalists as marginal to key concepts, events and movements in society, and also as fundamentally unproblematic, as an easily recognised universal. In the first half of the 20th century, it was studied by some historians, but their approach was partial, mostly focusing on theological or spiritual aspects. Later, more differentiated ways of studying the subject developed, resulting in a great variety of publications. Scholars focused for example on ecclesiastical networks and the philosophy of friendship in western medieval history, they concentrated on lay friendships and constitutional history, or they became embroiled in issues of kin versus non-kin in Byzantine society. Most of these studies have in common that ‘the question of friendship’ has been pursued predominantly as an aspect of the history of spirituality or of psycho-history, often commenting on specific texts in isolation, both discursive theoretical treatises and texts, narrative and interactive, which demonstrate friendship in action.
Recent research however has established the relationship of friendship and networks of friendship to important social and political networks in medieval society by showing that these texts relate to a specific, explicitly acknowledged ideal of disinterested public friendship and to identifiable social networks with important political implications. Medievalists now try to interpret the language of friendship related rigorously to its context and the historical circumstances of its deployment, through a more sophisticated reading of the texts, and to understand the role of such exchanges in the formation, maintenance and activation of networks, and ultimately to the workings of politics. Or they discuss the problem of understanding friendship as the expression of a social as well as a personal relation which refers to the broader context of social structures and textual or educational environments.
The British Academy Network for “Medieval Friendship Networks” (2004-2010) is an international network of western medievalists and Byzantinists bringing together different methodological approaches to friendship and to friendship texts in a rigorous comparative matrix of Scandinavia, western Europe and the Byzantine world. The aim of this network is to develop a better understanding of the language of friendship in its social, political and cultural context, to create methodologies for the reconstruction and analysis of relations and networks, and to visualize multi-layered processes of communication. Through a period of five years, international workshops and congresses on various topics (e.g. letters and narrative in medieval social networks, the (body) language of friendship, gesture in art and literature, functioning of political/episcopal/monastic/secular networks, detection of relationships, friendship across the boundaries (for example Islam, medieval Jewish communities, Rus), digital network mapping, friendship and gender) are planned. Research results will be presented through individual contributions, as well as through generalizing, comparative and cross-fertilizing publications.