Research Project


Coping with the Future in the Ottonian Age (10th-early 11th centuries). Transcendence, Contingency and Lack of Herrschaftsrationalität

Dr. Stefano Manganaro

Belief in a transcendent destiny can coexist with a vivid perception of the contingency and uncertainty of history. This is what my research has proved with reference to the Ottonian period on the basis of a large amount of prophetic, narrative, liturgical, and documentary sources, produced in Germany, Italy and Lotharingia between 936 and 1024. Many Ottonian authors show a dramatic awareness of the utter instability of historical developments, understanding all earthly events as contingency. At the same time, these authors profess an unswerving faith in Christ that assured the transcendent meaning of history. This means that contingency was not intended as mere casuality or randomness, but as an instrument of divine pedagogy. Hence, in the Ottonian sources "contingency" and "transcendence" are complementary rather than excluding each other. This case study reveals that the opposition between "contemporary societies of contingency" and "archaic societies of transcendence" suggested by current political and social sciences is too rigid.

As shown by my research, such a mixture of contingency and transcendence shaped the main way to cope with the future in the Ottonian period. The sources analysed in my project do not show any belief either in linear, or in cyclical historical developments of history that could allow to predict future events. Moreover, the Ottonian sources do not provide evidence of any strategy of prognostication linked to mantic practices, astronomical calculations or horoscopes. Therefore, the future remained open and unknown to anyone but the Divine Providence.

This perception of the future was also shaped by eschatological concerns, which should not be confused with apocalyptical and millenarian expectations. In the 10th-early 11th centuries several sources provide clues of the eschatological awareness of living during the last age of world history, according to the patristic teachings that were widespread at the time. However, my investigation has shown that this awareness fostered neither the fear of an imminent coming of the Antichrist, nor the dream of a forthcoming new and bright age on earth. Rather, eschatological concerns suggested individuals to stay inwardly vigilant and ready at any time to be judged by God. Such a devotional attitude did not have specific implications on political thought and action. At the turn of the first millennium apocalyptical and millenarian expectations did not play the major role supposed by some scholars.

Coping with the flow of time was a highly problematical issue not only according to the religious world-view of the refined authors of the written sources. This problem also mirrored the structural limits of the Ottonian government, as my research has highlighted. In a pre-modern society such as the Ottonian one, the political body was not a State, but a Herrschaftsverband, whose complex institutional workings were not shaped by political rationality in a Weberian sense. Indeed, the underdeveloped capabilities of the Ottonians in terms of political planning, as well as the weakness of their administrative structures turned the future into a time of deep uncertainty also in the field of politics.

back to "Notions of Fate and Prognostication and their Taxonomies" overview