For his AFR PhD at Trinity College Dublin, historian Michel Summer is re-assessing the political activity of medieval Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, who in addition to being a landowner, scholar and ambassador, founded a monastery in Luxembourg. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about how history promotes critical thinking, and why he believes historians are needed more than ever.
“My work mainly consists of analysing and reading both medieval texts and modern academic works. It requires patience first and foremost, since it is not unlike the assemblage of a huge puzzle,” Michel Summer explains, adding:
“I very much enjoy looking for the missing ‘pieces’ by studying the medieval sources and connecting what I have analysed through my own ideas. It is a very rewarding experience to observe how a single thought develops into a structured argumentation and finally into a written chapter.”
Looking at history from a different perspective
Michel is in the first year of his PhD at Trinity College Dublin, where he is studying the life of Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, who lived from AD 658 to 739. In 690, the missionary came from Ireland to the continent, where he founded the monastery at Echternach in modern-day Luxembourg, now known as the Abbey of Echternach. Luxembourg’s annual UNESCO-listed ‘dance procession’ serves to honour him.
“Willibrord stands at the threshold of many important developments that shaped the 7th and 8th centuries in North-western Europe: He was part of a far-reaching network of Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries who brought new cultural impulses to the continent, he shaped the process of religious change on the fringes of the Frankish kingdoms, and he assisted the early Carolingians during their rise to power,” Michel explains, adding that he is looking at the missionary from a little-known perspective:
“Willibrord’s cultural connections and his political engagement have often only been analysed from a religious perspective. I wish to re-assess Willibrord’s activity as a ‘political player’: Analysing how he operated at the centre of early medieval politics as a landowner, an ambassador and a scholar can shed new light on the complex processes that led to the formation of Carolingian Europe.”
Challenging old concepts
Michel explains that his goal is to demonstrate that the missionary’s activity was more ‘international’ than has previously been acknowledged:
“His links with Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Frisia, Francia and Rome remind us that missionaries in the 7th century transcended borders rather than acting within them. The territory between Utrecht and Echternach was not a peripheral area but the core region of Willibrord’s work.
“I want to write a thesis that is innovative in its approach, convincing in its argumentation and contains new insights on the early Middle Ages. By shifting the geographical and political context, I wish to stir up a new debate on the period and to inspire future researchers to challenge old conceptions of nation and religious change in the early Middle Ages.”
In terms of where he wants to go after completing his PhD, Michel could see himself returning to Luxembourg to continue to study Willibrord, pointing out that some of the most influential work on his activity was written by Luxembourgish scholars. Many of the medieval documents connected to the abbey at Echternach are kept in Luxembourg’s National Archives, with the National Museum of History and Art also conserving archaeological remains of Willibrord’s church:
“Willibrord has always played an important role for Luxembourgish medievalists. With its multilingual profile Luxembourg would represent a fitting environment to further research on Willibrord and his period across national borders and disciplines. The country’s cultural heritage is closely connected to the history of North-western Europe in the early Middle Ages and I hope that the historical and archaeological research on this period will be further supported and developed in Luxembourg.”
“History always requires an examination of our own modern values”
Responding to the question of why he became a history researcher, Michel explains that apart from his passion for history, it was also because he believes that historians can have a positive contribution to society – one that is now needed more than ever:
“History is a subject that, if taught well, motivates people to think critically. It’s about the interpretation of sources, about reflecting on the context, the motivation and the agenda of a text or an image in the most objective way possible. In times when scientific results are challenged and our debate culture becomes more and more rapid, the study of history promotes a way of thinking that is critical, reflective and thorough.”
“Whether one studies the 21st or the 7th century, history always requires an examination of our own modern values, and of the way in which we think about politics, gender, warfare or social relationships.
“Studying the Middle Ages also means reflecting on the modern mind. Becoming a researcher enables me to actively take part in this process by tackling questions that I think are ultimately relevant for the understanding of our society and its past.”