Project Area A: Violent Protest


Project Area A is divided into three sub-Projects:

Project A01 (Patzold) compares violent protests in cities and religious communities in the German-speaking regions in the southwest of the Holy Roman Empire, Anjou, and northern Italy around 1100 A.D. It aims to 1) identify more sophisticated explanations to account for the severity and protracted length of the Investiture Controversy, 2) examine the social changes that occurred around 1100 as a European phenomenon extending beyond the boundaries of national master narratives, and 3) further develop the field of medieval conflict studies and its methodology by overcoming the dichotomy of “modern” and “pre-modern.”

Project A02 (Ridder) examines the relationship between Shrovetide plays and discourse on civic order during the late Middle Ages and the Reformation (1450-1550). It identifies situations and ways in which the civic order was threatened by violent protests associated with Shrovetide festivities and seeks to develop a set of criteria for explaining the transition from staged to real transgressions. Sources include the texts of Shrovetide plays, municipal ordinances, and other relevant materials (such as town council records, etc.) from the cities of Nuremberg, Ulm, Regensburg, and Strasbourg.

Project A03 (Doering-Manteuffel/Neuheiser) examines threats to order in British and German mining regions at the beginning and the end of the 20th century. It investigates waves of violent protest in the 1920s and 1980s, respectively, through the lens of a comparative analysis of the effects that different dynamics of action had on regional, supra-regional/national, and transnational levels to determine under what circumstances, in which ways, and to what effect otherwise “normal” means of protest in mining regions developed into a threat to the social order.

In keeping with the working hypotheses for the first phase of the CRC, Project Area A focuses on social orders that appear to be under threat from within, in such a way that those affected by the threat are compelled to engage in a discourse about the dysfunctionality of the existing order itself, or rather the apparent consequences of this dysfunctionality. The CRC maintains that such systems of order share a common set of defining characteristics based on the topical, temporal, emotional, and social dimensions of their respective threats. However, as this outlines a relatively broad field of research, this project area focuses on cases in which order is threatened by violent protest in order to strengthen the coherence between the individual projects. Scholarship has repeatedly emphasized that social unrest, riots, revolts, rebellions, etc. have the potential to accelerate social change. Indeed, terms such as “social unrest,” “riot,” “revolt,” and “rebellion” commonly appear in scholarly literature for all historical eras. The CRC, however, makes use of these phenomena to push scholarship in a new direction. It aims to further conceptualize the relationship between order and violent protest in a diachronic comparison and to examine the circumstances behind accelerated social change, without emphasizing the categories of “modern” and “pre-modern” from the outset.

As a first step, the project area has worked with the concept of “violent protest” (“Aufruhr” in German) to distinguish its meaning from that of similar terminology and developed a catalog of characteristics that can be used to differentiate compact, short, and violent conflicts from other forms of expression that follow a different pattern. The catalog – one of several possible analytical tools – serves as a way of making accelerated social change in a moment of threatened order visible. “Violent protest” as used in this project area can be defined according to the following characteristics:


Violent protests are public phenomena. They do not, at least for the purposes of this project, develop in secret or clandestinely, but rather their existence is dependent on public communication, interaction, and recognition. As a violent protest takes place, a group becomes active in public, which in turn demands recognition from others. This “public” nature is not only a prerequisite, but also an element and a consequence of violent protest in terms of both communication and action.


Instances of violent protest are always group phenomena. According to the British Riot Act of 1714, a riot has at least 12 participants, but other definitions specify merely 3 people. At the same time, such a group can also consist of tens of thousands.

Spatial Proximity & Mobility

Instances of violent protest take place at concrete and confined locations, such as the market square of a town, in a church, or in a factory canteen – i.e., in fairly small spaces. In many definitions, especially legal ones, a mobile crowd such as a mob (Latin: vulgus mobile) is also constitutive of violent protest. Such a movement of violent protest emerges at the original assembly location itself or it moves from this location to others, such as the next police station or the houses of those of different faiths. But, violent protests are always tied to a specific location such as a region, a city, or a part of town.


Occurrences of violent protest such as riots are relatively short-lived. The exact length varies, but it can normally be counted in days. This means that periods of violent protest are likely to be felt more intensely than long-term transformations. At the same time, riots and other instances of violent protest may be embedded within longer phases of unrest that are tied to radical socio-economic, ideological, or political changes. They can be either the spark behind or part of lengthier types of social conflicts such as civil wars and revolutions.

Violence, Spontaneity, Complexity

Violent protests are spontaneous, occasionally explosive, occurrences. These riot or riot-like events often emerge out of non-violent clashes or assemblies that suddenly escalate and become violent, such as peaceful demonstrations, strikes, carnival parades, or processions. Hostile intents, threats of violence, or the use of violence are part of the escalation of such instances of protest into riots or other disruptions. Peaceful behavior can suddenly turn violent, which leads to a dynamic of threat and escalation. The actors themselves believe that they are justified in their use of physical violence but external perceptions may dispute this justification.

Violent protest is also defined through the loss of otherwise valid religious/moral, political, and social controls such as sexual taboos, prohibitions against violence, and class distinctions. It does not require any official leader and it can develop its own dynamic through the actions of the group. There may be an intellectual or practical leader and/or instigator, but he or she does not control the event. Even existing institutions such as gangs, guilds, workers' councils, and political parties can lose their influence during moments of violent protest, as was the case during the London Riots in August 2011.

All the factors listed above render these phenomena of violent social protest very complex, despite their limited spatial dimensions, especially in terms of the course of the events themselves and the applicability of any norms. News about what has occurred in the surrounding area is most often unclear and transmitted through rumors. This applies just as much for the era of Twitter and Facebook as for times in which news traveled predominantly by word of mouth. Rules and institutions governing social life lose their effect; the ability to act with certainty during concrete situations is lost, all in all undermining established strategies of action. Some institutions and norms never recover and become obsolete. On the other hand, these situations can also lead to previously unheard of cooperative efforts among otherwise separate institutions, such as the police and the military or at the political level between the center and the periphery.

Violent protests may indeed be planned or staged, but they do not have to be. That said, however, not all events staged as instances of violent unrest are truly indicative of violent protests, such as the Night of Broken Glass (Reichspogromnacht).

Motivation: Perception of Injustice

Violent protest as such is a heterogeneous, multi-causal phenomenon. It takes place within an emotionally charged atmosphere in which the actors oppose injustices that they see coming from the hands of others. For the most part, a current “hot topic” from within the milieu of the actors that has a broad appeal serves as the basis for their perceptions of injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The “rioters” involved in such violent protests oppose those they perceive as having caused, supported, or defended these injustices.

Discursively developed concepts of ethics, social life, or political participation usually play only a minor role in an individual act of violent protest. Such riotous events, however, can function as a means for communicating dissatisfaction, but they tend to run counter to established political and social communication channels. Even when a disadvantaged group manages to make itself heard through a riot or other violent protest, it may or may not express a clear, concrete demand. Rather, the values and positions associated with the outbreak of violent protests more often arise out of an everyday social moral of “us against them.”

Narrativity and Mediality

Violent protest as a specific event as well as an observed phenomenon is dependent on its representation in the form of stories or news born by information carriers. Within the event itself, the narration of previous instances of violent protest as well as the self-assuring (narrative) construction of the present event can shape the current course of action.

It is almost always inevitable that a narrative is constructed around violent protests which often follows a certain pattern of narration. When the narration of such events becomes embedded in the collective memory of a village, city, or even a region, it can contribute to the respective identity building processes.

Violent Protest and Threatened Orders

Ideally, it should be possible to use the term "violent protest" as associated with riot or riot-like events and defined by this catalog of characteristics across different epochs and geographical spaces. Moreover, this term can be applied within the framework of in-depth analyses of different phenomena, each demanding their own more specific analytical questions. In order to achieve these goals, Project Area A is structured along the lines of the CRC research framework. It encompasses three sub-projects that broadly range from the end of the 11th century to the 1980s, respectively. It also brings together two disciplines in the fields of cultural and social studies that work with a historical approach, namely History (A01: Medieval History; A03: Modern & Contemporary History) and Literature (A02: Medieval German Studies). In order to promote scholarly exchange across eras and disciplines, to ensure the comparability of the results of the individual projects, and to productively explore the possibilities and consequences of interdisciplinary scholarship, the topics of the three sub-projects have been fine-tuned to work well with each other.

The sub-projects examine instances of violent protest in comparatively small spaces – in clerical institutions and cities (A01-02) and in mining regions (A03). All the projects pursue the same overarching question: Under what circumstances and conditions can certain kinds of deviance and unrest, which are part of their respective social orders or at least capable of being suppressed by means available within the system of social order, turn into instances of violent protest that fundamentally threaten the existing order and even temporarily interrupt its proper functioning?

All the sub-projects span across classic divides between historical eras (A01: from the Early to the High Middle Ages; A02: from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern period; A03: from Modern to Contemporary History). Consequently, while the individual projects seek to bridge long-established divisions between historical periods, the entire project area questions the fundamental dichotomy between “pre-modern” and “modern.”

For this reason, the sub-projects also reject the use of the categories of “nation” and “state” which are commonly used to construct the division between “pre-modern” and “modern.” Moreover, each of the three sub-projects (A01-A03) covers several regions within Europe (A01: Swabia, Western France, Northern Italy; A02: Nuremberg, Regensburg, Ulm, Strasbourg; A03: Ruhr Valley, Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland). The course of a violent protest and the ensuing communication of a threat, as well as the means of suppression in the respective regions are not dealt with in terms of the “modern state.” Rather, all the sub-projects operate under the premise that the authorities' attempts at normalization and the sanctioning of violations against norms, as well as ritualized forms of conflict and resolution, are intertwined. The escalation of unrest is thus tied to the mutual dynamics of regional and trans-regional constellations of social order. The sub-projects A01-A03 have been designed to examine local and/or regional instances of violent protest that take place parallel to larger upheavals and phases of accelerated social change (A01: Investiture Controversy / Second Feudal Age; A02: The Reformation; A03: The turnover from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy in the 1920s and the industrial restructuring of the 1980s).

As such, the project area will be able to contribute to the analysis of interactions between constellations of order with differing scopes of applicability. In sum, Project Area A has been designed so that it becomes possible to infer from the individual case studies a new category of social order beyond traditional spatial and temporal categories in the humanities and social sciences. Ideally this new type of social order is characterized by the apparent threat from within and by having the potential to accelerate social change. Although the topics, analytical approaches, and goals of the individual projects have been precisely designed to work well with each other, the valuable disciplinary distinctions between the two fields involved have not been marginalized in any way.