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The ‘Big Society’ is a Medieval Society

More than 1,600 experts on the Middle Ages have gathered at the International Medieval Congress, which began today at the University of Leeds. The academic conference is the biggest of its kind in the United Kingdom, and the largest medieval themed conference in Europe. This year’s focus will be the contentious themes of poverty and wealth. The conference will examine the approaches and views taken by medieval societies to these issues and compare them to today’s. Delegates will learn that the spirit of volunteering was strong in medieval times, drawing parallels with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s modern day vision of a ‘Big Society’.

The British Government’s impetus on empowering communities by fostering volunteerism and redistributing power so that these communities might take over public services, reducing their reliance on the state, draws significant parallels with Medieval England.

Dr. Miriam Muller of Birmingham University, presenting at this year’s conference, said: “Medieval society was devoid of a welfare state, and those in extreme poverty only had their neighbours or their parish to fall back on for support.”

The study of medieval societies is for Dr. Muller an exciting endeavour as it allows an insight into how communities developed their identities, and how this identity articulates itself in the present day. She added: “As all communities are complex social and cultural constructs, one can not simply will a community into being.”

Another expert presenting at the conference, Dr. Van Steensel, sees a comparison between medieval society and Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. He said: “What I would like to point out is that the discussion was and is basically about the same question: the allocation of tasks and responsibilities with regard to the provision of public services within society.

“The concept of a civil society, both in the present day and the Middle Ages, can be used to describe the social organisations occupying the space between the household and the state, which enabled people to coordinate and manage their resources and activities.”

Dr. Miriam Muller will present her paper, ‘Rich and poor in the English village: some aspects of intra-communal dynamics’, on Wednesday 13th July at 0900 in the Linden Room of Weetwood Hall. She can be contacted at m.muller@bham.ac.uk. Dr. Arie van Steensel will present his paper, ‘Urban community building and public institutions in medieval Italy, England, and the Low Countries’, on Thursday 14th July at 1415 in the Club Room of Bodington Hall. He can be contacted at a.vansteensel@bbk.ac.uk.

For more information about the International Medieval Congress, please visit their web site at http://www.leeds.ac.uk/ims/imc/

Source: University of Leeds

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