Booty, Looting, Stolen Cultural Possesions: Economic and Symbolic Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

SNSF project: financed by the Ambizione programme for young researchers.

Booty, Looting, Stolen Cultural Possessions: Economic and Symbolic Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

SNSF project: financed by the Ambizione programme for young researchers.

This 2-year post-doctoral research project investigates the practice, norms and legitimisation of looting goods during times of war in terms of cultural science and economic history. The key milestones are the looting of Constantinople in 1204 and the destruction of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

Background: wartime looting is a timeless phenomenon and has once again played a significant role in recent conflicts. The latest research has branded this type of looting as a return to pre-modern economies of violence. In contrast, looting in the pre-modern period was primarily a means of symbolic communication, as well as a way of financing war. Looters were making a symbolic statement of triumph over their opponents. Looted items were emblems of social prestige and economic value. This meant that looting assumed a position somewhere between economy and symbolism.

Objective: the project examines the accumulation of value of looted goods and the legitimisation of looting. The main areas of research are practice, norms and legitimisation. The following questions remain largely unanswered: what were the reasons for looting? What happened to the looted items? What steps were taken to restrict looting? What moral concepts played a role? How did looters attempt to justify their actions?

Meaning: the potential of the project to cover new ground lies in focussing a variety of perspectives on a little-investigated phenomenon of pre-modern warfare. The project analyses practices, norms and legitimisation from interdisciplinary standpoints and answers fundamental questions in the grey area between economic and cultural history. The three fields of practice, norms and legitimisation are examined in terms of how they interlink and are interdependent, and in a social and cultural context. Another innovative element of the project is the application of a systematic comparative approach to an area in which a variety of disciplines intersect. It serves a large number of internationally proven research areas including the debate about the significance of objects, cultural heritage, restitution of artwork, and the history of culture, law, warfare and economics. The project also provides key insights into pre-modern forms of violence, the normative and economic processes of warfare, and the handling of material culture. It is expected to provide new findings on religious and secular conceptions of norms and values, on the exercise of power, and on controlling violence. The project is being carried out in close collaboration with the Universities of Münster, Constance, St. Andrews, Paris and other central research institutes at home and abroad.