Image: Artwork of early medieval era

Understanding Early Medieval Friendship

Discovering the variety of friendship in early medieval Insular literature
An exciting opportunity exists for a commencing PhD student to explore friendship in its rich variety across the vernacular and Latin literatures of the early Middle Ages in Britain, in Old English, Anglo-Latin and other languages.

Friendship is a fundamental human relationship and constitutes a foundational structural element in all societies. Friendship in all its varieties and styles constitutes a universal of human experience, and is the object of study and reflection across a wide range of disciplines. The project focuses on the expression and representation of friendship in early medieval English texts, which provide a remarkable resource offering a rich variety of perspectives on friendship in the early Middle Ages.

The story of friendship across the centuries of the early Middle Ages is largely unexplored and untold: how these bonds came about and were sustained, how they were imagined, and how they could be broken. The textual survivals from the English early Middle Ages (c. 600 – c. 1100) include the largest extant body of vernacular writing from this period, beside a significant corpus in Latin. This body of texts offers a rich range of representations of friendship, found in writing by both women and men.

The absence of a comprehensive study of friendship in the early English period has left a significant gap in our understanding of both the literature of this period, and of the place of its rich varieties of personal bonds in the long story of friendship. Across the period, close interactions with the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland, with Scandinavian settlers from the ninth century onwards, and with European continental neighbours, produced a distinctive culture, and with it rich and varied patterns of friendship. By the end of the early Middle Ages, England had emerged as a unified kingdom with a complex of social bonds representing a unique fusion of understandings and practices of friendship embedded this rich cultural diversity. PhD applications are welcome including any or all of the following:

  • the analysis the richness and variety of friendship found in early English texts,
  • the definition of the influences on early medieval English representations of friendship,
  • the patterns of friendship described in texts from early medieval England, and understand how these are conditioned by factors such as social structures, gender, race, sexuality, as well as in historical and other contexts (such as the religious and legal)
  • the exploration of the ways in which early medieval friendships could form and break down, in resolving conflict or turning to violence, and their role in building alliances and community.

The project’s approach to friendship in texts from early medieval England develops a broadly historicist literary methodology, beside formal critical analysis of literary texts. The literary-historical parameters of the project rule out many of the tools used in the study of friendship in modern psychology (interviews, observation, etc.); our evidence is what the interests of authors have left us. The great extent of the surviving textual record from early medieval England means that significant insights into different representations of friendship across the period will emerge from this study. The project will ask a number of separate but interrelated questions of each of the texts in addressing the project’s objectives:

How do the texts describe or characterize friendship? How are friendships made? To what extent does friendship relate to affection in the early Middle Ages? Are friendships equal or unequal? What is the role of friendship in politics? In what ways do early English writers theorize friendship, and which traditions influence these? What is the relationship between friendship and kinship? What are friendship’s limits? What is the rhetoric of friendship? What is the role of gender in friendship? How does friendship relate to kinship and other social structures? Is there evidence that friendships are inherited across generations? How do friends become enemies, and enemies friends? How have early medieval friendships been treated by earlier scholarship, and how have ideas about medieval friendship been appropriated, especially by the far right?

Some texts will provide evidence for all or most of these questions, while others will answer only some of them; where applicable, these questions will be asked of surviving artifacts that provide evidence of friendship. Questions about medieval friendship are complemented by investigation into the ways in which medieval social bonds have been re-imagined and appropriated in recent and contemporary political and popular culture.

The supervisory is based in English in the School of Art, Communication and Literature at the University of Sydney, and English in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Flinders University, and Includes Professor Daniel Anlezark, Dr Erin Sebo, and Dr Emma Knowles.

This project offers an opportunity to work with established and emerging scholars with a range of expertise in the study of early medieval literature. The team has supervised a number of PhDs to successful completion in the last five years, with a strong commitment to assisting early career researchers in developing publications and their academic profile.

The project is the subject of an ARC Discovery Project on the theme of early medieval friendship currently under assessment; this includes a range of publication opportunities for a PhD student.

The successful candidate will also be included in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Applicants are invited to submit a proposal for PhD research that aligns directly to this project.

Prospective candidates may qualify for direct entry into the PhD program if their research proposal (see above) is accepted and they satisfy at least one of the criteria listed below.

  • Bachelor's degree with first- or second-class honours in an appropriate area of study that includes a research thesis based on primary data not literature review
  • Master's degree by research in an appropriate area of study that includes a research thesis that draws on primary data
  • Master's degree by coursework, with a research thesis or dissertation of 12,000–15,000 words that draws on primary data not literature review, with a grade-point average of at least 80 per cent in the degree.
  • Demonstrated appropriate professional experience and alternative qualifications in the field of study.

For more information regarding applying for a PhD refer to the course details for Doctor of Philosophy (Arts and Social Sciences).

Please also refer to guidelines for preparing a research proposal.

A number of scholarships are available to support your studies.

Australian Government RTP Scholarship (International)

University of Sydney International Scholarship

University of Sydney Tuition Fee Scholarship

These scholarships will provide a stipend allowance of $37,207 per annum for up to 3.5 years. 

For other scholarship opportunities refer to FASS Research Scholarships (International) 

For further details about the PhD project contact Daniel Anlezark