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Fields of Study


Ph.D. Columbia University, 1981

Karl J. Weintraub Professor Emeritus
Department of History and The College
The University of Chicago
1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone (773) 339-6574



  • Development and Significance of Historical Thought

  • Political, Social, and Legal Thought in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

  • Conciliar Movement and Reformation



My work is aimed at a historically-grounded diagnosis of the condition of our time. It focuses on principles of thought and action that have governed the European and American worlds since early modern times, but are now giving way under the impact of changes both obvious and poorly understood. These principles include concepts like sovereignty, democracy, nation, liberty, progress, science, conscience, and human rights, as well as distinctions like those between self & other, nature & culture, past & present, public & private, state & church, legal & moral ... the list is easy to extend. Understanding why these concepts and distinctions are losing their meaning requires a perspective on European history as a whole, beginning with its medieval phase and leading all the way across the modern age to globalization and postmodernism. It also requires a systematic challenge to the dogmas of historicism, particularly the taboo on anachronism and the restriction of meaning to the context of a particular time and place. The most abundant source of support that I have found for mounting such a challenge without denying our ability to tell the truth about the past consists of a reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that is quite different from the readings most likely to be familiar to historians. 


My research used to be focused on two main areas of inquiry. One was the disintegration of the hierarchical conception of order that governed the European world during the so-called Middle Ages. The other was the replacement of that conception with a so-called modern or secular order founded on sovereign territorial states and individual citizens claiming moral autonomy and the freedom to shape their own destiny in the light of nature and natural law. My first book dealt with late medieval theories of constitutional government that were developed in the conciliar movement in order to maintain the laity's allegiance to the government of the church by means of representative assemblies (Council and Hierarchy: The Political Thought of William Durant the Younger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). My second book dealt with the early modern turn to history and sovereignty, its significance for modern forms of subjectivity, and the constraints imposed on our understanding of the past by professional standards of historical inquiry (The Limits of History, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004). I have also published Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2014), a collection of twenty previously published studies with a new introduction.

I am currently working on a book tentatively called States of Shock: A Theory of European History, in which I plan to describe the main lessons my research has taught me about the course of European history from about 1000–2000 CE and the place to which that history has taken us. When time permits I would like to publish a collection of essays in which I have tried to make use of Wittgenstein's insights in order to improve our understanding of particular historical questions. It is tentatively called Wittgenstein for Historians


In the future I intend to continue projects similar to those I have carried out in the past, but concentrate more directly on the philosophy of history and historiography, sailing somewhere in the wake of Wittgenstein and Heidegger towards a better understanding of the particular variety of modern science and technology in which professional historians specialize, and hoping as far as possible to lift the spell our fascination with objectivity and evidence has been casting on our minds without forsaking the empirical research on which the truth about the past needs to be based, and from which our understanding of the past draws strength.


The graduate students I taught until I retired wrote their dissertations on various aspects of European history in the period from about 1300 to 1700, usually with a definite geographical emphasis on central or northern Europe. Their interests ranged from late medieval theology and jurisprudence via humanism and the Protestant Reformation to seventeenth-century cultural and political history, the so-called Scientific Revolution, the beginnings of the Enlightenment, and the idea of human rights. Once they completed their course work and passed their qualifying examinations, they usually spent at least a year in Europe in order to conduct the research for their dissertations. Most of them obtained scholarships from the Fulbright Program, the German Academic Exchange Service, or sources of funding with more specific mandates, such as the Institute for European History in Mainz, the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt, the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, the Newberry Library in Chicago, or the German Historical Institute in Washington. They commonly began to attend professional conferences such as the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference and the International Congress on Medieval Studies or the meetings of the German Studies AssociationFrühe Neuzeit Interdisziplinär, and the American Historical Association well before their dissertations were completed, whether it was in order to gain familiarity with the life of the profession or in order to publicize the results of their own research.


Further information about fellowships, research opportunities, conferences, and calls for papers in early modern European history can be found in the newsletters and websites of such organizations as the Medieval Academy of America, the Renaissance Society of AmericaH-Net, and the American Historical Association.

For those who would like to know more about my teaching I have added information on a separate page.


  • Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 182, ed. Andrew Colin Gow. Leiden: Brill, 2014. A collection of twenty previously published studies with a new introduction. The studies are united by a method that leads from highly technical investigations on William Durant the Younger (ca. 1266–1330) and Hermann Conring (1606–81) through reflection on the nature of historical knowledge to a break with historicism, an affirmation of anachronism, and a broad perspective on the history of Europe. The introduction explains when and why these studies were written, and places them in the context of contemporary historical thinking by drawing on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigationss.

  • Hermann Conring. New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor. Ed. and trans. Constantin Fasolt. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 282. Neo-Latin Texts and Translations. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005.

  • I have contributed to the translations in Osvaldo Cavallar and Julius Kirshner. Jurists and Jurisprudence in Medieval Italy: Texts and Contexts. Toronto Studies in Medieval Law, vol. 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020. (Note: my help is acknowledged on p. v, but p. v is omitted from some online versions I have seen.)

  • I have been general editor of New Perspectives on the Past since 1993. New Perspectives on the Past is an interdisciplinary series of original books on fundamental issues in history for specialists and non-specialists alike. It was founded by R. I. Moore in 1983 and has been variously published by Cornell University Press, Blackwell, and Wiley. 


  • "Introduction: A Program of Research." In Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History, by Constantin Fasolt, 1–106. Leiden: Brill, 2014. An account of what I studied from 1978–2008, and why it led me to read Wittgenstein and break with historicism.






  • "Sovereignty and Heresy." In Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart, 381–91. Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 1998.

  • "Visions of Order in the Canonists and Civilians." In Handbook of European History, 1400–1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Thomas A. Brady, Jr., Heiko Oberman, and James Tracy, 2:31–59. Leiden: Brill, 1995.



  • "Hermann Conring and the European History of Law." In Politics and Reformations: Histories and Reformations. Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Brady, Jr., ed. Christopher Ocker, Michael Printy, Peter Starenko, and Peter Wallace, 113–34. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 127. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

  • ​"Conring on History." In Supplementum Festivum: Studies in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller, ed. James Hankins, John Monfasani, and Frederick Purnell, 563–87. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1987.



Some of the links above refer to files to which I hold the copyright or which the publisher has permitted me to reproduce on my home page. These you may download directly. Others refer to files stored on sites maintained by the publishers of my work or organizations like JSTOR and Project Muse. If you or your institution do not subscribe to them, you may not be able to download the file in question. In that case feel free to contact me directly.

Graduate Students
Historical Thinking
Early Modern
Hermann Conring
William Durant
Occasional Pieces
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