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Constantin Fasolt

The University of Chicago

Photo by Dan Dry


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


FIELDS OF STUDY 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 distinctions like those between self & other, nature & culture, past & present, public & private, state & church, legal & moral, as well as concepts like sovereignty, democracy, nation, liberty, progress, science, conscience, rights, ... the list is easy to extend. Understanding why those 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.


In the past my research was 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 hierarchy by means of representative assemblies (Council and Hierarchy: The Political Thought of William Durant the Younger, Cambridge 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 2004). I have also published Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History (Leiden, 2014), a collection of twenty previously published studies with a new introduction.

I have been working for all too many years on a book tentatively called States of Shock: Europe and Its 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. 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 obsession with evidence has cast on our minds without forsaking the empirical research from which our understanding of the past draws strength. As soon as time permits I intend to publish a collection of essays in which I have made use of Wittgenstein in order to improve our understanding of particular historical questions, and write a book on what I have learned from reading Wittgenstein about the study of the past. It is tentatively titled Wittgenstein for Historians.

I have published the following books:

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 Investigations.

The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. For debate see Constantin Fasolt, Allan Megill, and Gabrielle M. Spiegel, "The Limits of History: An Exchange." Historically Speaking 6, no. 5 (May/June 2005): 5–17.

Council and Hierarchy: The Political Thought of William Durant the Younger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. For a short statement of the argument see "William Durant the Younger and Conciliar Theory." Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997): 385–402.

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 am also general editor of New Perspectives on the Past, an interdisciplinary series of original books on fundamental issues in history for specialists and non-specialists that is published by Wiley-Blackwell.

My articles, chapters, and essays include the following:

"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.

"History, Law, and Justice: Empirical Method and Conceptual Confusion in the History of Law." In "Law As ..." III: Glossolalia: Toward a Minor (Historical) Jurisprudence, ed. Christopher L. Tomlins. UC Irvine Law Review 5 (2015): 413–62. Note: the version you can download here includes a few minor corrections, marked in red.

"Breaking up Time—Escaping from Time: Self-Assertion and Knowledge of the Past." In Breaking Up Time: Negotiating the Borders between Present, Past and Future, ed. Chris Lorenz and Berber Bevernage, 176–96. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

"Saving Renaissance and Reformation: History, Grammar, and Disagreements with the Dead." Religions 3 (2012): 662–80.

"Respect for the Word: What Calvin and Wittgenstein Had Against Images." In John Calvin, Myth and Reality: Images and Impact of Geneva's Reformer. Papers of the 2009 Calvin Studies Society Colloquium, ed. Amy Nelson Burnett, 165–190. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

"Hegel's Ghost: Europe, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages." Viator 39 (2008): 345–86.

"Religious Authority and Ecclesiastical Governance." In The Renaissance World, ed. John Jeffries Martin, 364–80. London: Routledge, 2007.

"History and Religion in the Modern Age." History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006): 10–26.

"Empire the Modern Way." Disquisitions on the Past and Present 13 (2005): 73–82.

"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.

"Political Unity and Religious Diversity: Hermann Conring's Confessional Writings and the Preface to Aristotle's Politics of 1637." In Confessionalizationin Europe, 1555–1700: Essays in Honor and Memory of Bodo Nischan, ed. John M. Headley, Hans J. Hillerbrand, and Anthony J. Papalas, 319–45. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

"Author and Authenticity in Conring's New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor: A Seventeenth-Century Case Study." Renaissance Quarterly 54 (2001): 188–220.

"A Question of Right: Hermann Conring's New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor." Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1997): 739–58.

"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.

"Voluntarism and Conciliarism in the Work of Francis Oakley." History of Political Thought 22 (2001): 41–52.

"Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari debet: The Words and the Meaning." In In Iure Veritas: Studies in Canon Law in Memory of Schafer Williams, ed. Steven Bowman and Blanche Cody, 21–55. Cincinnati, Ohio: University of Cincinnati, College of Law, 1991.

"William Durant the Younger and Conciliar Theory." Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997): 385–402. 

"Die Rezeption der Traktate des Wilhelm Durant d. J. im späten Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit." In Das Publikum politischer Theorie im 14. Jahrhundert:  Zu den Rezeptionsbedingungen politischer Philosophie im späteren Mittelalter, ed. Jürgen Miethke, 61–80. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1992. Translated into English as "The Reception of William Durant the Younger's Treatises in Late Medieval and Early Modern Times," in Constantin Fasolt, Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 270–93.

"Die Erforschung von Wilhelm Durant d. J. Tractatus de modo generalis concilii celebrandi: Eine kritische Übersicht." Annuarium historiae conciliorum 12 (1980): 205–28. Translated into English as "Research on William Durant the Younger's Tractatus de modo generalis concilii celebrandi: A Critical Review," in Constantin Fasolt, Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 193–221.

"A New View of William Durant the Younger's Tractatus de modo generalis concilii celebrandi." Traditio 37 (1981): 291–324.

"The Manuscripts and Editions of William Durant the Younger's Tractatus de modo generalis concilii celebrandi." Annuarium historiae conciliorum 10 (1978): 290–309. Translated into English and revised as "The Manuscripts and Editions of William Durant the Younger's Tractatus de modo generalis concilii celebrandi—Revised," in Constantin Fasolt, Past Sense: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern European History (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 109–51.

"Texts, Society, and Time or, Why it Helps to Read Great Books." Second annual conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses. Philadelphia, 1996.

"Separation of Church and State: The Past and Future of Sacred and Profane." Unpublished paper, given in 2004 at the Fourth National Conference of The Historical Society, Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Some of these links 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.

TEACHING   ««««««  click for more information

Until I retired, my teaching was evenly divided between undergraduate and graduate courses. On the undergraduate level, I taught courses in the College Core Curriculum as well as upper level undergraduate courses on the history of Europe and European social and political thought from medieval to early modern times. Occasionally I offered courses concentrating on particularly important texts, such as Jean Bodin's Six Books of the Republic, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. On the graduate level I usually taught seminars and colloquia on one of three subjects: medieval legal and political thought, early modern legal and political thought, and the Protestant Reformation. I have also offered courses focused directly on the nature and significance of historical thinking. No matter what the subject, however, I have always asked students to devote attention to the place of that subject in European history as a whole and to reflect not only on the historiography specific to the subject but also on the significance of historical work as such.

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


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, and the beginnings of the Enlightenment. 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 Association, Frühe 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 America, H-Net, and the American Historical Association.

University of Chicago

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Last updated 17 January 2017
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