Qudsiya Contractor on “Old Shanghai” and Hindu/Muslim Relations in Modern India

KFG Fellow Qudsiya Contractor‘s research explores how religion and religious identities impact the urban experience of the poor in Mumbai. Her project focuses on the Muslim poor in a Mumbai neighborhood and explores how socio-spatial segregation, a lack of basic amenities, economic deprivation, police surveillance and political marginalization play out in everyday life.

She has recently published two articles. One, entitled “Nostalgia for Shanghai’s Shikumen”, discusses efforts to demolish old housing, called Shikumen, and how nostalgia about these structures continues to be present in people’s minds. She writes that “a sentimental longing for the past lingers on in Shanghai”.

Her second article discusses “How Jaggi Vasudev has helped strengthen fears about Muslims”. In it, she and her co-author Suryakant Waghmore show Vasudev’s teachings are based in elite Hindu traditions and they illustrate how Muslims are constructed as new outcasts as a result. The authors show how “as a political category, Muslims invoke fear. They are suspected by many people of harbouring anti-national and anti-liberal sentiments.”

Both articles have much broader implications about memory and urban development, and religious coexistence and hierarchical power structures. They provide a fascianting opportunity to reflect on religion and urbanity in modern societies – enjoy reading!

Conference Report on “Urban Heterarchies” by Claudia Heise

Claudia Heise recently published a conference report on our annual conference “Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities” on the website H-Soz-Kult. From the report:

[The] conference of the DFG-funded Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779), introduced the concept of heterarchy to develop a more complex understanding of various sources of power interacting in a competition for precedence and authority within cities and interurban networks from antiquity to the present. To shed heuristic light on the occurrence of shifts in power structures influencing both the urban societal and religious life, as well as the production of stable and unstable configurations, the organizers invited a multidisciplinary group of international experts to the Protestant Monastery of St. Augustine in Erfurt to a fruitful exchange.

Read the full text here.

Walking through the streets of Calicut (I)

As the readers of this blog already know, I currently come to Calicut frequently. The official name of the city is “Kozhikode” (in Malayalam: കോഴിക്കോട്), but the word is difficult for Europeans to pronounce, so we better stay with Calicut. Arab traders are said to have given it this name (Qāliqūṭ).

When we think of large Indian cities today, we usually think of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta, or perhaps Bangalore. These are all megacities today or they will be in a few years. We could also call them ‘global cities’ because they are commercial and financial centres with networks that span the globe. Of course, caution is always advisable when we transfer modern concepts to the past. But I would like to show to what extent, since the late Middle Ages, one or the other city understood itself to be global, in the sense of globally networked trade relations or a religious centre which attracted people from all over the world – sometimes both.

From today’s point of view, Calicut is not a city that stands out in demographic, religious or economic terms. It has about half a million inhabitants, or two million if you include the entire agglomeration. This puts the city around the 100th position in the Indian city ranking. This was different in the late Middle Ages and early modern times.

Calicut was already at that time an internationally known port and a trading centre. This also has to do with its prehistory. Since the early Middle Ages, Arab traders settled here. Ibn Batuta from Tangier already determined in the middle of the 14th century that there was an important port in Calicut, to which traders from many distant regions would come. Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, after he had succeeded in finding the sea route to India. The Portuguese built a fortified factory in 1513, but abandoned it in 1525 for fear of it falling into the hands of the enemy. In 1616, the English followed them. In 1766, Haidar Ali took the city; in 1782, the British occupied it.

The more Europeans – especially the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – entered the South Asian markets, the more trade in Calicut and thus the importance of the city declined (Mathew 2006). Until at least the end of the 16th century, however, Calicut was one of the most important seaports and trading centres connecting Malacca in the east with Venice in the west.

In Europe, too, the city was known early amongst the merchant communities and in the scholarly milieu. The view of Calicut in the city book by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, published between 1572 and 1618, is evidence of this.

View of Calicut from 1572. (See here for copyright details).

On the cartouche one can read: “Calechut Celeberrimum Indiae Emporium”, which means “Calicut, famous Indian centre of trade”. Of the Indian cities only Kannur, Goa and Diu were otherwise present with a city view in this book.

Based on these assessments, I would like to examine in more detail how urbanity has developed in this city, or whether and how contemporary observers perceived urbanity. Or, if we take a step back, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

In order to find answers to these questions, I first try to follow the travelers of that time on their paths through the city or try to reconstruct their descriptions. Of course, this is only possible if they have left written reports. It makes sense to distinguish here with Michel de Certeau two types of reports: map and parcours. The report type “map” describes a city “from above” as if the person were standing on a mountain or tower. With the “parcours” we can follow the traveller through the streets (see Rau 2011). The travelers, whether they are traders or pilgrims, are also basically ‘global actors’ in that they contribute in a praxeological sense – by travelling between distant places and making connections or comparisons in the narrative – to the formation of “globality” or at least an idea of it.

In a series of contributions, I will follow one traveller at a time on his way through the city or – optionally – follow him on the imaginary elevation in order to gradually construct an image of this city between the 15th and 17th century. Today we will start with François Pyrard (1578-1621), who is usually called “de Laval”, because he came from the French town of Laval in northwest France.

François Pyrard set sail from St. Malo in May 1601 in a small two-ships squadron belonging to local ship owners to sail to India, perhaps to the Moluccas. Two months later Pyrard’s ship was shipwrecked near the Maldives. The other ship sailed on to Sumatra. Together with some other sailors, Pyrard spent five years on Malé as a guest against his will. Pyrard observed the people and learned their language (Dhivehi), which gave him a deeper insight into their way of life. In 1607, during a Bengali raid on the archipelago, he was captured and taken to Chittagong. From there, i.e. far in the east, he made a long journey to the Malabar Coast, to Calicut, Cochin, Cannanore and Goa, possibly also to other cities (Bouchon 1989; Lelièvre 2014, p. 22).

The Malabar and Coromandel Coast (Peninusila Indiae citra Gangem; Nuremberg: 1733; Bern University Library)

In 1610 the group finally succeeded in returning to Europe and even to France via Africa and Brazil, where Pyrard then wrote a report on his travel adventures and observations. It was published a few years later in a total of three volumes: in 1611 first in a Discours, then in 1615 a more extensive version in two volumes (see Bibliography).

Pyrard writes not only about the layout of the city and the houses, but also about the streets and squares and the water basins, the – actually non-existent – city walls that the Europeans were always looking for, the merchants and the traded goods. The description is one of the longest we have from this period, and so dense that when reading it, one can almost grasp the ”way of life” of this city:

„The town of Calecut is the court, and, as it were, a summary of the whole kingdom. I resided there much, and I can say that it is a very fair and great city, situate on the sea-shore, in extent from one end to the other more than a league and a half of beach, and along the whole of that distance between the town and the sea are only the houses of the Moucois [i.e. Mukkuva-s], the fishermen, and other poor folks, who also have there their Pagode [read: Hindu shrine] and temples. All the beach or strand is covered with almedies, or little fishing barques, and other vessels. The circuit of the town is more than five leagues, but what is called Calecut is, in fact, a large district covered with handsome, large, and magnificent buildings and spacious enclosures, in such wise that a single house requires a very large space for all its gardens, orchards, fishponds, and plantations. And all around are mansions of this sort only, full of people, as well Nairs, Malabars, and Mahometans, as all manner of foreigners, who are welcomed there. [Nairs or Nayars is the name for a South Indian caste, warriors and land tenants.] For it is not as in the other towns of the Malabars, which are only occupied by the Malabars: here you see all sorts of temples and Pagodes, large and well built, for all the several religions, of which I shall speak anon.”

After having described location, dimensions, villa-like houses and religious diversity, Pyrard comes to infrastructure: water tanks, walls, bazaars, the harbour.

“There are many public tanks, which are very large, well paved, and furnished with balustrades of stone work, and are well cleaned and maintained. Each religion has its own; and there is one such that is a quarter of a league in ambit of the square. These are highly necessary, owing to the excessive heat of the climate. The walls of this town are not very strong: it is only enclosed with earth-works and low walls. The houses are not built in order or arranged in streets as in Europe, but are scattered about in confusion: but in one part of the town, that next to the sea, and near to the great magazine of the king called Alfandeque, there is a quarter of about a half league in circuit, which is built and arranged in streets, as in these parts. In that part of the town are only shops, of all manner of trades, artizans and merchants, which are necessary for the public weal. All this quarter has a barrier round about, although it is within the enclosure of the whole city. In these houses they keep only such furniture and utensils as are necessary.

Their markets, which they call Bazar, or little towns, are so full of people all the day long that it is difficult to pass them. These people are of all races, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. At nightfall, everyone shuts his warehouse and shop securely with bars and heavy iron padlocks, and goes home with his family to his house, which is as I have described, with its gardens and enclosures. The buildings of this Bazar are very large and well-constructed of stone and wood, and supplied with shops, warehouses, and yards, all securely enclosed: these serve only to keep their merchandise and goods, or for the purposes of their crafts, and there they spend the day only. There are three large spaces in these enclosures, where the market is held every day of the week. This market is surrounded with gates and walls, and the gatekeepers let none pass the night in these warehouses containing the merchandise; and yet nothing is ever lost, so excellent is their judicature and police. In these enclosures remain only officers and gatekeepers, whose duty it is to keep watch and ward throughout the night. There is not a single temple there. The vessels which enter and anchor at Calecut, bringing all that merchandise, ride there with no great security, for there is no proper port or harbor, but only a roadstead, so that when the wind is from the sea they are in great peril. The land is low, and there is a little cape or promontory jutting out into the sea.”

Then he goes into more detail about the way houses are built, which he compares with that of the Maldives.

“As for the fashion and form of the buildings of the country, it is to be noted that the common people build with earth, and thatch their houses with coco-leaves, but not with such care and skill as the Maldive people. Taking some earth, they mix it with water, and mold it into large squares, which they dry in the sun, and then use for their walls; but the rich and well-to-do build with good stone, and roof with tiles. All their buildings are square, like four arcaded pavilions with a court in the middle. Their carpentry and joinery is the handsomest and prettiest it is possible to see: it is worked of diverse agreeable designs, as we do our finest sideboards and tables, and all painted. Their houses have stories, but not so many as ours. Some have two or three buildings of this style in the midst of others; that in the midst has a smaller court and arcade; the others are round about it in a square. They construct their houses and courts in this fashion, to avoid spilling or casting a drop of water or any dirt upon their floors, which are as clean as a table of highly polished wood.

All the houses of the Malabars are of this sort. They have large porches at the entrance to their houses, as well poor as rich, within the enclosure: for all their houses are enclosed with walls, – that is, those of the rich; the rest have ditches and good strong palisades of wood, and note that these are so high that when one wants to go from one house to another one must ascend a ladder of five or six steps, and so descend, while on both sides are wooden barriers which close with locks. You never see there any house but has its garden and orchard, small or large. These porches or Aviards in front of the houses are for receiving passing strangers, both for giving them meat and drink, and also a place to rest and sleep; they take them not inside their houses, so that they may depart during the night when they will, and whenever their boats, or if they be wayfarers, their fellow-travellers, are ready to depart.”

Finally, it is explained why Calicut is the most important trading city in the whole of India. Pyrard probably emphasized that the religious freedom prevailing in the city was particularly conducive to trade, especially against the background of the experiences in his home country France.

“But to return to what concerns this town of Calecut in general: it is the busiest and most full of all traffic and commerce in the whole of India; it has merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there: for the king permits the exercise of every kind of religion, and yet it is strictly forbidden to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score, every one living in great liberty of conscience under the favour and authority of the king, who holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government, with a view to making his kingdom very rich and of great intercourse. If by chance there should arise any difference or disturbance on that subject, he who began it would receive corporal punishment, as being guilty of treason, without hope of pardon or remission of sentence. This is why everyone lives there in great peace and concord, notwithstanding the great diversity of races and religions of the inhabitants, and of strangers and sojourners: for besides the native Gentiles [that is, Hindus] and Mahometans, there are many Christians. In former times the Portuguese lived there, and had two towns and fortresses, which they had permission of the king to build near the sea, yet was there never friendship or any good understanding between the two; in so much that these towns and fortresses were captured and razed by the native kings and the Portuguese driven out, and at the present day they have neither town nor fortress there, as I have remarked already. At present, however, they are at peace, and the Portuguese by divers presents cultivate as best they can the friendship of this king, whom they fear more than any other. For the purposes of trade, there is at Calecut a factor on behalf of the Viceroy of Goa, assisted by a clerk, along with their wives and families. This factor is a kind of agent or ambassador, having also the power of issuing passports to the Indian merchants; for at all the harbours and ports of India, which are at peace with the Portuguese, the latter have these factors for this purpose, otherwise the merchants would have much trouble in going for passports to the Portuguese towns.

There reside also two Jesuit fathers, the one an Italian, the other a Portuguese, who are well received of the king, and get from him a pension of a hundred crowns a year, worth more than five hundred in Spain, besides what they have from the king of Portugal for their living and maintenance. They have builded a very handsome and large church, with an enclosure and cemetery attached, near the sear-shore, on ground presented by the king; and they have the king’s leave and licence to convert the people to Christianity, so long as they use no constraint. Their labours had borne good fruit at the time of my departure, for there were already a good number of new Christians [that is, converts]. They preached publicly in their church, and not elsewhere. They are very well housed, and have very fine gardens, and before their church is a large cross. The Christians all have their houses in the same quarter near to one another, which they have themselves built. There are, however, some among them that are not Christians, and even in the same house will sometimes be found inmates of different religions. [….] Having spoken of the Christians resident at Calecut, I shall proceed with what concerns the other religions that are practiced there. Among others, the Jews have their own quarter and synagogue, which none enter but they. The Mahometans, although they be of divers races and countries, yet have no difference of religion (except the Persians [i.e. Parsis]), and frequent the temple of the Mahometan Malabars. There is also another race of Gentiles besides the natives, who, albeit of the same religion, make no alliances with them, nor go to their temples, but have their own Pagode, using none other: of such are the Banians [or Vanya-s: members of the Vanya merchant community from Gujarat] of Cambaye and Diu, who have their own Bramenis, and hold them in the greatest honour. Yet the Bramenis of Malabar may freely enter their Pagode, as having common rights with them. This leads me to say that they are the one race in India who are throughout all the countries held in the highest esteem, for there are some of them among all the Gentile Indians.” (Pyrard 1887, vol. 1, p. 401-407)

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Pyrard, François: Discours du voyage des François aux Indes Orientales, ensemble des divers accidens, adventures et dangers de l’auteur en plusieurs royaumes des Indes et du séjour qu’il y a fait par dix ans, depuis l’an 1601 jusques en cette année 1611… Traité et description des animaux arbres et fruicts des Indes Orientales… plus un brief advertissement pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes, Paris 1611.

Voyage de François Pyrard de Laval contenant sa navigation aux Indes orientales, aux molusques et au Brésil. Les divers accidens, adventures et dangers qui lui sont arrivez en ce voyage… avec la description des païs, mœurs, loix, façons de vivre, police et gouvernement, du trafic et commerce qui s’y fait…, 2 t. en 1 vol, Paris 1615.

Modern scholarly edition:

Voyage de Pyrard de Laval aux Indes orientales, 1601-1611 contenant sa navigation aux Maldives, Moluques, Brésil ; les divers accidents, aventures & dangers qui lui sont arrivés en ce voyage […] ; avec un petit dictionnaire de la langue des Maldives ; un traité des animaux & plantes des Indes, plus un bref avertissement & avis pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes orientales, préface de Geneviève Bouchon; établissement du texte & notes de Xavier de Castro. Suivi en annexe de La relation du voyage des Français à Sumatra / de François Martin de Vitré, 1601-1603, 2 vols., Paris 1998.

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, transl. Albert Gray, 2 vol. in 3, London 1887-1890.

Research literature:

Bouchon, Geneviève: A French traveler in Portuguese India (1601-1610): François Pyrard de Laval, in: STVDIA 49 (1989), p. 301-314.

Bouchon, Geneviève: Sixteenth Century Malabar and the Indian Ocean, in: Ashin Das Gupta, Michael Naylor Pearson (eds.), India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, Oxford 1987, p. 162-184.

Lelièvre, Guillaume: Les précurseurs de la Compagnie française des Indes orientales, 1601-1622. Thèse d’histoire, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, 2014. HAL Id: tel-01658114

Mahlke, Stefan (ed.): Atlas der Globalisierung. Welt in Bewegung (Karten und Grafiken von Adolf Buitenhuis), Berlin 2019.

Mathew, K.S.: Calicut, the international emporium of maritime trade and the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, in: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 67 (2006), p. 251-270.

Narayanan, M.G.S.: Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006).

Rau, Susanne: Zeit-Räume, Parcours und Karte. Die Raum-Erkundungen der Reisenden in frühneuzeitlichen Großstädten, in: Elisabeth Tiller, Christoph O. Mayer (eds.), RaumErkundungen. Einblicke und Ausblicke, Heidelberg 2011, p. 154-180

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay: Historicizing the Global, or Labouring for Invention?, in: History Workshop Journal 64 (2007), p. 329-334, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm040

Urbanity Performed: The Bronze Figure in Erfurt’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Erfurt Oath of the Jews


According to its design, the bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral served best, in terms of the position of the arms, hands and balance, to present a scroll.[1] Neither the position of the left hand nor a third candleholder, which did not associate candle-holding with the human anatomy, suggests a holder of three candles, as the figure was used from 1425 at the latest. This alone is the basis on which the following argumentation is based. It requires no identification as Aaron, no Jewish owner or Jews, who had commissioned the work, and is compatible with an original installation in St. Mary’s Cathedral – I will discuss this at the end of my contribution.

The structure of the argument here is simple and it only reassembles known objects and texts. Where in medieval Erfurt did a need to present a large-format scroll exist? We know the only plausible scrolls of the epoch – just that was the starting point of our essay of 2016. These are Jewish Torah scrolls, which in their preserved oversize fit the statue perfectly. But where were these to be presented? Liturgically, this was the case in the synagogue ritual, a context, however, against which some arguments have been raised, iconographic ones (the lack of any covering of the hair) and as yet unpublished claims about the inscriptions on the girdle being cast rather than engraved and the girdle being an inseparable part of the astonishing composite figure. But there was a second context not yet discussed so far: the oath of the Jews. It is this hypothesis that I will discuss here.

Reconstruction Aaron, by Irene Rüpke

The Pledge of Allegiance

Just like the scroll-holder and the Erfurt Torah scrolls, the Erfurt Judeneid also poses riddles. The text is dated to the time shortly before 1200, the object to the time shortly after 1200, making the Erfurt oath of the Jews not only the oldest preserved text of a German-speaking oath to be taken by the Jews, but also the oldest independent official document in the German language; we see an official use of the German language only from the end of the 13th century onwards. And it is also the oldest text testifying to the existence of a Jewish community in Erfurt, which, however, is mentioned shortly afterwards, in 1212, in a document originating from Mainz.

The document provokes questions, even if both the ritual and the legal context are generally well known, not least thanks to the work of Christine Magin, Reinhard Ruf-Haag and Maike Lämmerhirt on the legal status of Jews in medieval Germany and in Erfurt in particular.[2]

Judeneid, Stadtarchiv Erfurt

The oath, as conditional “self-cursing”, is a religious technique that opens up enormous scope for action where the means of verification, control or sanction of the parties involved cannot ensure the reliability of the actions of the human parties involved. This applies equally to both types of oaths, which were ideally distinguishable in medieval Europe:

  • The assertoric oath affirms a statement of fact and finds its place above all in the settlement of disputes, in the judicial system.
  • The promissory oath reaffirms the promise of a future achievement and finds its place above all in the formation of alliances, whether this is the coniuratio of a citizenship, the oath of allegiance of vassals or an oath of alliance, which in each case was the first to establish these communities.[3]

In the event of false testimony or failure to keep the promise, the sworn committer calls upon divine powers to destroy him (or her). In theological reflections of the early Middle Ages, one could even speak of another sacrament, the “sacrament of the oath”.[4] The shared belief in the fulfillment of what has been requested, that is, in the sanctioning power of the invoked divine power and the associated high risk of perjury, transforms the sworn statements and promises into a sustainable basis for coordinated action among people halfway equals or, in this very matter, treated as equals.

While Jews in medieval European societies were often inferior in theological, legal-theoretical and canonical respects, and at best tolerated as living witnesses of the Old Covenant and even protected from afar, by emperors, kings, and sovereigns,[5] the situation in concrete urban contexts may have been quite different. Here, Jewish men (and women) possessed skills, material resources, knowledge or economic contacts that made them partners not only selectively but permanently, in short, neighbours. This very fact made it necessary to integrate them also beyond the religious border into the web of sworn obligations and assertions and created the “Jew’s oath”: a form of conditional religious oath swearing that was credible and reliable also for the Christian partners.

In accordance with this objective and against the background of a rich and diverse pagan, Jewish and Christian tradition of oaths, rituals were created that took into account both sides, the highest obligation and deterrent for the Jews who took the oaths, as well as the Christian witnesses who had to trust in the effectiveness of the self-commitment. The oath worn before the Creator God and the representation of this God by his most important sacred writings – the Pentateuch instead of the Gospels used for Christian oaths – offered the solution that had certainly been pursued since late antiquity. The imagination of the sanctions and the sanctioning instances to be formulated in the “self-cursing” of the oath taker were oriented on precedents in exactly these texts, the stereotypes remained quite stable, even if oaths were repeatedly reformulated. One can rather speak here of a transferable motif than of a textual genealogy.[6]

Variations were offered by the ritual arrangement of the oath. The tendency was that in cases of lesser importance the taking of the oath was tolerated to be performed in immediate Jewish contexts, e.g. by swearing an oath by a Torah in a synagogue, taken by a person understood by Christians as a Jewish cleric. “Self-cursing” had to work in its own religious context after all. But the emphasis could also be shifted to the public sphere of the witnesses to the oath, from the synagogue door to the courtroom.[7] In the former case, the ritual could also be designed as an utterance when holding on or connecting to the doors of a synagogue. In public spaces it was important to guarantee the authenticity of the sacred text present in the ritual of the oath. This may have required reassurances from Jewish specialists.[8]

A last loophole had to be closed by the formulaic nature of the oath itself: It was not to be spontaneouly formulated, but had to be written, read out loud and repeated.[9] All this in a language that allowed the person swearing, but above all the witnesses, to understand the process including the far-reaching consequences that resulted from the verbal act, the performative utterance. At Erfurt, the decision was taken to use the German language. And it was the oath of the Jews in which this language was given the status of a language of documents for the first time here, indeed in the whole of Germany as mentioned at the beginning.[10]

Schwabenspiegel, MS Bruxellensis 14689-91, fol. 204r, early 15h century (Wikicommons)

The Erfurt oath

“Whatever this [man] accuses you of, you are innocent of it, so help you God, who created heaven and earth, leaves, flowers, and grass that did not existed before. And if you swear falsely, may the earth swallow you like Dathan and Abiram [from those around Korah]. And if you swear falsely, you shall be afflicted with the leprosy from which Naaman was healed and which attacked Gehazi [cf. 2 Kings 5]. And if you swear falsely, the law which God gave Moses in Mount Sinai and which he wrote with his own hand on the tablets of stone shall destroy you. And if you swear falsely, all the scriptures contained in the five books of Moses shall prostrate you. This is the oath of the Jews that Bishop Conrad gave to this city.”[11]

“Des dich dirre sculdegit, des bistur vnschuldic. So| dir got helfe. Der got der himel vnde erdin gescuf, | loub, blumen vnde gras, des da uore nine was. Vnde | ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich di erde uirslinde, | di Datan unde Abiron uirslant. Vnde ob du unrech|te sveris, daz dich di muselsucht biste, di Naaman-|nen liz vnde Iezi bestunt. Vnde ob du vnrecht | sweris, daz dich di é uirtilige, di gut Moisy gab | in dem berge Synay, di got selbe screib mit sinen | uingeren an der steinir tabelen. Vnde ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich uellin alle di scrift, di gescriben | sint an den uunf buchen Moisy. Dit ist der Iuden | heit, den di biscof Cuonrat dirre stat gegebin hat.”[12]

With the exception of the last sentence and one detail, both of which I will discuss in a moment, the text is unobtrusive. It brings together motifs that can also be found elsewhere, some of them already in Carolingian formulas. What is striking, on the other hand, is the magnificent design, which refers to a no less magnificent and publicly visible ritual. Even if the parchment is not worn out, it must have been used at least occasionally: The certificate cannot have been issued for display. In a very striking way the seal is attached upside down. This was not by chance, but suggests that it must have been held in a certain way: Only when someone is facing the person holding the parchment can that person see the seal properly when it is held up.[13] However, this finding by Ullrich Bruchhold needs to be further elaborated. Who holds an oath on a silk cord? It must have been the person taking the oath himself, who in this way connects himself with the text of the oath, which he must repeat in the first person, and also makes it his own physically. And here the process takes on a dimension that goes beyond the text: the oath given by Bishop Konrat II (1161-1200) is performed in the face of the city arms, the city of Erfurt, as written on  the seal: Erfordia. fidelis. est. filia M[o]gontine. sedis: “Erfurt is the faithful daughter of the bishopric of Mainz.”[14]

The ritual is, as historian Gerd Althoff puts it, a “made”, a composed, ritual, which sends certain messages in its details and yet is also able to undercut superficial messages – the rule of Bishop Konrat – [15] and bring the city of Erfurt to the fore. The oath of the Jews was an urban necessity. Like the de facto or even explicit civil rights for Jews, it was not an outflow of canonical legal thought, but a pragmatic construction that was contrary to canonical thinking. The bishop could only cover this up with his granting the privilege of an oath or citizenship – the latter in Erfurt since 1306 (perhaps not for the first time).

But the ritual still lacks the most important instrument, holy scripture. While some Jewish oath formulas stipulate that the swearing person should place his hand in a biblical book (or even a specific passage like the Decalogue), here we are referred to the Pentateuch in a very idiosyncratic formulation: “that the Scriptures might fell”, “prostrate you”.[16] This formulation, which elsewhere can only be found in the Judeneid of the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata in a manuscript from 1369,[17] would be much more concise if we imagine the presence of the biblical text in the form of one of the Erfurt giant torah scrolls. The large publicity of the ritual suggests the presence of a role instead of a book, as is regulated, for example, in citation 3.17.46 of the Meissen Law Book for higher amounts in dispute.[18] The imaginary fall of the bronze figure with its four and a half hundred weight (including the roll) above the base, which clearly towers above any oath taker, probably made such an end very vivid.

The carrier of the giant gate roll

Bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral, courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E00952 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Yet, it is not the statue but its base that my hypothetical reconstruction of the ritual directs us to. The ritual was an urban ritual that enabled the citizenry to act by making the Jews legally responsible. Jews had the financial as well as demographic strength that made them build the Old Synagogue in the shape of the 12th century. At the beginning of the 14th century they accounted for perhaps up to ten percent of the city population.[19] They were supposed to “take part, like the Christian citizens, in guard services, entrenchment work and, in an emergency, in the defence of the city”.[20] It is the walls that made up the medieval town.[21] This also applied to Erfurt. The Torah roll carrier stands with both feet inside of such a wall, is surrounded by it. In this ritual these miniature walls, which form the bronze basis of the statue, would refer to Erfurt, not to any other historical or eschatological city.

But the base is also essential in another, quite pragmatic sense. It made the Torah roll holder moveable. This figure could not be used without stable scaffolding with eyelets for support bars. Wherever else it might have had it usual place, it had to be taken to a public square, a place of justice – most likely to the cathedral square. Even if city councillors had had it made for this ritual, the process of design of figure and ritual must have been in close contact with those religious specialists that had to ensure the oath worked. Confronted with the episcopal image on the one hand, Aaron would have been the figure to counterbalance this on the other.

— Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.


Althoff, Gerd 2003. Die Macht der Rituale. Symbolik und Herrschaft im Mittelalter. Darmstadt.

Blaha, Walter 2002. “Die Eidesformel für Erfurter Juden aus dem ausgehenden 12. Jahrhundert.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. 3-4.

Bruchhold, Ullrich 2002. “Vom rituellen Vollzug zum Verständnis Überlegungen zum Erfurter Judeneid.” In Hellrardt, Ernst, Stephan Müller, Peter Strohschneider (ed.). Literatur und Macht im mittelalterlichen Thüringen. Köln/Weimar. 31-44.

Casteigt, Julie, Dietmar Mieth, Jörg Rüpke 2016. “Der Träger der Erfurter Risentorahrolle: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Hypothese zu einem übersehenen Judaicum.” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 68 (2). 97-118.

Cohen, Jeremy 1999. Living letters of the law. Ideas of the Jew in medieval Christianity, The S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. Berkeley.

Flachenecker, Helmut 1988. Eine geistliche Stadt: Eichstätt vom 13. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert. Regensburg.

Frankel, Zacharias 1861. Der Judeneid vor den preussischen Kammern.

Herz, Gerhard 2008. “Der Erfurter Judeneid zu Ende des 12. Jahrhunderts.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. Sonderheft 8. 13-14.

Hillmann, Helmut 1930. Das Gericht als Ausdruck deutscher Kulturentwicklung im Mittelalter. Ein geistesgeschichtlicher Versuch als Beitrag zur Geschichte des ostsächsischen Rechtes auf Grund des Sachsenspiegels und des Magdeburger Rechts, Deutschrechtliche Forschungen. Stuttgart.

Isenmann, Eberhard 2012. Die deutsche Stadt im Mittelalter 1150 – 1550. Stadtgestalt, Recht, Verfassung, Stadtregiment, Kirche, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft. Wien.

Kisch, Guido 1978. Forschungen zur Rechts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden in Deutschland während des Mittelalters. Vol. Band 1, Ausgewählte Schriften. Sigmaringen.

— 1979. Forschungen zur Rechts-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden. Ausgewählte Schriften 2. Sigmaringen.

Kümper, Hiram 2007. “Juden vor Gericht im Fürstenstaat der Aufklärung: Die Kontroverse um den Judeneid.” Aschkenas-Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Kultur der Juden 17,2. 499-518.

Lämmerhirt, Maike 2007. Juden in den wettinischen Herrschaftsgebieten: Recht, Verwaltung und Wirtschaft im Spätmittelalter. Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Thüringen 21. Köln/Weimar.

— 2012. “Die Stellung der jüdischen Gemeinde Erfurts in Thüringen und Aschkenas, Erste Ergebnisse.” In Stadtverwaltung, Landeshauptstadt Erfurt (ed.). Erfurter Schriften zur jüdischen Geschichte – Die jüdische Gemeinde von Erfurt und die SchUM-Gemeinden, Kulturelles Erbe und Vernetzung. Erfurt. 28-39.

Magin, Christine 1999. “Wie es umb der iuden recht stet”: Der Status der Juden in spätmittelalterlichen Rechtsbüchern. Göttingen.

Prodi, Paolo 1992. Il sacramento del potere. Il giuramento politico nella storia costituzionale dell’Occidente, Annali dell’Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento : Monografie ; 15. Bologna.

Rauschert, Jeannette 2008. Herrschaft und Schrift: Strategien der Inszenierung und Funktionalisierung von Texten in Luzern und Bern am Ende des Mittelalters, Scrinium Friburgense. Berlin.

Ruf-Haag, Reinhold S. 2007. Juden und Christen im spätmittelalterlichen Erfurt. Abhängigkeiten, Handlungsspielräume und Gestaltung in einer mitteleuropäischen Großstadt.  Diss. Trier.

Schmidt, Annette 2002. “so dir got helfe – Die Judeneide.” In Schulze, Ursula (ed.). Juden der deutschen Litratur des Mittelalters – Religiöse Konzepte – Feindbilder – Rechtfertigungen. Tübingen. 87-105.

Stobbe, Otto 1866. Juden in Deutschland während des Mittealters in politischer, socialer und rechlicher Beziehung. Braunschweig.

Vormbaum, Thomas 2006. Der Judeneid im 19. Jahrhundert vornehmlich in Preußen. Jurisitische Zeitgeschichte 2. Berlin.

Zimmermann, Volker 1973. Die Entwicklung des Judeneides – Untersuchungen und Texte zur rechtlichen und sozialen Stellung der Juden im Mittelalter. Europäische Hochschulschriften 56. Frankfurt a. M./Bern.

[1] Demonstrated by Casteigt, Mieth, Rüpke 2016 (open access: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15700739-90000219). Thus far, no arguments to the contrary have been presented. The present text has been presented in German at a conference organized by the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt in August 2016.

[2] Magin 1999 (based on Zimmermann 1973; Kisch 1978,  1979); Ruf-Haag 2007; Lämmerhirt 2007,  2012. On German Jewry s. a. Schmidt 2002.

[3] For the connection with a written legal status, see Rauschert 2008, who refers to the “sworn letter” first publicly sworn in Lucerne in 1252 (99). – The citizens’ oath was partly repeated annually, for example in Eichstätt Flachenecker 1988, 142.

[4] See Prodi 1992, 72-75; 130.

[5] Plus Cohen 1999.

[6] See the above-mentioned broadly based studies of the Jewish oath in medieval Germany – and beyond (see for example Frankel 1861, Vormbaum 2006, Kümper 2007).

[7] See, for example, the regulations of the Vienna Jewish Oath, Magin 1999, 303; see also the Görlitz Oath, possibly dating from the 12th century, ibid. 304.

[8] E.g. in the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata, Magin 1999, 307.

[9] Short Herz 2008, 14.

[10] See Bruchhold 2002.

[11] Book of Documents Hesse and Thuringia p. 150, no. 192 with the replacement of “destroy” by “prostrate” (i.e. “fell”).

[12] Mainz Book of Documents 2.2, p. 1097, no. 672.

[13] Bruchhold 2002. The performative use of the text has now been shown independently and in detail by Andreas Lehnertz (talk in November 2019, Erfurt, forthcoming in a book edited by Claudia Bergmann and Maria Stürzebecher).

[14] On the seal Blaha 2002, 4, stating that accidental improper attachment of the seal is very unlikely.

[15] Althoff 2003.

[16] See Hartmann von Aue, Erec 3774: “das in got velle!“

[17] Quoted according to Magin 1999, 307: “Dat die die die scrift velle, die bescreven stat an den vinf büken Moysi”. Stobbe 1866, 158, already gave a general description of the parallel formulas.

[18] Magin 1999, 324.

[19] Isenmann 2012, 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hillmann 1930, 74.

Konstantin Akinsha to give paper on “Writing the Fifth Gospel: Interbellum and the beginning of World War II”

The KFG’s fellow Konstantin Akinsha will give a paper at tomorrow’s colloquium series of the Max Weber Centre on his research project. The paper is entitled: “Writing the Fifth Gospel: Interbellum and the beginning of World War II”. It discusses the construction of ecclesiastical buildings on Christian holy places in Mandatory Palestine from 1919 to 1940.

The project is analyzing the notion of the holy places belonging to the sacred geography of the Holy Land. After the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, numerous churches and sanctuaries were erected on important biblical sites. Architect Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960), who created the majority of the new churches developed quite a specific architectural style, which could be defined as the style of emotional illusions. His architecture of experience produced with the help of different tricks and devices does not have comparable examples in the European tradition.

On the eve of World War II, the Catholic authorities dreamed about Italian occupation of Palestine and Rome domination in the Holy Land. Such dreams manifested
themselves in the project of the gigantic Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre, which had
to replace the old church and to change both the cityscape and structure of Jerusalem forever.

Other parts of the larger research project include:

  • The Age of Empires: Cathedrals as a Fortress and the Marker – Drafting the National Borders in the Holy Land
  • Filling the Void – Italian Architecture in Interbellum Palestine  
  • Who Owns the Tomb of Jesus? 1930s Plans of Reconstruction of the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
  • Saints among the Enemies: Architectural Projects of La Custodia di Terra Santa during the First Decades of the State of Israel.

The paper takes place o nthe 21st of January and starts at 10:15 in the Max Weber Centre, on the seventh Floor. All are welcome!

CfP: Religious Guides to Urbanity, Erfurt, 11-12 June 2020

International workshop organized by the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (funded by the German Research Foundation – FOR 2779)

We invite abstracts for a conference on ‘Religious guides to urbanity’. This workshop focuses on the regulation of urban life through orders, ordinances, instructions and other forms of written authoritative communication that are spurred by religious motivations, betray religious concerns, or target religious behaviors and misbehaviors. It takes a broad chronological and cross-cultural view in order to compare urban productions as diverse as anti-idolatrous regulations authored by late antique Christian and Jewish religious specialists, instructions like the Muslim hisba, council orders of early modern European towns (Polizeyordnungen), and other textualized strategies to promote and/or impose a ‘safe urban life’.

As suggested by the notion of ‘urban religion’, which considers the spatially informed dialectic of co-production of urban life and religious communication, the focus of the workshop is twofold: on the one hand, it addresses the regulation of religious life and the ways in which religious texts aim to shape the urban conditions of living, and on the other hand it looks at how urban spaces, actors, and ideals of urbanity generate more or less binding projects of religious normativity.

The workshop takes a source-based approach and seeks to take a close look at individual sources and their interpretation to enable meaningful comparisons across cultures past and present.

Abstracts should be 300 to 500 words in length. The deadline for submitting an abstract is 15 February 2020. We hope that the publication of the papers after the conference will be a cornerstone in the emerging field of urban religion.

Conference room and accommodation will be provided at the Augustinerkloster (Augustinerstraße 10) in the historical centre of Erfurt. Travel expenses will be refunded according to the Thüringer Reisekostengesetz (economy flight, 2nd class train ticket).

Abstracts and any queries can be submitted to:


Conveners: Martin Christ, Emiliano Urciuoli

The Movement of Cemeteries in Early Modern Germany

KFG core group member and junior fellow Martin Christ will present a paper entitled “Moving Religion out of the City? Extra-urban Cemeteries in Germany, 1490 – 1880” at the colloquium series of the Max-Weber-Centre. The paper considers why and how cemeteries were moved from inside the city walls to extramural spaces in the early modern period.

Understood as a space for religious rituals, saturated with religious iconography and meaning and full of biblical symbolism, burial spaces formed a ‘hot spot’ of religion. In the sixteenth century and even more so in the eighteenth century, the movement of cemeteries changed the way a town looked and functioned. European comparisons, for example with the British Isles, show a different kind of reasoning behind the movement of cemeteries in different territories and indicate that religion was only a key factor for the movement of cemeteries, if combined with other features. Arguably, the movement of cemeteries was a key process in the development of cities, as it created more secular spaces and pusheed religion to the margins of towns. By the nineteenth century, almost all towns had seen at least one movement of a main cemetery. But whether this really meant that religion became less important in cities, is not a given.

Caspar David Friedrich, Kügelgens Grab (1821/22) (Picture in public domain)

The paper proposes five themes connected to the wide-spread movement of cemeteries in the early modern period:

1 The movement of cemeteries has to be seen in a longue durée perspective, across centuries. In this way, it is possible, to trace, for example, how hygiene discourses revolving around the plague in the fifteenth century were different from the discourses on public health during the eighteenth century, both of which led to the movement of cemeteries, but in very different contexts. This kind of comparison has so far only been undertaken superficially, with most studies focusing either on the impact of the Reformation on cemeteries, or the later movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The complex interplay between the reasons for the movement of the cemeteries needs further assessment: urban hygiene, the increasing number of people and religious changes such as the Reformation or the move away from mono-confessional burial spaces all influenced the changes in sepulchral culture, but how they interacted with each other has received little scholarly attention.

2. In this way, it will also be possible to assess if there were really ‘waves’ of cemetery movements, as it will be possible to quantify when and how many cemeteries changed their location. By analyzing the movement of cemeteries over a longer period and assessing changes and continuities, discourses on secularization and urban/non-urban dynamics can be placed in a broader context. It might be possible to add some more nuance to the current assessment that eighteenth century cemeteries were less urban, indicating that religion disappeared from the city and leading to some kind of secular and capitalist modernity.

3. Broader comparisons with other European countries are particularly useful in this instance. One of the most fascinating aspects of studying death and sepulchral culture is that every society had to engage with this topic, yielding the opportunity to compare approaches in different regions. As the example of the Reformation illustrates, this can lead to telling results: arguing that the Reformation changed the positioning of the dead is not true everywhere, as the movement of cemeteries in the sixteenth century was much more pronounced in German-speaking areas than it was elsewhere. In a similar way, continuities and similarities across European regions become apparent: the wave of edicts linking Joseph II., Fredrick the Great, Napoleon and Catherine the Great, all of whom ordered the movement of cemeteries, are just one indication of the ways in which a comparative view can broaden our understanding of this topic. Indeed, the reassessment of death goes even further: Kolkatta’s South Park Street Cemetery was one of India’s first garden cemeteries, imposed by the British as a way of alleviating the problems of space in central cemeteries in the town.

South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (See here for copyright details).

4. Methodologically, it might be possible to receive new insights by using tools developed by other disciplines, especially archaeologists. Although increasingly more important, modern archaeology is still not as prominent as classical archaeology. In the case of the movement of cemeteries, it might be possible to identify more clearly what changed not only in the positioning of the cemeteries, when they moved from inside the town, but also aspects such as grave goods or other, similar changes, which might have been connected to urbanity and religion. 

5. Finally, urban deathscapes have to be connected to other ways of commemoration and cannot be detached from other urban aspects. Royal burials and crypts for high-ranking officials, many of which stayed in town centres and were not moved are an indication of this. If we just focus on the cemeteries, we may come to the conclusion that death became less important in the early modern period, but if we look at These sites alongside ducal and royal burials, we see that, at least on this level, death remained omnipresent in urban environments.

As the paper is work in progress, these issues are understood as points of discussion and readers of this blog are also welcome to comment and raise questions through the comment function!

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.

Christmas in the City

Erfurt’s Christmas Market

Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas market visits: Christmas is celebrated long before 25 December, almost worldwide, and it seems to have become a city festival long ago. This knowledge even makes some people feel a little guilty. Can it be called a Christmas party when it’s only Advent? Isn’t there too much jingle bells and too little Jesus child? Too much commerce and too little devotion? And perhaps going even deeper: Doesn’t the sweet Jesus child conceal the meaning of the Christian message of Christmas? But this text is not about a theological view, not about the question of what the true core of Christmas is. The religio-historical question is which traditions shape today’s practices, whether of Christians or non-Christians, of non-religious or religious people. To answer this, it is necessary to go deeper into history in a few steps, into pasts that still shape the present, here and elsewhere.

Step 1: The global family celebration

Christmas is the feast in and with the family. The commercialisation of the festival is based precisely on the reciprocal giving of presents and the willingness to spend a lot of money (and often on joint consumption) for our loved ones. It was not always like that. Christmas as a family celebration is romantic and Biedermeier. The fir tree in the middle-class living room is the most successful symbol of this connection. And perhaps the most successful German export product before the Volkswagen. Prince Albert of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha carried the Christmas tree into the palaces of his beloved Victoria – and from there they began their triumphal march into the Anglo-Saxon world, into the USA. And were further spread by Charles Dickens and Hollywood. The mass produced piano and the exploding number of Christmas songs make it possible to ritualize the domestic celebration even without any church organ. Johannes Daniel Falk not only composed “O du fröhliche”, but also built the Lutherhof in Weimar, a caring home for neglected children. The inventor of the Advent wreath, Johann Hinrich Wichern, himself an early orphan, invented it for a comparable institution. Especially for those lacking a family, “family Christmas” requires special efforts. That is another reason why many people donate these days for people in precarious situations, worldwide.

A Decorated Fir Tree – Symbol of Christmas.

Donations don’t just come from Christians. Even the folk song “O Tannenbaum“, “O fir-tree”, written in 1824, managed without any biblical figure. The bourgeois family Christmas does not need the church in principle – and nevertheless includes going to church even in the cities of Western and Central Europe. The long Advent season is today a time of preparation for Christmas presents, which works with a steady increase in symbols, first gingerbread, then lights, crib, scented candles, Nativity scenes. In the final phase, however, people like to leave themselves to the professionals, the specialists in the churches. And those know how to use the situation, how to mobilize against de-churching: with the Catholic invention of the “Feast of the Holy Family” at the end of the 19th century, with crib celebrations for different target groups and new ritual forms of Christmas praise today – baptism not presupposed. From the perspective of religious history, celebrating Christmas has always been a balancing act.

Step 2: Village community celebration

How was Christmas celebrated in front of the bourgeois family? A look into the folklore and the anthropological, folklore and local history museums give an impression. There, temporary rulers of the village are roaming and howling, clubs are carrying meter-high torches to a local mountain on December 24th, and horrible-looking women are beating their way through the village streets. Groups of children ring through the houses and perform scenes of shepherds or narratives from cribs in a more harmless way. Shepherds and kings – then towards the end of the Christmas season – fill their sacks in a similar way. Christmas is at the winter solstice and at the end of the year, and this has provided a helpful and problematic calendar setting right from the start. A Christmas party in the circle of friends is also at the end of the year – like so many company celebrations.

Even before “Merry Christmas”, Christmas was merry and loud. The village rituals marked (and in some places still mark) a state of emergency. Particularly the special role of those otherwise second or third in “rank” – children, young people, women – strengthened the broader community of the village to which even adult men had to subordinate themselves. After all, it was winter. When it wasn’t about big fires, village life was transferred to the heated rooms: there was no barrier of privacy behind which one could hide. It was worse not to be able to get a visit from these monsters or kings.

That, of course, is a Christmas, which did not please a renewed Christianity. The protagonists of the Reformation did not only want to end church Latin, but also such “pagan nonsense”. The rigorous solution was to ban Christmas. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in 1649, in Boston, North America, in 1659. Clearly these bans did not last long. It was better to convert suitable customs to Christian customs or to theologically upgrade them. Not only Catholic baroque princes enjoyed Christmas theatre plays.

Step 3: The poor Jesus child

Spiritual performances, however, were not an invention of the early modern period. To see a Jesus figure being raised at Easter or on Ascension Day and disappearing behind the church ceiling is different from just hearing some short biblical text. Playing along, whether as the one who carries a cross or as the evil Pilate, enabled a different experience. The same applies to all the Maries, Josephs and shepherds of the Christmas performances. Already for medieval piety, emotional identification, compassion and help were the most important approaches of an intensified, individualized Christianity.

The Christ Child in the Crib.

What Good Friday performances and processions offered to the men, the Jesus child, wrapped in diapers and in the cradle, offered to women and girls. Since 1300 the wrapped Jesus developed as a baby doll. At first it was made as a toy by and for nuns. From then on, it spread as a girl’s toy or handicraft project – even into the middle-class children’s rooms. Rocking the Christ child (Kindelwiegen) – which Josef, who was initially presented as old and thertefore weak , was not yet able to do – became a religious achievement. Mary showed it off in the pictures of the High Middle Ages, she lovingly looked at the child in the manger, took it out, breastfed it. But Joseph also had to find his role and later became an active foster father who supplied his wife and child with the porridge he had stirred.

It was Franciscan and Dominican monks who, from the 13th century, gave these scenes a central place in the piety that they themselves practiced and preached. In their entourage, crib depictions appeared in the following centuries. After the Reformation it was the Jesuits who placed this object at the centre of their Christmas games. It quickly spread as something that could also be set up in one’s own home as a Christmas symbol. The crib, a feeding trough for animals, not a sleeping place for people and at the same time an old iconographic motif, became the object of devotion as well as an invitation to action – and this tradition is also part of the contemporary approach to Christmas.

Step 4: The Son of God

Christmas is older than the Middle Ages. But it’s not “super-ancient”. For those Jews of the first centuries, who saw themselves as “Christians”, the crucified one was important as the first Person persecuted by the Romans, and a resurrected Jesus was identified as the future ruler of the world. Christmas was only invented when minds heated up on the question of how exactly Jesus Christ was to be thought of: an angel of God? God in human disguise? a man who became God? God and man at the same time?

How to celebrate the appearance of the Redeemer became a declaration of war. Natalis domini, “Birthday of the Lord”, was really for the “true man”, a slap in the face for all the churches and theologians who saw only God in Christ. The “appearance” (Epiphany) in the manger conveyed the same message: down with the false believers. In the eastern Mediterranean, for example, this was emphasized by the fact that Mary was represented not only as the Mother of God, but also as the mother of a human being: She was laid on a puerperium, close to a bath tub – it was just a real birth with midwives and the first bath of the newborn. Where that was not important, she would sit next to it and looking around.  

While in Constantinople in the middle of the 4th century, the theologians argued, the church in Rome introduced 25 December, the churches in Alexandria or Jerusalem 6 January as Christmas Day. The one date before, the other after the beginning of the new year on 1 January. No one had ever claimed to know the day Jesus was born. From the beginning, Christmas was associated with celebrations and rituals of the end of the year and the turn of the year – or competed with them, with Saturnalia and sun worship, with New Year customs and divination about the future. Which of the two dates became more important depended on power and trade relations. In Armenia the 25th of December never arrived, in Gaul, later called France, it interrupted at first only briefly a six-week fast before Epiphanias. Advent was also a question of interpretation: Preparation for Christmas, for the celebration of the historic birth of Jesus, as with the Romans, or preparation for the Second Coming, the Last Judgment? Here most of today’s practices position themselves very clearly, namely Roman. Protestant strongholds are on the same page. For confessional sophistry, Christmas was no longer the most important place in modern times.

5. Going to Bethlehem and into the stable

But where in a spatial sense does Christmas belong? Are people adequately celebrating Christmas in the hustle and bustle of the inner cities, crowded with Christmas markets? Does not Christmas belong where it actually happened: out in the fields, in the mountains, where the view of the star is unspoiled by light pollution and the shepherds do not have to be afraid of being run over? One does not have to think of the nationalist excesses – especially the “German Christmas”, which the Nazi regime used and pretended to protect – to ask this question. The answer leads back one last step.

The Nativity – Jesus’s birth in a stable.

Since the fourth century Jesus was born in a lonely stable or even, in Eastern Mediterranean traditions, in a cave. The greatest mystery of the world invisible to most, and yet visible to those who want to see it: the shepherds, in whom the respective viewers can find themselves, and the others, the Jews and the Gentiles, who become witnesses at least in the form of animals, as ox and donkey. The earliest narratives, probably written more than a century after the birth of Jesus (someone like Paul was not yet interested in biographical­­­ details), are unambiguous here. With Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in the city of Bethlehem. Luke is really important for the urban: he emphasizes the urban character of Bethlehem, speaks of the lack of rentable spaces. The shepherds must leave their place of work, change their location. Epochs that were once again proud of their urban culture also settled their Christmas stables in their pictures in cities, in the Carolingian-Ottoman period, in the High Middle Ages and later. In this respect, the urban Christmas of the present is in a very old, even the oldest tradition. It is in the city in particular that the contrast of the Christmas story increases. Right here, the stable is even more a place that is inappropriate for a birth. This tension does not spare any tradition.

— Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.

All images (c) Jörg Rüpke.

Recent Talks by Members of the KFG

Jörg Rüpke, one of the spokespersons of the KFG recently delivered a lecture at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of the Monotheistic Religions at Doshisha University, Japan. The lecture on “Urban Religion – Religion and the City in Historical Perspective” can be viewed here:

Susanne Rau, the other spokesperson of the KFG, delivered a lecture on “Religion and Urbanity” at the University of Regensburg.

Our fellow Cristiana Facchini gave a talk entitled ‘“Gli dei della città”: Secolarizzazione e urbanizzazione.’ in Torino, Italy, as part of a conference organised by Il Centro Culturale Protestante and il Centro Teologico of Torino. In Erfurt, she works on a project entitled “As a nautilus shell … Religious Diversity and Urbanity. A historical journey”.

Finally, our annual conference “Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Power in Cities” took part from 11-13 December 2019. Members of the KFG, fellows and external speakers contributed to a stimulating discussion on heterarchies, religion, and cities from antiquity to the twentieth century. You can find some highlights on Twitter under #UrbRel2019. A more detailed conference report will be published soon.

Sacred Places and their Co-Use

The third edition of our ‘Religion and Urbanity’ city walk continued our exploration of dynamic religious spaces in Erfurt. While last time we looked at the transformation of religious spaces, for this new Edition., we engaged with diachronic (plurality of usages over time) and synchronic co-use (confessional coexistence) of sacred places.

Besides rehabilitation, confiscation and change of use that resulted in the desacralisation of religious spaces, certain sacred places also underwent confessional changes or opted for bi-confessionalism. These examples of negotiation of allegiance and confessional mobility speak for the dynamism of sacral topography: religious places were constantly re-negotiated and re-affirmed.

The first station of our walk was the Old Synagogue, an emblematic monument for the city of Erfurt, and a place illustrating an ambivalent city narrative. Dendrochonological evidence date it back to 1094, making it one of the important religious places of early medieval Erfurt (and the oldest still standing synagogue building in Europe). The old synagogue was a solid cut stone monument, competing in size with other important religious buildings of the time. It represents, along with the so called ‘treasure of Erfurt’, now preserved in its underground room, the vibrancy and growth of Erfurt’s medieval Jewish community. Its activity and social life was tightly woven with Erfurt economic success as a ‘Messestadt’ and woad producing place. However, 1349 was the tragic year of the massacre of the entire Jewish community as part of wider persecutions during a plague epidemic. The synagogue was damaged and converted into a warehouse. Later Jewish communities rebuilt synagogues that never reached the size and importance of the original one. The building of the old synagogue was used for storing goods until the 19th century, when the building eventually got converted into a ballroom and a restaurant. The wooden railing and the painted decoration in the first floor of the building are reminiscent of the place being used for dancing. The desacralisation and long historical omission might have protected the monument during the Nazi period. It is only in the 1990ies that rising interest for history and heritage brought to light the significance of the monument. The restored building is now a museum and place of memory.

The Old Synagogue, Erfurt (see here for copyright information).

Another example, in a very different context, of diachronic co-use of religious space is the Kaufmannskirche. Contrary to the Old Synagogue, the Kaufmannskirche did not suffer desacralisation, but it witnessed the movement of confessional change following the Reformation and thus underwent spatial and interior desig re-arrangements. The Kaufmannskirche owes its name to its function of parish church of Erfurt’s first market. We saw during our previous walks that monasteries and other religious foundations developed very large religious space within the walled city, but as a parish church, the Kaufmannskirche was of particular importance. In the early 16th century, the introduction of the Reformation brought agitation to the city: Martin Luther preached in the Kaufmannskirche in 1522 about his doctrines in order to defuse rising conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The community of the church supported the Lutheran ideas and the church became a Protestant church. After the choir suffered heavy damages in 1594, the entire choir furniture was redone in line with a Protestant program: pulpit, baptismal font, altar and epitaph were carved by the carpenter masters Hans Friedemann the Older and the Younger. These Renaissance masterpieces reflect a Protestant iconography, while the same carpenter workshop also produced furniture pieces for the Dom and other Catholic religious spaces – another example of confessional cohabitation.

Erfurt’s Kaufmannskirche. (See here for copyright information).

The last station of our walk took us to the Reglerkirche, a contemporary example of pluri-confessionnal use. Both Catholic and Protestant services take place there, and it presents itself today as a space shared by the Augustinians (Catholic) and the Protestant Reglerkiche community. The co-use of the church is regulated through th allocation of different time slots to each service, ecumenical services are also organised. The church’s connection to the Augustiner-Chorherren goes back to the foundation of the place: The church was started 1130 by the Augustinians canons ‘regular’, thus the name of the monument. The collegiate Reglerkirche was the first church when entering from the south of the city: For this reason, it got significance in the context of Erfurt trade activity and medieval economic dynamism. The church became Lutheran in 1525 as many other religious places of the city did. Yet some churches remained Catholic: The bi-confessionnal geography of the Erfurtian city space illustrates the un-achieved attempt to adopt Lutheranism during the 16th century. During the French occupation (Napoleonic wars), the Reglerkirche also serves as a ‘Lazarett’ or hospital and local asylum for the sick. After this short period that also reflects on the transformative capacity of a religious space, the monument was renovated and served again as a church.

The Reglerkirche in Erfurt. (See here for Coypright information).

With these three stations enriched by fascinating discussions, the time allocated to the walk was soon over. We are thankful to all the participants and look forward to update you on the project. Please feel free to send us your suggestions and comments to: sara.keller@uni-erfurt.de.

Sara Keller

Sara Keller is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in medieval Indian history, especially water works in western India.

Cities Make Martyrs

Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (oil on canvas, 1863-1883; see here for copyright).
Photo of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation (takne by Malcolm Browne, 1963; see here for copyright).
The northeast face of Two World Trade Center (see here for copyright).

What do these three images have in common? Violent deaths apart, it seems nothing. The first one is a 1883-canvas by French painter Jean-Léon Gérome, which represents a group of early Christians praying before being devoured by lions in a Roman-styled circus. The second is the Pulitzer-winning photo that captures the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức on a busy road intersection in 1963 in Saigon. The third, dated 9/11 2001, is simply too famous to require any further comment.

The first and the third image show killings. The second reports a suicide, that is, a self-destructive act, also like like that of the Twin Tower attackers, which is, however, unphotographed because the self-produced death of the ten hijackers melts away with the collapse of the buildings and the simultaneous extermination of thousands of passengers, crew members, workers, and visitors. Albeit coupled with aggression and murder of unarmed people, such “suicide attackers” committ suicide nevertheless, like the burning monk and contrary to the sentenced Christians. Moreover, only the Buddhist monk and the Twin Towers’ attackers planned their death. For the early Christians, their cruel killing came as no surprise, as they were sentenced to death before, but it was designed and choreographed by powerful others, while the people murdered on 9/11 had very different plans for that day. They were as unaware of their impending fate as us spectators.

Although none of these features (killing, suicide, premeditation, agency) is shared by all three scenes, I guess our brains still resist considering this juxtaposition meaningless. There is something that links the pictures. Let us continue then.

A more in-depth analysis of the three scenes is likely to increase their dissimilarity on several levels of interpretation. Take, for example, a political code. Would we agree that the ‘last prayer’ performed by the early Christian prisoners in an arena filled with pagan onlookers express a protest against oppression in the same way the theatrical self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức does with regard to the religious policies of the Vietnamese government? Would we feel comfortable in applying to the Muslim hijackers crashing two American airplanes against the ‘temple of American capitalism’ the same label of resistance we would attach to the Buddhist monk torching himself against the establishment of Catholicism in his country? Do we think that the concepts of empire or imperialism fit both the ancient Roman state executing Christians, the 1960s Kennedy administration backing the Vietnamese regime in a cold war scenario, and the post-cold war United States facing the international terrorist guerrilla of al Qaeda? I sincerely doubt it.

Looking at conclusive analogies with psychiatric lenses is probably the least recommendable approach. Behind any display of murderous and/or self-annihilating radicalism, the hostile counterpart and the appalled audience tend to see a fanatic in action; in any fanatic a psychopath potentially lurks. Put differently, the if a death-seeker is insane, and the extent of such insanity, lies in the eye of the beholder. As a rule of thumb, the greater the distance from the world-view, the agenda, and the stated motivations of the self-destructive actor, the easier it is to believe his or her brain “cracked”.

Economic and cultural explanations are of no more help in finding more analogies than differences in the three scenes. So I will explore two interpretive paths the relation of which I consider most promising for making sense of the unity of this triptych of violent deaths. To turn back to our initial question, ‘what do these three images have in common?’, a good answer could be: in all three cases, there are martyrs dying in a city. Fed by a number of figures, stories, photos, and videos, our imagination of martyrdom is largely urban. Martyrdom and the city link together the early Christian prisoners, the Buddhist monk, and the 9/11 massacre. I deliberately say ‘9/11 massacre’ without  specifically referring either to the armed hijackers or their unharmed human targets, for, as we will see, the question as to who are the martyrs in this scene is debatable.

Throughout history, people have sought to die violently for many reasons and for the sake of many causes (kinship, love, their companions, fellow-citizens, philosophical ideas, religious creeds, political allegiances). However, the word ‘martyr’ began to apply to death seekers only when, in the 2nd century CE, a tiny selection of the population of the Roman Empire started being sentenced in city tribunals and murdered in city venues for a specific reason: religious commitment to the Christian god. Yet, if you need Christianity to rise for having death seekers to be technically called ‘martyrs’, the original meaning of the word is not religious but juridical: martys, in ancient Greek (μάρτυς), the first literary language of the early Christians, means ‘witness’. This etymological remark already suggests that, in order to start a history of martyrdom, three geographies must be factored in: 1) Greece provided the language; 2) Palestine supplied both the initial environment of the religion of Christ, as well as the supreme example of Christian martyrs of all time, i.e., Jesus himself; last but not least, 3) Rome furnished the city-based political apparatus in whose courtrooms the Christian martyrs displayed their testimony, that is, their confession of adherence to Christianity before judges of different minds and audiences of different sizes. Rome also supplied the large-sized urban architecture that broadcast the martyrdom phenomenon via eventually transferring the location of the witness from relatively small juridical settings to mass entertainment venues: circuses and amphitheatres. By coordinating and urbanizing this triple geography of martyrdom, the Roman superpower launched the scattered and occasional phenomenon of early Christian martyrdom into history: without the Roman colonization of the ancient Mediterranean urban world, the trope of the Christians being publicly tortured and awfully butchered would not have colonized the Western imagination of what a violent death for god looks like. As shown, for example, by Martin Scorsese’s recent movie on early modern Jesuit missionaries in early modern rural Japan, this model feeds into a long-lived apologetic imagery of persecution.  

Over the last decades, due to the statistic escalation, murderous efficacy, and – above all – media explosion of Islamic terrorism, modern suicide attackers (especially bombers) and their targets (especially civilians) have unseated the ancient Christians and their oppressors from the centre of the martyrdom imaginary. Yet the city as prime martyrdom scenery has remained. Four notable differences between the old and the new urban prototype of martyrdom must be stressed. First, once associated with a specific spatial context (Roman tribunals and arenas), the new prototype has no fixed background. The spatial coordinates are unpredictable, the practice visually ubiquitous. Second, the broadcast coverage of the globalized world creates a planetary amphitheatre with billions of seats. Third, the difference between the audience and the scene is circumstantial: victims and publics are unaware of their roles until the attack divides the world population into murdered, injured, bystanders, and spectators. Fourth, the public itself negotiates and decides whether the role of ‘martyr’ should be ascribed to the perpetrator or the victim. As a rule of thumb, homegrown and international sympathizers of the attackers, foreign patrons of the cause, and scholars specialized on the topic usually call the perpetrators ‘martyrs’; conversely, for shocked laypersons, Western conservative politicians, Christian bloggers, and the mainstream press ‘martyrs’ are generally the victims. Both options are somehow right: on the one hand, the history of so-called ‘Abrahamic religions’ bespeaks a clear semantic confluence between the ancient Christian model of martyrdom (in Greek: martys) and the Muslim martyr (in Arabic: shahid), both being technically authors of a ‘witnessing’ (martyria, shahadat); on the other, the harmless quality of the original martyrs and their supreme model, Christ, allows for the commonsense identification of martyrdom with the victims’ side. The semantics of ‘sacrifice’, overlapping since millennia with that of martyrdom, follows the same rule: the hermeneutic pendulum oscillates between the martyr-perpetrator sacrificing him/herself and the martyr-victims being sacrificed.

In-between the ancient prototype of the persecuted Christian and the modern prototype of the suicide attacker lies the icon of the self-immolating protester, like the aforementioned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức. His most famous secular counterpars are: the Czech student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 in Prague after the Soviet army had invaded his country to suppress the Prague Spring, and the Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2011 in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid thereby catalyzing the revolution against the regime of long-time president Zine Ben Ali.

A suicide performer exerts the maximum of violence upon him/herself, creating a figure that combines the self-destructive attitude of an extremist Christian tradition of ‘voluntary martyrs’ with the performative effects sought after by the suicide attacker. The self-immolating protester kills only him/herself in order to change the state of affairs by rousing people to action: either via sensitizing “Outgroups” or encouraging a disheartened “Ingroup”, or both. When widely publicized, a spike of “copycat suicides“, also known as “Werther effect”, can follow up. The BBC reported that no less than 107 Tunisians tried to self-immolate in the wake of Bouazizi’s act, ‘mostly young unmarried men from poor, rural areas, and had only basic education’.This last episode, happening in a small town and copied in rural areas, breaks the previously established visual connection between martyrdom and cities. Put differently, one does not necessarily need a full-fledged urban setting like 20th-century Saigon to self-immolate in protest. Effective communication pathways between cities, small towns and the countryside, past and present, may well broadcast a spectacular event far beyond its original location and generate emulation episodes that can be broadcast back. Couched in religious language or not, martyrdom per se is not an urban phenomenon. Nor are cities distinctively conducive to martyrdom simply because, as classic sociological studies have shown, suicide is more urban than rural. Psychic aggravations of urban livings that are traditionally held to induce city-dwellers to suicide, namely social disorganization (Émile Durkheim) and social alienation (Maurice Halbwachs), are not a sufficient cause for the framing and coding of self-destructive tendencies as martyrial resolutions. The same holds true for other eminently urban characteristics enabling martyrdoms, such as:

  1. the production and dissemination of radical ideas related to high-risk behaviors;
  2. the assortment of networks of recruitment, socialization, indoctrination, cultural breeding and training;
  3. the variety of high-visibility places and events;
  4. the substantial presence of receptive publics and counterparts (friends, competitors, and foes);
  5. the large supply of incentives and rewards that also work as means to amplify the value of the act, engender identification, and foster imitation (e.g., accumulation of public and private settings, rituals, and strategies of commemoration and historicization).

Yet the more urban the environment that forms and/or annihilates the martyr is, the more these factors are expected to find their way into a martyrial mode of seeking death. This is why martyrdom is to be considered a relevant subject matter for the cross-cultural and cross-temporal investigation of the relationships between religion and urbanity as pursued by our overall research project.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli is a Junior Fellow in the “Religion and Urbanity” Project. He is a specialist of early Christianity and currently works on the concept of “citification”.

Call for Applications: Fellowships in Humanities Centre “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”

The Kollegforschungsgruppe (KFG, “Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies”) „Religion and Urbanity. Reciprocal Formations” at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt (Max-Weber-Kolleg) invites applications for fellowships for the time period between winter semester and summer semester 2020/2021. Fellowships are granted for a period of 3 to 6 months. Fellows must reside in Erfurt during the fellowship period.

To be eligible for a fellowship, the candidate must propose a research project to be conducted during the fellowship within the framework of the KFG and have an outstanding academic record, at least one published monograph and a minimum of three years of postdoc research experience. Fellows are required to participate actively in the interdisciplinary and intercultural life of the Centre and to contribute to the weekly colloquia of the KFG.

Please submit your application with a cover letter that indicates the preferred period for your stay at Erfurt, an outline of the research project you would like to pursue addressing the KFG´s research focus (2,000-4,000 words) with a stringent discussion of your a) research questions, b) the state of research on the topic, c) the methodological approach and the leading hypotheses as well as d) a working schedule with a projected date of completion and publications of results, a curriculum vitae, copies of your last university Degrees, llist of publications and electronic copies of up to three of your monographs or articles relevant for the research focus as a combined pdf-file (maximum of 15 MB, publications may be presented in separate files) until 12 January 2020 to mwk.bewerbungen@uni-erfurt.de.

For further details, please see the full call for applications and our homepage. Informal enquiries may be addressed to Dr. Elisa Iori (elisa.iori@uni-erfurt.de).

Annual Conference: Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities

The KFG’s annual conference on Urban Heterarchies will take place from 11 to 13 December 2019. It is organised by Emiliano Urciuoli, Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. To register, pelase contact Valeria Wahl.

According to archaeologist Carole L. Crumley, heterarchies are systems in which the component elements have ‘the potential of being unranked (relative to other elements)’ and/or the potential of being ‘ranked in a number of ways, depending on systemic requirements’. In contrast, explains archaeologist Alison E. Rautman, the concept of a ‘hierarchy’ ‘involves three assumptions regarding the organization of the constituent elements of a system: that a lineal ranking of constituent elements is in fact present; that this ranking is permanent (that is, the system of ranking has temporal stability); and the ranking of elements according to different criteria will result in the same overall ranking (that is, the relationships of elements is pervasive and integral to the system, and not situational)’.

For the issue of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, ‘heterarchies’ open up diverse directions of analysis within cities as well as with regard to interurban networks. In both fields, the conference papers will deal with institutional arrangements as much as media of representation, narratives of legitimation, practices of comparison, strategies of mutual recognition or critique and interference up to the point of violence.

As a result, we will try to develop more complex models of constellations and paths of development that will help us to better understand and explain religious change and changes of urbanity. The conference will bring together leading experts focusing on empirical and theoretical questions and representing multiple disciplines, such as religious studies, Asian studies, history, classics, archaeology, geography, and sociology, in order to bring the heuristically promising concept of heterarchy to bear on the study of the cross-cultural and cross-temporal entanglements of religion and urbanity.

For the programme and further Information, see here.