Urban Exclusions (City Walk 6)

Diversity is one of the distinctive features of urbanity as we define it in our research group (Rau and Rüpke 2020). The plural character of urban life acts as a stimulating force enabling large-scale endeavours and remarkable achievements. Prehistoric monumental architectural projects such as Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge are already “tangible results of conversations among a variety of specialists” (Smith 2019: 72). Also places of knowledge and learning, scientifical explorations, and technological advancement have been nurtured by a diverse environment where beliefs, values and ideas brush against one another. However, diversity was also a challenge for segmented groups living together. How did cities, and urban spaces more generally, deal with alterity? This is the question we addressed in the 6th edition of our City Walk on “Urban Exclusions”, organised on the 15th of November in Erfurt (fig. 1, more info on our City Walks programme here).

Fig 1: Route of the KFG’s City Walk.

A social contract, whether tacit or explicit, oral or written, is the cornerstone of coexistence, and thus a determining agent of urban life. Beyond individual protecting measures such as living in enclaves, hiring guards and taking insurances (Smith 2019: 211-25), the urban also equipped itself at an early stage with ethical and moral codes to condition behaviours and to benefit enforcement tools in cases of digression. Our winter workshop 2021 on “Religious Guides to Urbanity ” (see also the report here) looked at potential guidelines to urban life in a large historical and geographical perspective. It demonstrated that cities developed a wide range of social solutions, from strict legal tools in early modern German towns (“Gute Policey”, Christ forthcoming) to negotiable guidelines in Ottoman and South Asian cities (Lafi forthcoming, Keller forthcoming). All models denoted an urge to facilitate urban coexistence, yet with questionable results. The workshop also showed that religion played a major role in providing a communication baseline in diverse urban environments.

The ethical platform offered by religion allowed diverse groups to agree on the do’s and don’ts in an urban space. It provided a set of ethical laws or guidelines for the day-to-day life, references for jurisdictional processes and a solid background for contract making. Marriages, relations of allegiance,  property and trade contracts were agreed upon oaths, where power relied on shared ethics and the idea of the self-curse. “In an honor-based society, a person’s word and oath before God became a critical feature of daily life because people had no other way to ensure the validity of business and legal transactions” (McMahon 2013: 95). Religion with its set of ethics and values provided an ideal shared platform both for social coexistence and for social interactions. A religious boundary not only excluded culturally, but economically, thus encouraging conversion as a means to integrate the market and economic life.

In the Judaeo-Christian world, sacred texts emerged as the main source of authority and the background of a universal law from the first century AD onwards (Blidstein 2017). Oaths were taken on religious objects, such as on saints’ relics and on the Bible. At the end of the Middle Ages, European societies made a “transition from a social system based on personal, oath-based relationships to a centralized bureaucracy reliant upon documentary records.” (Bradbury 2004: 189). Universalism and religious homogeneity (later translated into a cultural monopoly based on civic ethics) remained the red thread of living together. Despite the engagement of our modern societies towards a peaceful diversity, they largely remain loyal to the idea of an exclusive common social path. This reflects on a deep-rooted cultural heritage that attributes a divine origin to the Law. Inclusion in the social body can only be obtained by assimilation. Integration and assimilation imply a loss of identity, if not more violent and/or humiliating processes such as forced conversions, expelling or massacre of minorities. Cultural monopoly based on religious criteria resulted in asymmetrical relations of power. The term “toleration”, today understood as a virtue, initially referred to a condescending indulgence towards something unpleasant (« supporter avec plus ou moins de patience quelque chose de désagréable » (late 14th century Ménagier 104). It is in the framework of the religious wars that the French term “tolerance” was coined, opening new vistas for social coexistence (we were lucky to discuss this concept in the colloquium of Austin Collins, immediately following the City Walk, also see Dixon 2007). As defined by Murphy, the “religious toleration, a political or legal term denot[ed] an absence of punitive sanctions for the practice of one’s religion.” (Murphy: 370). Certainly, “the granting of toleration to religious minorities has been portrayed as a milestone in the creation of societies like our own, and as a sign of their superiority over alternative systems, both past and present.” (Mandelbrote 2001: 93). However, toleration did not mean social nor legal equality, and thus, it can be understood as “a ‘negative’ freedom” (Murphy: 370). Liberal democratic systems revised the early modern idea of toleration, in order to provide a liberty of attitudes, values, beliefs and customs to all cultural groups of a society. Cultural pluralism, as discussed and conceptualised in the United States since the late 19th century (and actively revised in the last two decades), proposes a system composed of different social groups that, over time, maintain their own unique identity (the colloquium of former MWK Fellow Chad Alan Goldberg  brought fascinating insights into the origin and development of the doctrine of cultural pluralism).

This definition reminds us that cultural pluralism has been experienced in historical cities in many regions and periods. Urban centres of trade and commerce in particularly, were composed of multiple ethnic, religious and social groups that co-existed in the longue durée without necessarily having to abandon their identity. This was the case of Tunis and other Ottoman towns presented by our former fellow Nora Lafi. Port towns of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, or Central Asian cities along the Silk Road are other examples of urban contexts where different groups cohabited in dense spaces and kept their religious and cultural identity. More generally, urban centres at the intersection of sea and land proved to be extraordinary ecosystems of hyperdiversity, cosmopolitanism and innovation. Strategies of inclusive governance systems were efficient in guarding the interests of various groups while allowing a dialogue on a broader level. Unsurprisingly in the context of a commercial city where bargaining was a major tool of economic agreement, negotiation was the key strategy for communication between groups and neighbourhoods. Also social and jurisdictional agreements were achieved upon guidelines that were constantly re-negotiated (Lafi forthcoming, Keller forthcoming).

Although resilient systems, cosmopolitan cities were also the scene of unequal relations of power, exclusion and abuses (on the exclusion of the urban poor in South Asia, see the project of Martin Fuchs). Religion played a crucial role in the geographies of tolerance and exclusion. The first station of our City Walk on “Urban Exclusions” proposed to discover the Jewish quarter of Erfurt and its long history of discrimination. In the European and dominant Christian context, Jewish communities played an early and significant role as an encounter with the Other. The first Mikveh , or Jewish bath (c. 12th century), where we stood, and the nearby old synagogue (built 11th and thus the oldest still standing synagogue of Europe) are today visible landmarks of the main places of sociability of the first Jewish community established in Erfurt since the 10th century (fig. 2). As merchants and bankers, Jews were powerful actors of Erfurt’s growing economy during the Middle Ages. They were close to the city council with whom they shared political and economic interests. The community also played a dynamic role in the religious and intellectual life of the city. Despite the entanglement of the economic, political and religious activities of the Christian and the Jewish communities, the latter were excluded juridically (need of a special oath, or “More Judaico”), financially (special tax) and socially as demonstrated by a long history of discrimination and pogroms. The 1349 pogrom, in particular, and more recently the Holocaust, led to the massacre and entire disappearance of the Jewish community. Despite the repeated re-formation of Jewish communities in Erfurt (in the 1430’s, in the 1840’s and after the second World War), their presence in the cityscape is still marked by evidence of ambiguous inclusions and exclusions.

Fig. 2: The first station of the city walk: the Jewish life in Erfurt, explained by Sara Keller.

In the same neighbourhood as the Mikveh (about 160 meters north-west of it), the Collegium Maius, or main building of the medieval university of Erfurt, was the heart of the Latin quarter from 1392 onwards (fig. 3 and 4). The Universitas Studii Erfordiensis emerged from the learned religious milieu of Erfurt, whereby monastic institutions were important places of learning. The university, led and addressed to men only, illustrates another social boundary and means of exclusion within the city, namely gender. Religious training, education and political life long remained inaccessible for women. Despite evidence of women (especially those coming from aristocratic milieu) reaching places of authority, such as abbesses (see the project of Simone Wagner) or widows of traders/landlords, women long remained excluded from certain functions and/or faced discrimination in their functions. It is not before the beginning of the 20th century (from 1896 onwards in Erfurt, then belonging to Prussia) that women could enroll at German universities, and that only as “Gasthörerinnen” or guest auditors. Though woman have now full rights both as students and teachers, recent studies on gender at instutions of higher education show that women working in German academia are still not treated equally in regards to salary.

Fig.s 3 and 4: The group of the city walk during Jörg Rüpke’S station and Erfurt’s Collegium Maius.

The third station at Domplatz was an opportunity to discuss another line of urban exclusion (fig. 5). Continuities of racism and racist violence in the (former) GDR were the focus of this talk on the 1975 riots targeting Algerian contract workers in the context of the GDR. In August 1975, Algerian contract workers were hunted and injured by large groups of local Erfurters, mostly young men, who over the course of three days engaged not only in mob violence but also altercations with the people’s police. This event took place in the larger framework of racism in the GDR which also shaped how contract workers from ‘socialist brother states’ experienced work and life in the GDR. While racist violence has featured prominently in the past years in German media (e.g. in the case of the terrorist attacks in Hanau and Halle or the murder of Walter Lübke), the hisotrical continuties which tie post-reunification and present day acts of violence against migrants and minorities to their historical predecessors are rarely given prominence. The 1975 mob violence in Erfurt’s inner city has been aptly qualified as the “vergessene Pogrom von Erfurt” (forgotten pogrom of Erfurt) by historians. The last station on cemeteries and the dead, initially planned at the Brühler Garden, could unfortunately not take place due to the cold and rainy weather but we are hopeful to continue the discussion on urban inclusions and exclusions during our next city walk and other events.

Fig. 5: At the third station on the 1975 forgotten pogrom of Erfurt.

For comments on the topic and/or questions to the city walk, do not hesitate to leave a comment below or to contact Sara Keller at sara.keller@uni-erfurt.de.


I would like to thank my colleagues Martin Christ and Jörg Rüpke for co-organising the City Walk. This post also owes a lot to my stimulating discussions with Chad Alan Goldberg and Austin Collins.

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.

Short bibliography

Blidstein, Moshe. 2017. ‘Swearing by the Book : Oaths and the Rise of Scripture in the Roman Empire.’ ASDIWAL. Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions, n°12. 53-72. https://doi.org/10.3406/asdi.2017.1082

Bradbury, Nancy Mason. 2004. ‘The erosion of oath-based relationships: A cultural context for “Athelston”.’ Medium Ævum. Vol. 73, No. 2. 189-204.

Christ, Martin. (forthcoming). ‘Between Divine Intervention and Urban Authority: The Gute Policey in Early Modern German Towns.’ Religion and Urbanity Online.

Dixon, C. Scott. 2007. ‘Urban Order and Religious Coexistence in the German Imperial City: Augsburg and Donauwörth, 1548-1608.’ Central European History. Vol. 40, No. 1. 1-33.

Ercies, Rainer. 2017. “Pogromstimmung in Erfurt. “Gebt sie heraus, wir wollen sie hängen”. MDR Thüringen. https://web.archive.org/web/20171120180558/https://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/erfurt/alltagsrassismus-in-der-ddr-100.html

Heitzer, Enrico. 2016. Rezension zu Waibel, Harry: Der gescheiterte Anti-Faschismus der SED. Rassismus in der DDR. H-Soz-Kult 04.05.2016, www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-21465.

Keller, Sara. (forthcoming). ‘Vāstu śāstra as cosmological guides to South Asian urbanity (5th-15th century and beyond).’ Religion and Urbanity Online.

Lafi, Nora. (forthcoming). ‘Hisba Handbooks in Ottoman Tunis: Religious Guides to Urbanity?’ Religion and Urbanity Online.

Mandelbrote, Scott. 2001. ‘Religious belief and the politics of toleration in the late seventeenth century.’ Nederlands archief voor kerkgeschiedenis / Dutch Review of Church History. Vol. 81, No. 2. 93-114.

McMahon, Elisabeth. 2013. Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa: From Honor to Respectability. Cambridge University Press.

Ménagier (original title: Mesnagier de Paris, c. 1393): Brereton, Georgine E. and Janet Mackay Ferrier (ed.). 1981. Le Menagier De Paris: A Critical Edition. Oxford University Press.

Murphy, Andrew R. 1997. ‘Tolerance, Toleration, and the Liberal Tradition.’ Polity. Vol. 29, No. 4. 593-623.

Rüpke, Jörg and Susanne Rau. 2020. ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations.’ Religion and Urbanity Online. https://www.degruyter.com/database/URBREL/entry/urbrel.13230336/html. Accessed 2021-11-19.

Smith, Monica L. 2019. Cities: The First 6,000 Years. Viking.

Waibel, Harry. 2014. Der gescheiterte Anti-Faschismus der SED. Rassismus in der DDR. Lang.

Cite this blog post
Sara Keller (2021, November 22). Urban Exclusions (City Walk 6). Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3ef

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