Closing Comments of the “Blurring Boundaries” Conference

— Susanne Rau & Martin Fuchs

From the 24th to the 26th of November 2021 the research group Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations, welcomed international researchers at Ettersburg castle for the conference “Blurring Boundaries”. Organised by Jörg Rüpke and Emiliano R. Urciuoli, the conference aimed to investigate the diffusion of urban religion beyond urban space. Contributions covered case studies from the Mediterranean, Central Europe and South Asia and from antiquity until the 21st century. On 26th November, one of the research group’s spokespersons, Susanne Rau, and Martin Fuchs, core group member and co-operation partner, summarised their observations on the previous two days’ programme. The conference, as its hosting research group, is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). You can find the conference programme here.

All good things come to an end and before we leave this place, it is time to reflect and consider what we can take away from this conference at Ettersburg. First, we think we should be grateful that we were able to hold this conference in quasi-presence (with a few exceptions who participated on the screen). The digital world has indeed forced itself upon us in the past 20 months and all of us have become acquainted with its advantages, but also its disadvantages and side effects. Therefore, our thanks go less to the technology than to all the people who have contributed to the conference – in planning, designing, presenting, reading, thinking and discussing. Special thanks go, of course, to our master conférencier Emiliano Urciuoli.

Second, we would like to pick up some key words from yesterday’s intermediate summing-up. Jörg Rüpke reminded us of the distinction between city and urbanity, and that the city in our minds is often a walled settlement. With the concept of urbanity we can go beyond these walls. Similarly, monasteries were an important element at the conference. Often located “in the countryside”, but frequently moving to cities or interacting with their inhabitants, monasteries represent a crucial case for thinking about the possibilities and limits of the “blurred boundaries” between the urban and rural. Still, we have to be careful, as Jörg admonished us, and should not only use an “urban lens” for discussing the issue. The point of view of a nun or monk suggests itself here. We know that the inhabitants of monasteries often engaged in an anti-urban discourse while at the same time honing skills like education or bookkeeping – skills we would qualify as urban. What then is monastic life: a third space? Should we follow Roberto Alciati’s suggestion to consider the monastic way of life alongside the urban and rural? As being quite independent from the precise geographical localisation of the monastery?

Corinna Riva brought in the notion of trust. In a city, you probably need trust to keep order in society, but everybody knows that people often do not trust each other, especially in cities. This lack of trust creates boundaries between them. Martin Fuchs reminded us of the fact that there were multiple urbanities, and that therefore we should also expect multiple ruralities, especially in different places and periods. In addition to this plurality of urbanities and ruralities boundary types also differ. Rachna Mehra remarked on the distinction between physical and mental boundaries. We would add to this the distinction between boundaries that can be crossed and boundaries where this is more difficult. And then there are, of course, the in-between spaces along the boundaries.

To go back to the initial questions which framed this gathering. Following the Call for Papers, the conference intended to explore possible directions of research and suitable sources for a further focus on the existence of religious phenomena produced in urban space, but diffused beyond and crafted outside. Beyond individual case studies, a new field of analysis should be prepared. Have the past three days fulfilled these intentions or, if not, are we at least on the way to achieving them?

What we liked about the conference was seeing diverse historical, and in some cases almost contemporary, constellations in which religious actors, practices or places have crossed this – however conceived – urban-rural boundary. In some cases, phenomena started in the city and moved to the countryside; but we also heard of many examples of such migrations or transfers from the countryside to the city. This means that one should perhaps also ask how and in which ways a village religion has changed or adapted once it moved to the city. In other words, we have to look in the opposite direction: Not only from city to countryside, not only from urban religion travelling beyond urban space.

Apart from their directionality, these movements, as we have seen, also differ in terms of timing: some take place on a daily basis, others are temporary or persist for a long time, others still are permanent. Equally, social groups marked themselves as urban, were “unseen” as urban or were sometimes completely indifferent to it. (By the way, we would not use the term “unseen” here, but speak of visibility and “invisibile-making”, that is an act of rendering something invisible.) Finally, it is not only groups and practices that migrate, but also stories.

We have been here for three days, talking about urban and rural and the role of religion. What did we actually want to find out with this? In the concept note, Jörg and Emiliano wrote the main question was how religious phenomena migrated and how they blurred boundaries that presumably originated primarily in other contexts.

However, when we look at the variety of examples, we would formulate the research question somewhat differently – according to our respective points of view as a spatial historian and an anthropologist. Basically, we are concerned with the constitution of the urban, the constitution of the rural – perhaps in distinction to it – and the formation of religious groups, which also need places and spaces (not only those geographically localisable!) in order to form a group and to practise religious rituals together. For us this is a matter of relationality, if we assume neither predetermined spaces nor always pre-existing clear-cut boundaries between them. To answer these questions of religion and space, we need to look at processes of reciprocal formations.

As everybody knows, the research group Religion and Urbanity is interested in the relationship between urbanity and religion. That is why we take the liberty – all the more because Susanne Rau is an urban historian – of recalling definitions of city and bourgeoisie as they have been coloured by the occidental world. We are talking about Isidore of Seville and Brunetto Latini.

Those who theorised about urban life knew the definition offered by Isidore of Seville (he died in 636): A city, civitas, is a multitude of people united by a bond of fellowship. Its name derives from the citizens (cives) who are the inhabitants of the place (because it decides upon and holds the lives of many people). Urbs is the town itself, the civitas is not rocks, but the inhabitants.

The Florentine notary, scholar, and politician Brunetto Latini reworked the classical tradition in his encyclopedic Le Livre dou Tresor of the 1260s: ‘Des lor comencerent a fonder maison, & villes fermer & forteresse, & clore le de murs & de fosses. & de lors comencerent a establir ses costumes & sa loi & les droit, qui estoient comuns por trestut li borgiois de la ville. Por ce dit Tuilles que cités est uns asenblement de jens a abiter en un luec & vivre a une loy’.[1] [From that time they began to build houses and strengthen cities and fortresses and enclose them with walls and ditches. From that time on they began to establish customs, and laws, and rights, which were common to all the citydwellers. For that reason Cicero says that the city is an assembly of people for living in one place and under one law.] (Our thanks to Miri Rubin for sending this quote.)

On the one hand, Latini says, there are the houses with walls and ditches; on the other, the customs, laws, rights and the assembly of people.

This discourse dates from the 13th century, when perhaps 10% of Europe was urbanised. At that time, the city was rather the exception – and it still had to distinguish itself from the way the majority of people lived: structurally, legally, economically, but also religiously and in terms of living together. We chose this quote because after all we have seen in the last three days, we should question this discourse for its implications and claims about power. Indeed, what we have seen beyond cities and countryside, are cities within cities, villages within cities, but also villages and monasteries outside a city wall but still belonging to the city.

So, the question we should ask ourselves is: Why are borders erected? Why do groups and societies need them?

For us, they are just as constructed as cities, villages and monasteries (with their respective ways of life) are – socially as well as spatially. In the course of the formation of cities, people sometimes erected walls, but by no means always and by no means did they always think this was necessary. However, in certain areas of life, the townspeople wanted to demarcate themselves in order to indicate that something is valid here that is not valid there. But these are social differentiation processes as they usually appear in group formations, without this immediately entailing a materialised border or having to entail hard exclusion criteria. Religious groups sometimes draw these boundaries – just as they can cross them and tear them down. There are borders drawn by other actors, too (today it is often the state, in the past it was the cities). Sometimes these borders have an impact on religious groups because they cannot enter the city or only under certain circumstances or because they are expelled from it. Sometimes the religious groups concerned are also smarter than the borders: they can disguise their religious identity or their origin in order to cross these borders to carry out economic activities, for example. And sometimes such borders simply do not matter at all because the passages across borders or boundaries are more important or stronger than the borders themselves.

To conclude, we want to raise two points. First, space is not uniform. Various kinds of spaces are of interest to us. Interim spaces and satellite spaces which can be considered to be extensions of urban spaces: Moats, gardens, monasteries (again), caves and lakes come to mind. Encompassed (or perhaps rather engulfed) spaces like urban villages and peri-urban sites have featured in the past days, too. So did, lastly, the temporary spaces opened up by processions and pilgrimages to near and distant religious destinations.

These spaces, on the one hand, cover the inclusion of non-urban religious and non-religious sites into urban religious and non-religious practices (as is the case with village deities, for example). On the other hand, these spaces enable the reaching out to non-urban sites, and even expanding into non-urban regions with a religious as well as non-religious agendas. Another way of incorporating these processes could be by thinking about centrifugal and / versus centripetal movements. Expansion as well as incorporation has two distinct dimensions: the expansion of urban ways of life and the imaginary expansion of notions of urbanity and ideas of the urban more general.

Second, we see separate dynamics when looking at the two over-all or guiding concepts, urbanity and religion. Most papers were led by a focus on urbanity and its spatial dynamics, i.e. the extension of the reach of urbanity, or just the reach of the urban, of the city.

When the focus was on religion, we dealt with different dynamics. On the one hand, there are the cases in which the extension of urban religious practices went hand-in-hand with the extension of urbanity. This includes those cases in which the driving force was the critique of urban life, or an attempt of distancing oneself from urban life: In all these cases, actors stayed connected to the urban and their imaginaries were part of urban discourse. On the other hand, we heard of cases in which pre-existing non-urban forms of religiosity were included into the urban or were brought into the context of urban life. Here, one can find (a) continuities of the non-urban religiosities in urban contexts, as well as (b) changes in the modes of religious practices, i.e. urban re-formations of originally non-urban practices.

In the case of continuities of religious practices, it is important to bear in mind that religious dynamics are not necessarily led by notions of urbanity. Frequently, there is little explicitly urban to religions as such.

The agents of including non-urban religious practices can be urban citizens who take non-urban religions on board, or migrants from the rural areas to the cities who bring their religious practices from their former homes with them, or people whose life-worlds, including their religious practices, were swallowed by the city.

In the past days, when we heard about examples concerning the inclusion of non-urban forms of religiosity into urban contexts the examples were mostly taken from Hinduistic Indian contexts and from a few cases of European antiquity (the Algerian cave, the Nehalennia deity in the North Sea region). In such cases, the urbanisation of religions is secondary, if it occurs at all.

[1] Brunetto Latini, Li livre dou Tresor, ed. Spurgeon Baldwin and Paul Barrette, Tempe (AZ), 2003, Book III, c. 73, pp. 362-4; at p. 363. The translation, from Brunetto Latini, The Book of Treasure (Li Livres dou Tresor), trans. Paul Barrette and Spurgeon Baldwin, New York, 1993, c. 73, p. 351.

Cover Image: Abbey of St Hildegard by planet_fox, licence free for use. See here for details.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2021, December 20). Closing Comments of the “Blurring Boundaries” Conference. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

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