During a recent visit to Munich, I had the opportunity to visit the town museum. Tucked behind other buildings, the museum displays a range of historical artifcats, covering the town’s history from its foundation to modernity. The impressive collection aims to answer what is ‘typical for Munich’ (‘Typisch München!’), but also has a large range of musical instruments from around the world and a separate building dedicated to Munich during the NS regime. Throughout the museum, the mutual influence of the town and ist religions becomes visible. One of the most common stereotypes about people from Munich is, after all, that they are Catholic.
The special exhibition ‘Migration moves the City’, to Name another example, smartly juxtaposes objects connected to migration with the artifacts in the permanent exhibition. One of the key factors in migration and the subsequent settlement in a new town is religion. At the same time the introduction of new kinds of beliefs and practices can lead to conflict, but also to syncretism and the definition of common ground.
The case of Munich can raise even broader questions, connected to religion and urbanity, particularly when a town is described as such. The name Munich may be derived from monks who were present in the region and the coat of arms shows a monk. But whether Munich was already a town, city, or ‘urban’ at this stage is much harder to answer.
A plaque below the Munich coat of arms informs us that “The seemingly simple question since when Munich is a town is difficult to answer” (“Die eigentlich einfache Frage, seit wann München eine Stadt ist, läßt sich schwer beantworten.”) A contract which calls it a town is only known from 1294, but as early as 1207 there was legal business being conducted “in civitate Munichenin”, suggesting some kind of urban community. The building efforts in Munich in order to turn it into a clerical centre during a later period may also have contributed to the emergence of Munich as a town.
Scholars whose work focuses on towns and cities have long grappled with the emergence of town and cities and there is no conclusive consensus about the use of these terms or the best way to categorise urban settlements. Tied up with discussions on the emergence of towns and cities is also the question of further classifications, thinking about “types of cities”, for example port cities, commercial centres or cities of migrants. This way of conceptualizing cities and towns has its merits, as it enables comparisons across cultures and times. It is possible, for example, to look at an Indian, Swedish and Asutralian port city alongside each other and in this way determine similarities and differences.
But just as it is difficult to define what a city is, so it is difficult to ascribe a certain identity to towns. The approach risks simplifying the complex nature of urbanity to a single descriptor, which obsures the view on other ways of thinking about a place and the complex ways in which different functions of a city reinforce, undermine or change one another. And there is also a risk of seeing too many similarities between different towns, at the risk of overlooking what makes them distinctive.
If we return to Munich, we can also find another way of defining a town. Not by looking for certain terms or descriptions which are used in the historical sources, but by looking for signs and symbols. In Munich, a seal was already used in 1239. It shows a monk and is probably how the town came to ist name, based on the Latin forum apud Munichen.
When a town starts being a town is never easy to answer, as it depends on the set of criteria we apply. So scholars always construct their own cities by defining what counts as a city, and what does not. In recent scholarhsip, there is a trend to use flexible criteria in order to be able to show how a town did not just come into being whenever it was described as such in written sources. Religion can play an important role when it comes to definitions of towns. In medieval and early modern sources, the presence of certain clerical structures may indicate the prestige and power of an urban settlement, while many of the foundation myths connected to towns also centred on religion.
The case of Munich also illustrates the linguistic challenges in defining what cities or towns are. In addition to “civitate”, further terms were used: burgus, castrum, oppidum as well as descriptions which suggest a sense of urbanity but do not use a specific term. Similar problems occur in modern languages. While the English language distinguishes between the term town and the (usually larger or more “urban”) city, the German language only has the term “Stadt” and uses different ways to describe the connotations of a “city”, for instance by using “Großstadt” (literally translated: “big town”). One central aspect of our Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies is to address these linguistic challenges and we are lucky to have experts working on countries as diverse as India, Poland and Spain, all with their own linguistic abilities and ways of expressing what a “town” is.
It is also possible to consider other factors, which might create an “urban environment”, for example rights to hold court for the surrounding countryside, the ability to elect councilors and mayors independently or economic factors, like the privilege to organize a market to sell salt, meat or other items. In some cases we get a sense of the urban if individuals reflect on a place, for instance when farmers coming from the countryside comment on the hustle and bustle during religious processions, which they could simply not imagine in their villages. In all these notions of towns and urbanity, religion played a crucial role.
— Martin Christ