The Urban and Religious Fabrics of Public Ludic Games: Late Antiquity and the Late Middle Age in Conversation

Vanina Kopp & Richard Lim

Vanina Kopp (University of Passau, Germany)

Vanina Kopp is an historian and a medievalist specialising on the cultural history of the late medieval France. For the past few years, she has been working on literary games and poetic competitions at the French court through the analysis of accounts, chronicles, and heraldic compendia. More recently she has moved from the courtly field to the urban field by looking at visual and material sources (like manuscripts depicting competition scenes and reliquaries sponsored for such events) and at ludic confraternities which linked literary games to religious devotion in cities.

Richard Lim (Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, USA)

Richard Lim works on the cultural and religious history of the ancient Mediterranean. His general focus is on the study of the transformation of the Roman Empire during the late antique period and on the process of Christianization. One of his main interests is to investigate the role of public disputations in the formation of Christian group identities in the late Roman Empire through an interdisciplinary approach that combines literary sources and material culture.

Research Questions

Richard Lim: Vanina, could you elaborate on your new project and the new types of questions that you are primarily interested in?

Vanina Kopp: My research focuses on urban ludic confraternities in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, especially in Northern France. It was the aim of my stay here in Erfurt to look at the available source material on these urban confraternities and to compare the reciprocal formations of urban confraternities and their religious (ludic) activities by switching from the courtly field to a more urban field. In order to do so I am taking a comparative angle by looking at confraternities in three main cities in Northern France: Paris, Rouen in Normandy and Amiens in Picardie.

More specifically what I was looking at when I was here in Erfurt for this project was: (a) how confraternities with ludic strand structured themselves for these ludic activities; (b) how the connection between the religious activities and the social practises in the urban field generated a whole set of material and visual culture; (c) how changes, such as the reformation or the wars of religion, affected these confraternities, their religious practises, and the reciprocal formation between the urban and the religious and, ultimately, how all this is reflected in the visual and material cultures generated by these confraternities.

But I now want to mirror that question and ask you, Richard: Could you dig more in the new ideas and questions of your topic that are moving you forward here?

RL: My own project at the Max Weber Centre has to do with a study of the culture of urban public spectacles, as they relate to a number of large metropolitan cities. The ones I have in mind are the cities of Rome, Carthage, Alexandria, Constantinople.

My main question has to do not with the study of cities itself but with the role of urban public spectacles in their formation, particularly during a period when the rise of Christianity and questions of religious identities and cultures were coming to the fore. The original purpose of my research was to look at how the elites negotiated the appropriateness of public spectators, such as gladiatorial games, theatrical shows, and chariot races, within the context of a rising Christian culture.

This was already a very vexed question. We have a variety of Christian texts that are very much against these shows. On the other hand, we have also a very large silent majority of Christians, from emperors down to elite Christians, who through their continued patronage of the games continue to support a more traditional way of constructing urban life and social life in general. So, this is part of a larger project about the transformations of Roman civic identities and urban life.

I’m focusing on the question of negotiations amongst the Christianising elites over the appropriateness of the traditional forms of public life vis-à-vis rising notions of alternative Christian public life (liturgical services, preaching, the veneration of the martyrs and so on). Originally, I was trying to give as much attention as possible to the actual surviving evidence that speaks to elite practises and perspectives. Likewise, focusing on large cities has something to do with the availability of sources. The questions have to do with a set of negotiations, but they do not allow one to reach very far down into the social scale. It becomes an elite game of negotiations if one simply approaches it that way and on some level this isn’t very satisfactory. So, I think engaging with the Max Weber Centre’s research group on ‘Religion and Urbanity’ has allowed me to refocus on questions on urbanity and thus on the experience of the urban in the construction of urban cultures and urban ways of life as a particular factor in these negotiations. My question has to do with moving the focus of investigation away from elite negotiations towards also taking into account the ritual appreciation of spectacles in shaping both people’s perspectives at a particular time and Christianisation as a historical process.


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