The Urban and Religious Fabrics of Public Ludic Games – Vol 2

Vanina Kopp & Richard Lim

To listen to or read the first part of this conversation, go here:

Public Spectacles in Urban Environment: late Medieval France and Late Antique Mediterranean area

RL: Vanina, how these confraternities bring together the topic of spectacles and play within the context of an urban environment?

VK: The urban context is really important for the development of ludic activities. The confraternities were composed of lay people, men and women, who came together for shared interests. They were free associations and people could choose which confraternities they wanted to belong to, if they wanted to belong to any. Those who came together had something in common, something like a devotional impetus or they wanted to spend time together in a specific way. So, what does this entail?

This entails, since we are still in a religious context, processions. For instance, during the processions taking place on feast days and public events – like the arrival of a feudal lord into town – the confraternities temporarily appear in the public space as a group. Once they become more rooted in the city (or if they include elite members of the city) confraternities started also to materialise and permanently display their belonging to the city and their religious devotion in the urban space by building a chapel in the cathedrals or churches or in the collegiates –  all very prominent spots in town. In other words, they displayed their belonging to the city and their religious aims in urban space.

The entanglement of urban, public and religious spaces can be grasped from one example from Paris, where a confraternity planted a May-tree in front of Notre Dame on the first of May – or more precisely, at the threshold between the city and the church. As regards the visual material sources that I was speaking about at the beginning, the sponsoring and financing of paintings or reliquaries became a crucial element as these objects were supposed to be displayed.

Interior of Notre-Dame de Paris with May Paintings of the Puy Sainte-Anne et Saint-Marcel, etching, ca. 1770. Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris, 1-EST-04355, photo: Vanina Kopp, with permission of the BHVP.

While in late Middle Age these activities had more an internal value, as the objects were mostly showcased inside the house of the confraternity, later on the urban confraternities started investing more and more in religious space by sponsoring huge paintings displayed and showcased in big cathedrals, like in Amiens or Notre Dame.

Moreover, within the devotional groups a competitive and financial element takes over, with an increasing desire of having bigger and better paintings and reliquaries. These events, therefore, become for the associations a sort of competition to showcase their wealth, their establishment inside the city, and their devotion to god, to a saint or to the virgin Mary. In a way also the religious fervour gets transposed into more and more expensive visual and material objects. That shows the slow but more and more deeply reciprocal connections between the urban and the religious space.

This is at least the case in my case studies. Now I would be interested, Richard, to know how this works in your time period and with your topic because you spoke about chariot races and elites. So, tell me more!

RL: Thank you very much, Vanina. I see a lot of interesting connections although of course with notable differences regarding our own respective periods and fields. I would like to perhaps just take up some of the points that you raised regarding your project as a point of departure for speaking of my material.

First of all, looking at the engagement of the elite as a particular aspect of the urban environment. The urban provided a stage for an elite which, at least in my time period, could have been somewhere else. For instance, think of the senators of Rome – they could have been in their villas in the south of Italy but were somehow kept in the city by a kind of peer pressure to become part of the patrons of civic spectacles. These spectacles were in fact provided by the elites at their own expense. These spectacles were of course ephemeral: a day’s gladiatorial fighting ended in deaths of gladiators. But by the end of the day something else transpired to change narratives, so to speak. The elites were also interested in commemorating the events they had sponsored. So instead of paintings in their houses, like in your case, they have mosaics on their own dining room floors to commemorate these particular events.

Detail of the Villa Borghese Gladiator Mosaic (4th century CE)

As regard the rise of the cathedral as a space to showcase some of these activities to a larger audience, we do not have something exactly comparable even if sometimes these scenes appear in Roman baths mosaics that were in fact civic spaces. Rather, while I was thinking about the equivalent of the cathedral, I was reminded of the complex of the hippodrome or the chariot racing arena and the imperial palace as two particularly notable architectural features of late Roman cities. You certainly have this kind of connection in the case of Rome with the Circus Maximus and the Severian Palace on the Palatine. It is a common feature in many cities which contained an imperial palace and a hippodrome. This is notably reproduced in the city of Constantinople or “New Rome” with these two features being a very central part of the city’s monumental space. To conclude, I think that the engagement of spectators and the ludic activities – in my case the chariot games – with the urban is strongly inscribed in architectural terms perhaps even at a higher level than that of the cathedral that you just described.

Public spaces and their religious connections

VK: I would just like to jump on that and to go maybe to the next question about the religious aspect and about how the urban and the religious are intertwined in this spectacle. It might be hard to find a connection between a chariot race and religion but I’m sure that you can tell me more about that.

RL: Roman antiquarians in antiquity and modern scholars like to point out through Roman sources, and Greek sources also, the religious mythological origins of the games that today we normally today regard as secular. Of course, these two categories themselves, the religious and the secular, were in late antiquity being contested.  In fact, they were, perhaps you might say, invented and then contested as part of the negotiations over the role of Christianity and its reshaping function in relation to late Roman life. If we look at this particular nexus then one could see that chariot games, gladiatorial games and theatrical shows were not, at least in some sense, part of an autonomous sphere of activity separated from the religious as they were in fact recognised as having a particular religious connection in addition to their religious origin.

Roman half-relief with a quadriga race in the Circus Maximus, Rome (2-3rd century); Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy;

In many cases, these spectacles were actually parts of religious festivals dedicated to the gods that, as in your case, involved other public activities and in pre-Christian times also involved sacrifices to the gods. These spectacles would be part of that nexus. In a sense, they could not very easily be distinguished as simply adjunct without religious connotation, and this is precisely what is being negotiated in the late antique period: to what extend should Christianisation involve the association of one or another feature of what was, after all, a very complex and intertwined religious assemblage of institutions and practises?

What people did settle on, historically speaking, was to ban public sacrifices to the gods and later on to close temples. At the same time, however, they protected the status of public spectacles to the point that temples that had a particular historical association with a particular form of public spectacle or festival have to be protected, becoming a kind of a cultural heritage by association with those spectacles. I do not want us to take these categories, religious and ludic, as either neutral or static, but just to see them as very much part of the historical interactions among these ancient groups, which makes it more interesting for me to look at them.

I would like to say more also about other aspects of the religious connections of public spectacles. The willingness of Christian elites to continue to use the sponsorship of public spectacles as a strategy to present themselves created a kind of countermove on the part of other Christians who wanted to present a purely Christian, as they thought, form of public life. This form of Christian public life owes many characteristics to the competitive relationship with the culture of public spectacles of the chariot games, gladiatorial shows, and theatrical shows. The notions of theatricality, and other aspects, become part of the Christian preaching in their presentation of the cult of the martyrs in various morality plays which continue into the Middle Ages although the actual historical connections are far less certain to many people. Thus, one could see the religious element coming in as an assertion of an alternative way of creating a kind of communal religious life that is independent from this very powerful culture of public spectacles.

That brings up some interesting questions about the similarities and the differences between late antiquity and the Middle Ages or the Middle Ages and the early modern period. I wonder if you have particular thoughts about this, because I know you worked on the whole period going into antiquity as well in your work.

VK: I can see parallels in what you said to my work, like for instance these discrepancies of religious authorities towards spectacles or towards ludic activities, but also the fluidity and nuances between the religion and the urban activities. In the Middle Ages, too, some religious authorities opposed to any kind of ludic activities, especially those that involved chance or playing with dice, but on the other hand, religious authorities also recognised the beneficial effects of ludic activities, such that the first theatre plays were actually written by religious people – they came out of monasteries.  Then, we have some authors who belong to both the religious and the urban and/or or a courtly sphere and serve different registers: on the one hand, by writing plays or supporting ludic associations that deal with religious topics, but on the other hand, they were also trained to write more subversive texts about more worldly activities. So, I feel that already all through the pre-modern period there is this sort of fluidity with the use of different kinds of ludic activities in accordance to the function they are supposed to play.

The chapel of the Confrérie du Puy Notre-Dame at the pilier rouge at the crossing of the choir ambulatory and the south arm of the transepts in Amiens cathedral. The altarpiece by Nicolas Blasset, given as gift to the confraternity by Antoine Pingré and his wife Marie Correur, both listed as masters of ceremony for the year. The painting is from François Francken le Jeune, ‘L’Assomption’ 1628, and plays with the homophone of ‘puy’ and ‘puit’ (well), as well as with the elevation of the soul that fell in the well and was saved by the virgin’s interactions (not depicted in the painting but on top of Blasset’s frame in the left picture). Pictures by Vanina Kopp, used by courtesy of Cathédrale d’Amiens, Monuments nationaux.

Coming back to my confraternities, these associations were made up of lay people with a religious or devotional common goal. For them these ludic activities are a form of support for their devotional activities or for their devotional feelings. To draw a larger picture, if we look at Flanders and rhetoric chambers there, we know that these have been catalysts of the Reformation. We know that this kind of urban associations of craftsmen have been a forum for reformative ideas and all kind of political ideas were debated in these rhetoric chambers.

With regard to the confraternities in France that I am looking at, the negotiation between urban and religious spheres, appear through the development of religious practises, theatres, and visual and material elements that showcase their religion and their  devotion but also their belonging to the urban space. We can also see waves of how money was invested. The increase of the financial investment in visual elements mirrors a more ‘aggressive’ religious need to showcase their group, especially in moments of Reform and counter-Reform. Then these associations also take a stance towards society which was by then torn between different religious movements, be it by visual elements, expensive manuscripts, be it large paintings to be hung in cathedrals, or large statues like in the cathedral in Amiens. Between the 16th and 17th century, either because of financial matters or because of the wars of religion and Reformation, we witness changes in the ludic expression of devotion by confraternities and in the scale of the confraternities themselves. In fact, at some point these confraternities grow smaller, some of them even disband as a consequence of changes in devotional practises, peoples aims, literary genres, art or sensibilities, while others continue and adapt to the changes in devotional forms pushed by the wars of religion, the Reformation and counter-Reformation. Others transformed into new sort of associations, like associations of religious poetry more focused in internal devotion or even scientistic associations that turned more and more to what are scientific questions of medicine.

Over time, the, there were ups and downs and changes in sensibilities and of expressions. But, again, let me mirror this question towards you. What is so typical for antiquity or where do you see similarities or, on the contrary, large differences in comparison to the pre-modern period?

RL: Thank you Vanina. Just listening to you and learning from your work has made me already rethink some of the initial thoughts I had on differences among our case studies. For instance, as far as concerned differences, the fact that in late antiquity we have quite large cities with complex urban cultures that developed over centuries, unlike the European or Medieval context, or – another kind of old thought as historian working on earlier period – the fact that in the Middle Ages these sorts of Roman forms of spectators disappear or appear only periodically within a largely courtly context rather than an urban context. However, thinking about your comments lead me to moderates these earlier thoughts. Your speaking about the widespread culture of ludic play and particularly competitive display puts me in mind of the similar situation we have in the earlier spectacles which are after all rooted in agonistic festivals and in the notion of competition as a part of religious festivals. I think that this crucially contribute to integrate them into the nature of public life. 

I could also see parallels in the competitiveness and in the changes over time of forms of display. I am more and more willing to see that the differences between the ancient period and the Middle Ages is more a matter of emphasis and perhaps of scale than a categorical one or even a qualitative one at all.

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