A few thoughts on the spirit of Erfurt city in the footsteps of Meister Eckhart and Martin Luther

Biology has stressed the relationship between thought and the brain for a long time – an idea that cognitive neurosciences and neuro-psychological studies object to today.[1]

The attempt to associate a physical location, in the human body, to thought remains an open question. But what about localising thought on a more global, social level? Can certain thoughts and philosophical approaches be linked with particular places? This short essay is an invitation to consider the relationship between logos and topos, thought and place. Do certain places entail “inspirationality” per se and what are the constructs of this inspirationality?

It is striking that the German city of Erfurt witnessed the presence of two audacious figures of Western religious history and philosophy: Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). Despite the century and a half separating them, both clerics are remembered for their concerns in bringign together reason and faith[2] and for their concern with the accessibility of the Bible. Looking at this puzzling convergence, I wish to continue the discussion engaged by Ruedi Imbach on the relationship between philosophy and its place of genesis (Imbach 2018). Imbach looks at the concomitant presence of Meister Eckhart, Lulle and Dante in Paris in 1310. He shows in the discussion of his paper “Relations parisiennes (…)” that the philosophical thought often rises in a particular place at a particular time (Imbach 2018):

Les textes cités et les annotations qui les accompagnent montrent bien que le questionnement philosophique surgit fréquemment dans un lieu précis et à un moment temporel précis. (Imbach 2018, 116)

Imbach does not just insist on the place, but also on the temporality of the meeting. I wish here to pursue his fascinating approach, and to enlarge the period of interest in order to focus on the impact of the place on the thought – without binding it to a specific time. Is it possible to identify, irrespective of time, a particular place, connected with a particular spirit? As an answer to the Hegelian Zeitgeist (or “spirit of the age”) – a cultural conditioning of a particular time, let us explore the potential existence of a “Raumgeist”, resulting from the originality of a place.

Meister Eckhart and Martin Luther are two celebrated figures of Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. Their names still haunt the city lanes, encouraged by local institutions and authorities (concerned with the promotion of Erfurt heritage and history) to invade posters, flyers and visitor programmes. Both names are advertised widely, so that it is certainly no exaggeration to consider Eckhart and Luther as the modern patrons of Erfurt heritage.

Playmobil Luther Figurine sold as a souvenir of Erfurt. ((c) Sara Keller)

Apart from this modern cultural partnership, Eckhart and Luther share genuine features. Both were clerics and theologians (Eckhart was a Dominican Prior, Luther an Augustinian monk), they are particularly remembered for their efforts in promoting the vernacular language, and thus in facilitating the access of biblical and religious knowledge to the laity. Eckhart preached and partly wrote in Mittelhochdeutsch (Middle High German). Luther translated the Bible in a comparable language[3] from 1522 to 1534, which had, at the time of printing, a tremendous socio-religious impact. Both were accused of heresy and had to answer to the Vatican about their work and theological positions.

Martin Luther was born 155 years after Meister Eckhart’s death, so that, unlike Lulle, Eckhart and Dante in Paris, the question of a potential meeting can easily be excluded. Yet both of them spend a good amount of time in Erfurt: So the impact of the place on their thoughts has to be considered. Meister Eckhart, who was born not far from Erfurt, stayed several times in Erfurt, especially when he joined the Erfurt Dominicans around 1275 and later in 1294 as he became Prior of the Dominican monastery. Martin Luther studied at the Erfurt University in 1501 and resided on several occasions in the Augustinian monastery. (See also our city walks for a discussion of some of tehse Features).

Martin Luther’s knowledge about Eckhart’s work has been discussed and there is no doubt that the Eckhartian theology inspired Luther’s path.[4] But apart from this philosophical affiliation, did the environment of Erfurt impact Eckhart and Luther’s thought? Is it possible to identify ties that were idiosyncratic to Erfurt’s environment and that could have linked Eckhart and Luther across time?

What about language?

Language is key for both Eckhart and Luther’s work, since they both engaged in promoting the linguistic vernacularisation of religious and philosophical knowledge. Eckhart’s efforts in transcribing Latin concepts into German words included the coinage of new terms that affected German philosophy till Hegel and Heidegger.

Il reste que Maître Eckhart est bien le créateur d’une terminologie nouvelle, philosophique et théologique, en langue allemande. (Knaebel 2002, 21)[5]

In this effort of expressing Latin concepts with German words, Knaebel insists on Eckhart’s appeal to the “génie propre de la langue allemande” (Knaebel 2002, 20). Thus, Eckhart’s work cannot be restricted to a translation task: It is a real philosophical effort in order to shape new terms fitting the linguistic and cognitive potential of Mittelhochdeutsch.

It is significant that during their stays in Erfurt, Eckhart and Luther shared a common semantic space, and, thus, were immersed in an identical linguistic and cognitive environment. Language conveys thinking patterns and conditions thought processes. A detailed linguistic study of German terms could certainly help tracing and visualising the impact of the “génie propre de la langue allemande”, and more particularly of the Erfurt linguistic environment, on Eckhart and Luther’s thought. Language, undoubtedly, represents the large cognitive canvas against which Eckhart and Luther developed their thoughts.

What about urban landscape?

Eckhart and Luther also shared a common urban environment during their tenure in Erfurt, though they did not reside in the same institutions or city quarters: Eckhart was in the Dominican monastery in the southern part of the intra muros area, while Luther stayed at the Augustinian monastery in the North-East quarter. Yet both of them must have known and visited, as educated theologians, common places of education and religion (like the Dom, the Collegium Maius and other religious and university buildings), possibly also influential political and economic urban places.

Church of the Dominican monastery (Predigerkirche), Erfurt ((c) Sara Keller).

Thus, both theologians shared a spatial experience made out of urbanity, feeling of space and data codification via visible socio-religious references and symbols. In a similar pattern as the language, this common built environment must have impacted, if not conditioned, their Weltanschauung.

Apart from the tangible landscape, it is the entire thinking patterns, news about urban life and common ideas performed in the city of Erfurt, as a larger collective data set, that must have played an invisible, yet significant, role. Both of them had a partly secular life, far from the seclusion of regular monks. Their immersion in the city life and their interaction with a public laity certainly exposed them to local dynamics, such as the development of education (Erfurt has one of Germany’s oldest universities) and Erfurt’s early capitalist environment (based on woad production and a dynamic city market).[6] Lindner underlines this in a conference entitled “Der lange Schatten Erfurts in Luthers Werk” that:

Luther aus seiner Erfurter Lebensphase sehr viele Eindrücke und Einstellungen mitgenommen hat, die sein Denken und Handeln im Negativen wie im Positiven entscheidend geprägt haben, ohne dass dazu späterhin immer ausgedehnte Reflexionen von ihm existieren (Lindner 2010, 1).

It is clear for Lindner that the urban experience of Luther was fundamental to his thought process:

(…) im Rahmen der Biographie Luthers stellen sein Erleben dieser Stadt und sein Leben in dieser Stadt das Fundament seines Handelns dar (Lindner 2010, 15).

It would be difficult to precisely or statistically measure the impact of the Geist of the place on the work of Eckhart and Luther, but I hope to have raised challenging issues regarding place and thought. I do not mean here to speak for a strict spatial conditioning (are we subject to our special milieu as we suffer the tyranny of time as “prisonnier de son temps”?). My argument rather aims to consider the participative impact of place to the growth of ideas. Both Eckhart and Luther travelled and their thoughts, if at all, resulted from a constellation of influences that were encountered and experienced in different places. Yet that does not take anything away from the spirit of the place and its significant identity, just as Toth underlines for the “pensée occidentale”:

La pensée occidentale est un grand fleuve formé d’affluents venant de partout et son eau se verse dans tous les océans. Du point de vue de son autonomie spirituelle, ce qu’on désigne par le terme de « pensée occidentale » dispose pourtant de certains traits distinctifs qui le rendent spécifique et unique. (Toth 2006, 4) [7]

Looking at Eckhart and Luther, it is worth considering the place as a bearer of cognitive processes via the agency of language, urban landscapes and economic and political dynamics. The urban Raumgeist emerging from this complex configuration could be compared to the city identity as it is expressed in India by the Hindi nominal suffix “-pan” added to city name. The paper presented by Pralay Kanungo in the framework of our internal summer colloquium recently drew our attention to the concept of urban identity commonly referred to by substantives that could be translated into English as “<city name>-ness” -“Varanasi-ness” for example in the case of Varanasi’s spirit (वाराणसीपन or Varanasipan in Hindi).

The example of Eckhart and Luther suggests the existence of an “Erfurt-ness”, expressed by an ambitious engagement towards the democratisation of knowledge. The city of Erfurt seems to have been the fertile breeding ground for the idea of disseminating knowledge, but also for the audacity demonstrated by Eckhart and Luther who stood against contemporary legitimacy.

Naturally, the real question is not to prove the past existence of an Erfurt Raumgeist, but rather to understand its faith and to identify its posterior resurgence(s). Is Erfurt likely to revive its bright and bold spirit?

Wall painting in the Spielbergtor Street, Erfurt (by Capstan & Tulip), Radeberger Pilsner Campaign #likemyheimat. ((c) Sara Keller).

Sara Keller

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.

[1] On attempts to locate the thought in the human body : Schniewind, Alexandrine. 2015. “Où se situe le lieu de la pensée ? Au sujet du rapport âme-esprit.” Le Carnet PSY 2015/4 (N° 189), p.40-43. Chauviré, Christiane. 2012. “Y a-t-il un sens à situer spatialement la pensée ? Peirce, Wittgenstein et les signes.” Intellectica 57,  p.101-114 . See also Paquot, Thierry and Younès, Chris (eds). 2012. Espace et lieu dans la pensée occidentale. De Platon à Nietzsche. La découverte.

[2] “Cela signifie que, selon Eckhart, on peut réellement parler d’une convergence entre la raison et la foi.” Imbach, Ruedi. 2018. “Relations parisiennes : Lulle, Eckhart et Dante à Paris. À propos du rapport entre la philosophie et le lieu de sa genèse.” Enrahonar. An International Journal of Theoretical and Practical Reason 61, 113.

[3] Martin Luther strategically choose the Saxon court language (sächsische Kanzleisprache) for his translations in order to be understood by a larger public.

[4] Li, Y. 2019. “On Martin Luther’s theological illumination by Meister Eckhart.” Logos and Pneuma – Chinese Journal of Theology 2019(50): 267-300. Also: Mieth, Dietmar. 2017. “Der Aufstieg des „Gewerbes“: Mystik, Luther, Max Weber.” Conference at the “Von Meister Eckhart bis Martin Luther: Berührungen, Vermittlungen, Kontraste.” Congress. München, 10-12.03.2017.

[5] Knaebel, Simon. 2002. “Maître Eckhart, précurseur de la dialectique hégélienne ? ” Revue des Sciences Religieuses, tome 76, fascicule 1, p. 14-32.

[6] Lindner, Andreas. 2010. “Der lange Schatten Erfurts in Luthers Werk”. Conference Series “Erfurter Gesellschaftsbilder”, 16.11.2010, Erfurt. Accessed online on 30.07.2019:

[7] Toth, Imre. 2006. “La philosophie et son lieu dans l’espace de la spiritualité occidentale. Une apologie.” Diogène 2006/4 (n° 216), p.3-35.

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