Lecture Series 2023: Global Exchanges – Trade, Knowledge, and Religion

Elisa Iori and Mateusz Fafinski of the UrbRel research group are organising a public lecture series in the 2023 summer term at the university of Erfurt.

In a world where economies, goods, technology, information, and populations are constantly on the move across cultural and national boundaries, the question of the wide-ranging effects of the global mobility and exchange on societies has been at the forefront of academic research over the last four decades.

Acknowledging that multi-layered global networks pre-dated modernity, Global History has become one of the most innovative and productive field of historical inquiry today. While the term is not without its problems when it comes to epochs like Antiquity and the Middle Ages, its various subsets like Afroeurasian history or precontact Americas remain crucial for our understanding of the development of human societies. The module aims to provide detailed insights into the trans-continental connections, interactions and networks developed from Antiquity to the present day, from the Silk Road(s) to trans-oceanic networks. Planned as a well-curated and cohesive series of 10 lectures, the course offers case studies of trans-cultural connections across time and space that focus on specific sub-themes: religion, mercantilisation, and knowledge exchange.

The teaching personnel of the lectures will consist in both members and fellows of the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”, based at the Max Weber Centre/University of Erfurt and mostly Germany-based distinguished specialists as invited speakers.


The lecture will be shortly introduced by one of the organisers. The lectures themselves will be 45-minute-long, held either by a member of the UrbRelresearch group or by an invited scholar. The lecture is followed by a discussion introduced by the organisers.

Time and Location

The lecture will take place on Tuesdays from 6:00 to 7:30 PM. Preferred locations: a suitable lecture room at the Campus with equipment for eventual hybrid lectures.


Students will be asked to prepare short group (2-3 persons) presentations relating at least one of the lectures to a place, phenomenon, or topic in Erfurt’s urban landscape. These will form a basis of a blog post that will be graded by the organisers, proofread, and then published on the UrbRel Blog.


Prof. Dr. Sitta von Reden

Beyond the Silk Road: Exchange, Economic Development and Inter-Imperiality in the Afro-Eurasian World Region (300 B.C. -300 A.D.)

Dieser Vortrag stellt die Ergebnisse von sechs Jahren interdisziplinärer Forschung innerhalb des gleichnamigen vom Europäischen Forschungsrat geförderten Forschungsprojekts vor. Ausgehend von dem Befund, dass die „Seidenstraße“ ein koloniales Narrativ globaler wirtschaftlicher Ost-Westbeziehungen ist, wird ein komplexeres Modell dieser Beziehungen diskutiert, in dem weniger die Nachfrage nach exotischen Luxusgütern in imperialen Zentren als die multidirektionalen sozialen, religiösen und fiskalisch-militärisch begründeten Netzwerke, die sich in den imperialen Systemen der Afro-Eurasischen Welt über lange Zeiträume hinweg entwickelten, im Mittelpunkt stehen. Der Blick auf Netzwerk- statt Marktbeziehungen oder Handelsrouten lenkt die Aufmerksamkeit auf inter-imperiale Grenzzonen, deren Transformation zentral für das Anwachsen von transimperialem Handel und Austausch war. In diesem Kontext kann eine neue globalhistorische Perspektive entwickelt werden, in der eine wie auch immer geartete „Seidenstraße“ weder Motor noch Resultat von religiösem, wirtschaftlichem oder intellektuellem Austausch war, sondern dieser Austausch auf ganz unterschiedlichen  und weniger direkten Wegen stattfand.         

PD Dr. Heinrich Lang

The Global Sea: Trade and Transfer in the Mediterranean in late Middle Ages

This lecture will introduce to the history of the Mediterranean Sea in the Late Middle Ages. Aiming at the history of trade and forms of transfer over and around the maritime spaces it focusses on travelling humans, animals, objects, and ideas. Since Antiquity the Mediterranean Sea was at the centre of globalising developments on different layers of – transcultural – transfers in networks and the interconnection of peripheric places. The permanent change in terms of religious movements and constellations of power is as characteristic of the history of the Mediterranean as the continuities in webs of trade routes, the presence of corsairs and pragmatic adaptation of oscillating identities are.

For historiography, geographical structures and political developments in relation to vertices and nods of exchange are the main features within the almost classical approaches by Fernand Braudel and the more recent one by David Abulafia. The general concept of the Mediterranean spaces nowadays is above all interconnectivity: port cities and their hinterlands as well as the sea itself for being a medium of transfer and connection to the neighbouring seas gave shape to a complex and wide ranging area in the world. Many scholars worked on Mediterranean trade, trade diasporas, transcultural encounters, and the constitutive role of religion for transcultural contact. However, from the Arabic perspective the Mediterranean Sea is not of very much interest but a dividing geographical frontier to aggressive Christians from the North.

The Late Middle Ages in the Mediterranean context refers to the period between the Great Pleague and the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire incorporated not only the Levant shores of the Mediterranean Sea but also Northern Africa, the Balkans and most of the islands in the Eastern part of Mediterranean including Greece. The history of these two centuries represent a span of time, when the Mediterranen lost its centrality for the European history, although it continued to be central for the Christian-Muslim-exchange and the back-up of European economy.

Prof. Jon Keune

Navigating Buddhisms, Transnational Labor, and Social Upliftment: Ambedkarites in Diaspora

Since 1956, following the conversion of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and a half million of his followers to protest social inequities and caste-based oppression, a newly formed Indian Buddhist community has sought better lives through higher education, political assertion, and transnational migration for work. Rather than join a preexisting Asian Buddhist tradition (such as the Theravada sangha in Sri Lanka), Ambedkarites have articulated their own distinctly modern vision of Buddhism that advocates for social equality while reckoning with limited resources and the systemic effects of caste prejudice. Consequently, Buddhism for Ambedkarites usually has a very strong social and political dimension that does not conform to popular (especially Western) expectations of Buddhism as a primarily “spiritual” or “contemplative” religion. In the past thirty years, highly educated Ambedkarites have increasingly found professional opportunities in the Middle East, Japan, UK, USA, and elsewhere. As they migrate and resettle, and as their children grow up outside India, they encounter other forms of Buddhism and other expectations of how religion ought to function in different geopolitical contexts. Drawing on field work in Asia, Europe, and North America in the mode of “anthropology of Buddhism,” this talk explores how Ambedkarites in their everyday lives are navigating diaspora circumstances, diverse forms of Buddhism, and commitments to social upliftment and home communities, while pursuing professional and economic advancement internationally.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Rau

A “global city”? Lyon and its fairs from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period

Lyon was an important trade city and known for its fairs throughout Europe since the late 15th century. This lecture will discuss what distinguished historical fairs from ordinary markets, where and when they were held, and which goods were traded there. It will then address the scope of Lyon’s fairs (origin of merchants, goods, places of destination) and whether it is appropriate to speak of a ‘global city’ avant la lettre.

While at first one would not associate an economic event such as a fair or a market with religion, on closer inspection it looks quite different: 1. fairs often began on a church holiday, 2. the Church formulated moral standards for economic, profit-oriented action, 3. fair traders also wanted to perform their religious services during a fair. But how did this work out in a decidedly Catholic city, where Protestants (until 1685) were at best tolerated, but did not have their own church? 

The lecture will present fresh research results and insights into a virtual exhibition.

Dr. Sara Keller

Water in medieval India: Circulation and Integration of hydraulic knowledge

The diffusion of Persian irrigation technologies in the Indian subcontinent certainly revolutionised South Asian agricultural methods, rural landscapes and land benefits. What about the city? This lecture addresses the emergence of new hydraulic techniques in urban India during the late medieval period: underground cisterns, qanats and Persian wheel not only changed the hydro-systems of cities, they also modified water related practices and urban landscapes. With the help of specific examples of Western India and the Konkan coast, the lecture will look at the ways knowledge circulated and the necessary conditions for a durable integration of alien knowledge in an already established cultural and technological system.

Dr. Lauren Morris

Risky business: why did a network of Sogdian professional merchants come to exist at all?

The Sogdian Ancient Letters (written around 313 CE and discovered some 80 km from Dunhuang) provide a glimpse into the activities of Sogdians of diverse means involved especially in trade along stations from Kroraina to the capitals of inner China, as well as the capacity of some individuals to correspond with associates back home in Samarkand. Potential earlier evidence for Sogdian trade is now well explored in the literature, and ongoing research and new discoveries continue to shed significant new light on the historical context of Sogdiana in the preceding centuries, when this territory was dominated by rulers linked to a still-hazy nomadic polity centered on the middle Syr Darya: the Kangju confederacy. However, I contend that the very existence of Sogdian professional merchants in this particular milieu demands more critical interrogation. In this lecture, I draw on a diverse body of sources to consider how long-term dynamics of political and economic organization in Sogdiana and the middle Syr Darya through the antique period shaped local participation in long-distance trade, highlighting intersections between institutional change, hierarchical versus heterarchical modes of elite political organization, local economic development, and access to surplus wealth and imported goods over time. Stressing long-distance mercantile activity as a risky enterprise, I argue that professional merchants probably emerged in the orbit of a small stratum of elites in order to facilitate provisioning, subsequently accumulating wealth and creating mercantile organizations. I argue that powerful figures within such organizations then came to act as brokers of emigration of Sogdians of lesser means to the east, including some of the figures we meet in the Ancient Letters.

Monica H. Green

Transcontinental Microbial Exchanges: Experiences of the Black Death in Afro-Eurasia

For 700 years, narratives about the Black Death have presented it as a sudden, cataclysmic event that struck the Mediterranean and Europe in the late 1340s. In the past few years, however, as it has become possible to research the biological history of plague, it seems that the late medieval pandemic progressed in stages. And it did so across a larger geographic area, and across a longer time span, than we previously understood. As it is now defined, the Second Plague Pandemic probably began with a series of spillover events in the thirteenth century that moved plague surreptitiously out of a long-term, isolated reservoir in Central Asia throughout the expanding Mongol Empire. That context also meant that experience of dealing with plague outbreaks was now shared across the better part of Eurasia, with increasing spread in the fourteenth century into parts of Africa.

These realizations are so new that historians and anthropologists are only beginning to ask new questions about how we might document these transforming bacterial landscapes. The fact that this was a bacterium means that different societies were reacting only to the visible epiphenomena that plague caused. Since plague is a rodent disease, most historical reports of the disease will only document it when it reaches the apex of transmission: humans. Other levels of its trophic cascade across species will have been invisible or, if noticed, rarely recorded by humans.

How, then, are we to reconstruct the causes of the most vivid episodes of plague: its urban outbreaks? This talk will summarize some recent findings that point to the timing and surrounding circumstances of plague’s arrival in different parts of the late medieval Afro-Eurasian world. A major factor in plague’s spread was long-distance grain trade. As these practices increased along with the rise of urban populations, the epidemic threats increased, too.

For futher information, please consult the E.L.V.I.S.-Website

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, April 13). Lecture Series 2023: Global Exchanges – Trade, Knowledge, and Religion. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3g1

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