Memory, History and Religion

To give “urban religion” a historical dimension that reaches beyond “modernity” (whatever that is) means to talk about religious change. But is religion a subject adapted to narratives of change in the face of so many religious claims about unchangeability? This contribution brings together some proposals and observations on historicizing religion.

I have argued at length elsewhere that historians of religion unintentionally collaborate with the intentions of their sources to construct and polemically define borderlines of religious groups („religions“) (Rüpke 2011, 2015). Religious groups or people claiming to speak in and for such a group cherish memories and produce narratives that might concentrate on a founding phase or engage with memories of some event seen as significant. Awareness of changeability is permanently present, even if this needs not take the form of narratives, of organized historiography. There are alternatives to textual narrative. For instance ritual can serve to dramatically act out the past (Assmann 1999; Chaniotis 2005; Eschebach 2005) in a mode of memorizing or re-presentation, as is demonstrated from the ancient Mediterranean world by the genre of the praetexta (as the protagonists wear the “embroidered” toga of office-holders) on late republican Roman stages (See Manuwald 2001). Stories can be memorized in school and bodily exercise as well as commemorated in public speech. Memories can take the form of large-scale monuments, images can focus on constellations and scenes, pointing to and systematizing previous narratives, or even gain narrative powers; again, Roman historical reliefs offer good examples. In order to characterize this type of inter-mediality, one might speak of “iconotexts” (Squire 2009, 192).

I have not been very precise in my use of the terms “memory” and “history” so far. “Memory” has developed into a powerful heuristic tool, going much beyond the metaphorical transfer of cerebral and psychic mnemonics to social processes initiated by Maurice Halbwachs nearly a century ago (Halbwachs 1925, 1992; for the following see Rüpke 2016 with further references). “Memory” evocates complex processes of association, of temporal marking, of individual appropriation, and of conscious evocation. It designates those parts of knowledge that include a self-reflective knowledge about the past temporal circumstances of the sedimentation of this knowledge (Berek 2009: 70).

In such a perspective, history is just a form of social memory, if we take history in a narrow sense taking sides with Paul Ricoeur, in looking for a discursive, usually narrative reconstruction of the past (Ricoeur 1984-85). Religion, traditionally associated with mythical narratives, offering founding stories for present values and institutions, could at the same time easily comfort non-discursive individual and collective memories in monuments and rituals as already suggested. Historiography would critically engage with individual and collective memory and gain its plausibility and importance by such memories. It is this dialectical recourse on memory, which marks a difference to mythical narrative.

But how could a contingent history, which stresses the pastness of the past, be used as a source of legitimacy and identity? Probably – but this is merely a hypothesis – conflicts and contesting claims have very often served as triggers for the production of alternate narratives. History, then, would never come in the singular. It comes in a plurality of voice. “Religious narratives are arguments. Particularly in a manuscript culture, where to make even a single copy of a text was a laborious enterprise, people did not commit religiously significant stories to writing to record matters in which there was not already consensus. They recorded and circulated stories to persuade others to certain views, values, or attitudes” (Campany 2017). This observation for East Asian historiography is fully valid for circum-Mediterranean texts, too. Such a plural tends to be contested, endangered. Like memory it has to be studied as a social, a communicative enterprise (see Connerton 1989: 38). The Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit had used that plurality to characterize history as a competition and succession of representations that aim at truth in trying to be better than other accounts (Ankersmit 2001, 2005).

Critically, from the start, history – as opposed to mere memory – introduces contingency in order to question the established truths of others. To introduce competition into the legitimizing repository of the past is a powerful instrument, but risky. Thus, some epochs and some areas are more prone to historiography than others. And this is where historicizing of religion comes into play again. In general, religion does not seem a very likely candidate for historicizing. Meta-historical claims, gods outside of time and immune against change, traditional authority in a Weberian sense seem to be the hallmarks of religion. Frequently, myths tell stories of a distant past that establish binding norms not despite the fact that this past is categorically different from today, another age, but binding based on this fact.

By and large, views on religion are dominated by claims of the eternity of divine beings and the traditional character of religious practices. Is not religion the cultural phenomenon that is most intensively legitimized by it being traditional? According to the French sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger religion in modernity is to be understood as a collective memory of a distant founding event, which produces sense. The traditional character of religion therefore is paradoxically very historical and construing a place for itself beyond history. “To the degree that all present signification is presumably contained, at least potentially, in the founding event, the past is symbolically constituted as an unchangeable whole, situated ‘out of time’, that is, out of history.” (Hervieu-Léger 2008) There is an important consequence. Even if a religious group does not explicitly historicize itself, it does narrate history. And in a typically manner religions do not only tell local history, but world and cosmic history, implying pervasive orientations – even for any “secular” sort of historical narrative.

Among the specifics of religious historiography, the following should be pointed out. (I quote here directly from Otto, Rau and Rüpke 2015: 4-6):

  • “One of the main characteristics of religious practices is that they attribute agency to actors that are underdetermined and not equally accepted in their properties or situational relevancy by the human actors involved in that situation […] Expectably, such actors also play a major role in historical narratives composed by religious groups, even though they can take many different forms […]
  • Religious narratives on the past often include unique modes of historiographical argumentation […] History might be conceptualised as timeless, circular or as a period of decay that steers towards a final catastrophe or triumphal end […]
  • Religious narrative and recollection of the past […] enjoy a particularly wide range of media […] Hymns and prayers, for example, enable frequent repetition and memorising; liturgical recital functions in a similar manner. Rituals beyond the verbal support imaginings of the past in mimetic form or dramatic play or even competition […]
  • Finally, religious historiography might arise not only in all those established contexts and routines of professional historiography […] Particularly situations of inner- or inter-religious conflicts – due to competing authorities or doctrinal strife – frequently gave (and give) rise to narratives that sketch different pasts (and even futures) and different genealogies. This might justify separation or legitimise authority, but it could also imply attempts to form alliances or include people otherwise conceptualised as out-groups. Histories of religions thus seem to arise in contexts of diversity and plurality […]”.

— Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.


Ankersmit, Frank R. 2001, Historical representation, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.

— 2005, Sublime historical experience, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Pr.

Assmann, Aleida 1999, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, München: C. H. Beck.

Berek, Mathias 2009, Kollektives Gedächtnis und die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit: Eine Theorie der Einnerungskulturen (Kultur- und sozialwissen-schaftliche Studien 2), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Campany, Robert Ford 2017, 1.

Chaniotis, Angelos 2005, ‘Akzeptanz von Herrschaft durch ritualisierte Dankbarkeit und Erinnerung’, in Claus Ambos, Stephan Hotz and Gerald Schwedler (eds.), Die Welt der Rituale: Von der Antike bis heute, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. 188-204.

Connerton, Paul 1989, How societies remember, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr.

Eschebach, Insa 2005, Öffentliches Gedenken: Deutsche Erinnerungskulturen seit der Weimarer Republik, Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

Halbwachs, Maurice 1925, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris,.

— 1992, On collective memory, trans. Lewis A. Coser (Ed., transl. and with an introd. by Lewis A. Coser. edn.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hervieu-Léger, Danièle 2008, ‘Religion as Memory: Reference to Tradition and the Constitution of a Heritage of Belief in Modern Societies’, in Hent de Vries (ed.), Religion: Beyond a concept, New York, NY: Fordham Univ. Press. 245-58.

Manuwald, Gesine 2001, Fabulae praetextae: Spuren einer literarischen Gattung der Römer (Zetemata 108), München: Beck.

Otto, Bernd-Christian, Rau, Susanne and Rüpke, Jörg (eds.) 2015, History and religion: Narrating a religious past (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 68), Berlin: de Gruyter.

Ricoeur, Paul 1984-85, Time and narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Rüpke, Jörg 2011, ‘History’, in Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion, London: Routledge. 285-309.

— 2015, ‘Construing ‘religion’ by doing historiography: The historicisation of religion in the Roman Republic’, in Bernd-Christian Otto, Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke (eds.), History and religion: Narrating a religious past (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 68), Berlin: de Gruyter. 45-62.

— 2016, ‘Knowledge of Religion in Valerius Maximus’ Exempla: Roman Historiography and Tiberian Memory Culture’, in Karl Galinsky (ed.), Memory in Ancient Romne and Early Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 89-111.

Squire, Michael 2009, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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