Conference Report on “Urban Heterarchies” by Claudia Heise

Claudia Heise recently published a conference report on our annual conference “Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities” on the website H-Soz-Kult. From the report:

[The] conference of the DFG-funded Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779), introduced the concept of heterarchy to develop a more complex understanding of various sources of power interacting in a competition for precedence and authority within cities and interurban networks from antiquity to the present. To shed heuristic light on the occurrence of shifts in power structures influencing both the urban societal and religious life, as well as the production of stable and unstable configurations, the organizers invited a multidisciplinary group of international experts to the Protestant Monastery of St. Augustine in Erfurt to a fruitful exchange.

Read the full text here.

Walking through the streets of Calicut (I)

As the readers of this blog already know, I currently come to Calicut frequently. The official name of the city is “Kozhikode” (in Malayalam: കോഴിക്കോട്), but the word is difficult for Europeans to pronounce, so we better stay with Calicut. Arab traders are said to have given it this name (Qāliqūṭ).

When we think of large Indian cities today, we usually think of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta, or perhaps Bangalore. These are all megacities today or they will be in a few years. We could also call them ‘global cities’ because they are commercial and financial centres with networks that span the globe. Of course, caution is always advisable when we transfer modern concepts to the past. But I would like to show to what extent, since the late Middle Ages, one or the other city understood itself to be global, in the sense of globally networked trade relations or a religious centre which attracted people from all over the world – sometimes both.

From today’s point of view, Calicut is not a city that stands out in demographic, religious or economic terms. It has about half a million inhabitants, or two million if you include the entire agglomeration. This puts the city around the 100th position in the Indian city ranking. This was different in the late Middle Ages and early modern times.

Calicut was already at that time an internationally known port and a trading centre. This also has to do with its prehistory. Since the early Middle Ages, Arab traders settled here. Ibn Batuta from Tangier already determined in the middle of the 14th century that there was an important port in Calicut, to which traders from many distant regions would come. Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, after he had succeeded in finding the sea route to India. The Portuguese built a fortified factory in 1513, but abandoned it in 1525 for fear of it falling into the hands of the enemy. In 1616, the English followed them. In 1766, Haidar Ali took the city; in 1782, the British occupied it.

The more Europeans – especially the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – entered the South Asian markets, the more trade in Calicut and thus the importance of the city declined (Mathew 2006). Until at least the end of the 16th century, however, Calicut was one of the most important seaports and trading centres connecting Malacca in the east with Venice in the west.

In Europe, too, the city was known early amongst the merchant communities and in the scholarly milieu. The view of Calicut in the city book by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, published between 1572 and 1618, is evidence of this.

View of Calicut from 1572. (See here for copyright details).

On the cartouche one can read: “Calechut Celeberrimum Indiae Emporium”, which means “Calicut, famous Indian centre of trade”. Of the Indian cities only Kannur, Goa and Diu were otherwise present with a city view in this book.

Based on these assessments, I would like to examine in more detail how urbanity has developed in this city, or whether and how contemporary observers perceived urbanity. Or, if we take a step back, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

In order to find answers to these questions, I first try to follow the travelers of that time on their paths through the city or try to reconstruct their descriptions. Of course, this is only possible if they have left written reports. It makes sense to distinguish here with Michel de Certeau two types of reports: map and parcours. The report type “map” describes a city “from above” as if the person were standing on a mountain or tower. With the “parcours” we can follow the traveller through the streets (see Rau 2011). The travelers, whether they are traders or pilgrims, are also basically ‘global actors’ in that they contribute in a praxeological sense – by travelling between distant places and making connections or comparisons in the narrative – to the formation of “globality” or at least an idea of it.

In a series of contributions, I will follow one traveller at a time on his way through the city or – optionally – follow him on the imaginary elevation in order to gradually construct an image of this city between the 15th and 17th century. Today we will start with François Pyrard (1578-1621), who is usually called “de Laval”, because he came from the French town of Laval in northwest France.

François Pyrard set sail from St. Malo in May 1601 in a small two-ships squadron belonging to local ship owners to sail to India, perhaps to the Moluccas. Two months later Pyrard’s ship was shipwrecked near the Maldives. The other ship sailed on to Sumatra. Together with some other sailors, Pyrard spent five years on Malé as a guest against his will. Pyrard observed the people and learned their language (Dhivehi), which gave him a deeper insight into their way of life. In 1607, during a Bengali raid on the archipelago, he was captured and taken to Chittagong. From there, i.e. far in the east, he made a long journey to the Malabar Coast, to Calicut, Cochin, Cannanore and Goa, possibly also to other cities (Bouchon 1989; Lelièvre 2014, p. 22).

The Malabar and Coromandel Coast (Peninusila Indiae citra Gangem; Nuremberg: 1733; Bern University Library)

In 1610 the group finally succeeded in returning to Europe and even to France via Africa and Brazil, where Pyrard then wrote a report on his travel adventures and observations. It was published a few years later in a total of three volumes: in 1611 first in a Discours, then in 1615 a more extensive version in two volumes (see Bibliography).

Pyrard writes not only about the layout of the city and the houses, but also about the streets and squares and the water basins, the – actually non-existent – city walls that the Europeans were always looking for, the merchants and the traded goods. The description is one of the longest we have from this period, and so dense that when reading it, one can almost grasp the ”way of life” of this city:

„The town of Calecut is the court, and, as it were, a summary of the whole kingdom. I resided there much, and I can say that it is a very fair and great city, situate on the sea-shore, in extent from one end to the other more than a league and a half of beach, and along the whole of that distance between the town and the sea are only the houses of the Moucois [i.e. Mukkuva-s], the fishermen, and other poor folks, who also have there their Pagode [read: Hindu shrine] and temples. All the beach or strand is covered with almedies, or little fishing barques, and other vessels. The circuit of the town is more than five leagues, but what is called Calecut is, in fact, a large district covered with handsome, large, and magnificent buildings and spacious enclosures, in such wise that a single house requires a very large space for all its gardens, orchards, fishponds, and plantations. And all around are mansions of this sort only, full of people, as well Nairs, Malabars, and Mahometans, as all manner of foreigners, who are welcomed there. [Nairs or Nayars is the name for a South Indian caste, warriors and land tenants.] For it is not as in the other towns of the Malabars, which are only occupied by the Malabars: here you see all sorts of temples and Pagodes, large and well built, for all the several religions, of which I shall speak anon.”

After having described location, dimensions, villa-like houses and religious diversity, Pyrard comes to infrastructure: water tanks, walls, bazaars, the harbour.

“There are many public tanks, which are very large, well paved, and furnished with balustrades of stone work, and are well cleaned and maintained. Each religion has its own; and there is one such that is a quarter of a league in ambit of the square. These are highly necessary, owing to the excessive heat of the climate. The walls of this town are not very strong: it is only enclosed with earth-works and low walls. The houses are not built in order or arranged in streets as in Europe, but are scattered about in confusion: but in one part of the town, that next to the sea, and near to the great magazine of the king called Alfandeque, there is a quarter of about a half league in circuit, which is built and arranged in streets, as in these parts. In that part of the town are only shops, of all manner of trades, artizans and merchants, which are necessary for the public weal. All this quarter has a barrier round about, although it is within the enclosure of the whole city. In these houses they keep only such furniture and utensils as are necessary.

Their markets, which they call Bazar, or little towns, are so full of people all the day long that it is difficult to pass them. These people are of all races, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. At nightfall, everyone shuts his warehouse and shop securely with bars and heavy iron padlocks, and goes home with his family to his house, which is as I have described, with its gardens and enclosures. The buildings of this Bazar are very large and well-constructed of stone and wood, and supplied with shops, warehouses, and yards, all securely enclosed: these serve only to keep their merchandise and goods, or for the purposes of their crafts, and there they spend the day only. There are three large spaces in these enclosures, where the market is held every day of the week. This market is surrounded with gates and walls, and the gatekeepers let none pass the night in these warehouses containing the merchandise; and yet nothing is ever lost, so excellent is their judicature and police. In these enclosures remain only officers and gatekeepers, whose duty it is to keep watch and ward throughout the night. There is not a single temple there. The vessels which enter and anchor at Calecut, bringing all that merchandise, ride there with no great security, for there is no proper port or harbor, but only a roadstead, so that when the wind is from the sea they are in great peril. The land is low, and there is a little cape or promontory jutting out into the sea.”

Then he goes into more detail about the way houses are built, which he compares with that of the Maldives.

“As for the fashion and form of the buildings of the country, it is to be noted that the common people build with earth, and thatch their houses with coco-leaves, but not with such care and skill as the Maldive people. Taking some earth, they mix it with water, and mold it into large squares, which they dry in the sun, and then use for their walls; but the rich and well-to-do build with good stone, and roof with tiles. All their buildings are square, like four arcaded pavilions with a court in the middle. Their carpentry and joinery is the handsomest and prettiest it is possible to see: it is worked of diverse agreeable designs, as we do our finest sideboards and tables, and all painted. Their houses have stories, but not so many as ours. Some have two or three buildings of this style in the midst of others; that in the midst has a smaller court and arcade; the others are round about it in a square. They construct their houses and courts in this fashion, to avoid spilling or casting a drop of water or any dirt upon their floors, which are as clean as a table of highly polished wood.

All the houses of the Malabars are of this sort. They have large porches at the entrance to their houses, as well poor as rich, within the enclosure: for all their houses are enclosed with walls, – that is, those of the rich; the rest have ditches and good strong palisades of wood, and note that these are so high that when one wants to go from one house to another one must ascend a ladder of five or six steps, and so descend, while on both sides are wooden barriers which close with locks. You never see there any house but has its garden and orchard, small or large. These porches or Aviards in front of the houses are for receiving passing strangers, both for giving them meat and drink, and also a place to rest and sleep; they take them not inside their houses, so that they may depart during the night when they will, and whenever their boats, or if they be wayfarers, their fellow-travellers, are ready to depart.”

Finally, it is explained why Calicut is the most important trading city in the whole of India. Pyrard probably emphasized that the religious freedom prevailing in the city was particularly conducive to trade, especially against the background of the experiences in his home country France.

“But to return to what concerns this town of Calecut in general: it is the busiest and most full of all traffic and commerce in the whole of India; it has merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there: for the king permits the exercise of every kind of religion, and yet it is strictly forbidden to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score, every one living in great liberty of conscience under the favour and authority of the king, who holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government, with a view to making his kingdom very rich and of great intercourse. If by chance there should arise any difference or disturbance on that subject, he who began it would receive corporal punishment, as being guilty of treason, without hope of pardon or remission of sentence. This is why everyone lives there in great peace and concord, notwithstanding the great diversity of races and religions of the inhabitants, and of strangers and sojourners: for besides the native Gentiles [that is, Hindus] and Mahometans, there are many Christians. In former times the Portuguese lived there, and had two towns and fortresses, which they had permission of the king to build near the sea, yet was there never friendship or any good understanding between the two; in so much that these towns and fortresses were captured and razed by the native kings and the Portuguese driven out, and at the present day they have neither town nor fortress there, as I have remarked already. At present, however, they are at peace, and the Portuguese by divers presents cultivate as best they can the friendship of this king, whom they fear more than any other. For the purposes of trade, there is at Calecut a factor on behalf of the Viceroy of Goa, assisted by a clerk, along with their wives and families. This factor is a kind of agent or ambassador, having also the power of issuing passports to the Indian merchants; for at all the harbours and ports of India, which are at peace with the Portuguese, the latter have these factors for this purpose, otherwise the merchants would have much trouble in going for passports to the Portuguese towns.

There reside also two Jesuit fathers, the one an Italian, the other a Portuguese, who are well received of the king, and get from him a pension of a hundred crowns a year, worth more than five hundred in Spain, besides what they have from the king of Portugal for their living and maintenance. They have builded a very handsome and large church, with an enclosure and cemetery attached, near the sear-shore, on ground presented by the king; and they have the king’s leave and licence to convert the people to Christianity, so long as they use no constraint. Their labours had borne good fruit at the time of my departure, for there were already a good number of new Christians [that is, converts]. They preached publicly in their church, and not elsewhere. They are very well housed, and have very fine gardens, and before their church is a large cross. The Christians all have their houses in the same quarter near to one another, which they have themselves built. There are, however, some among them that are not Christians, and even in the same house will sometimes be found inmates of different religions. [….] Having spoken of the Christians resident at Calecut, I shall proceed with what concerns the other religions that are practiced there. Among others, the Jews have their own quarter and synagogue, which none enter but they. The Mahometans, although they be of divers races and countries, yet have no difference of religion (except the Persians [i.e. Parsis]), and frequent the temple of the Mahometan Malabars. There is also another race of Gentiles besides the natives, who, albeit of the same religion, make no alliances with them, nor go to their temples, but have their own Pagode, using none other: of such are the Banians [or Vanya-s: members of the Vanya merchant community from Gujarat] of Cambaye and Diu, who have their own Bramenis, and hold them in the greatest honour. Yet the Bramenis of Malabar may freely enter their Pagode, as having common rights with them. This leads me to say that they are the one race in India who are throughout all the countries held in the highest esteem, for there are some of them among all the Gentile Indians.” (Pyrard 1887, vol. 1, p. 401-407)

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Pyrard, François: Discours du voyage des François aux Indes Orientales, ensemble des divers accidens, adventures et dangers de l’auteur en plusieurs royaumes des Indes et du séjour qu’il y a fait par dix ans, depuis l’an 1601 jusques en cette année 1611… Traité et description des animaux arbres et fruicts des Indes Orientales… plus un brief advertissement pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes, Paris 1611.

Voyage de François Pyrard de Laval contenant sa navigation aux Indes orientales, aux molusques et au Brésil. Les divers accidens, adventures et dangers qui lui sont arrivez en ce voyage… avec la description des païs, mœurs, loix, façons de vivre, police et gouvernement, du trafic et commerce qui s’y fait…, 2 t. en 1 vol, Paris 1615.

Modern scholarly edition:

Voyage de Pyrard de Laval aux Indes orientales, 1601-1611 contenant sa navigation aux Maldives, Moluques, Brésil ; les divers accidents, aventures & dangers qui lui sont arrivés en ce voyage […] ; avec un petit dictionnaire de la langue des Maldives ; un traité des animaux & plantes des Indes, plus un bref avertissement & avis pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes orientales, préface de Geneviève Bouchon; établissement du texte & notes de Xavier de Castro. Suivi en annexe de La relation du voyage des Français à Sumatra / de François Martin de Vitré, 1601-1603, 2 vols., Paris 1998.

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, transl. Albert Gray, 2 vol. in 3, London 1887-1890.

Research literature:

Bouchon, Geneviève: A French traveler in Portuguese India (1601-1610): François Pyrard de Laval, in: STVDIA 49 (1989), p. 301-314.

Bouchon, Geneviève: Sixteenth Century Malabar and the Indian Ocean, in: Ashin Das Gupta, Michael Naylor Pearson (eds.), India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, Oxford 1987, p. 162-184.

Lelièvre, Guillaume: Les précurseurs de la Compagnie française des Indes orientales, 1601-1622. Thèse d’histoire, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, 2014. HAL Id: tel-01658114

Mahlke, Stefan (ed.): Atlas der Globalisierung. Welt in Bewegung (Karten und Grafiken von Adolf Buitenhuis), Berlin 2019.

Mathew, K.S.: Calicut, the international emporium of maritime trade and the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, in: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 67 (2006), p. 251-270.

Narayanan, M.G.S.: Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006).

Rau, Susanne: Zeit-Räume, Parcours und Karte. Die Raum-Erkundungen der Reisenden in frühneuzeitlichen Großstädten, in: Elisabeth Tiller, Christoph O. Mayer (eds.), RaumErkundungen. Einblicke und Ausblicke, Heidelberg 2011, p. 154-180

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay: Historicizing the Global, or Labouring for Invention?, in: History Workshop Journal 64 (2007), p. 329-334, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm040

Urbanity Performed: The Bronze Figure in Erfurt’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Erfurt Oath of the Jews


According to its design, the bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral served best, in terms of the position of the arms, hands and balance, to present a scroll.[1] Neither the position of the left hand nor a third candleholder, which did not associate candle-holding with the human anatomy, suggests a holder of three candles, as the figure was used from 1425 at the latest. This alone is the basis on which the following argumentation is based. It requires no identification as Aaron, no Jewish owner or Jews, who had commissioned the work, and is compatible with an original installation in St. Mary’s Cathedral – I will discuss this at the end of my contribution.

The structure of the argument here is simple and it only reassembles known objects and texts. Where in medieval Erfurt did a need to present a large-format scroll exist? We know the only plausible scrolls of the epoch – just that was the starting point of our essay of 2016. These are Jewish Torah scrolls, which in their preserved oversize fit the statue perfectly. But where were these to be presented? Liturgically, this was the case in the synagogue ritual, a context, however, against which some arguments have been raised, iconographic ones (the lack of any covering of the hair) and as yet unpublished claims about the inscriptions on the girdle being cast rather than engraved and the girdle being an inseparable part of the astonishing composite figure. But there was a second context not yet discussed so far: the oath of the Jews. It is this hypothesis that I will discuss here.

Reconstruction Aaron, by Irene Rüpke

The Pledge of Allegiance

Just like the scroll-holder and the Erfurt Torah scrolls, the Erfurt Judeneid also poses riddles. The text is dated to the time shortly before 1200, the object to the time shortly after 1200, making the Erfurt oath of the Jews not only the oldest preserved text of a German-speaking oath to be taken by the Jews, but also the oldest independent official document in the German language; we see an official use of the German language only from the end of the 13th century onwards. And it is also the oldest text testifying to the existence of a Jewish community in Erfurt, which, however, is mentioned shortly afterwards, in 1212, in a document originating from Mainz.

The document provokes questions, even if both the ritual and the legal context are generally well known, not least thanks to the work of Christine Magin, Reinhard Ruf-Haag and Maike Lämmerhirt on the legal status of Jews in medieval Germany and in Erfurt in particular.[2]

Judeneid, Stadtarchiv Erfurt

The oath, as conditional “self-cursing”, is a religious technique that opens up enormous scope for action where the means of verification, control or sanction of the parties involved cannot ensure the reliability of the actions of the human parties involved. This applies equally to both types of oaths, which were ideally distinguishable in medieval Europe:

  • The assertoric oath affirms a statement of fact and finds its place above all in the settlement of disputes, in the judicial system.
  • The promissory oath reaffirms the promise of a future achievement and finds its place above all in the formation of alliances, whether this is the coniuratio of a citizenship, the oath of allegiance of vassals or an oath of alliance, which in each case was the first to establish these communities.[3]

In the event of false testimony or failure to keep the promise, the sworn committer calls upon divine powers to destroy him (or her). In theological reflections of the early Middle Ages, one could even speak of another sacrament, the “sacrament of the oath”.[4] The shared belief in the fulfillment of what has been requested, that is, in the sanctioning power of the invoked divine power and the associated high risk of perjury, transforms the sworn statements and promises into a sustainable basis for coordinated action among people halfway equals or, in this very matter, treated as equals.

While Jews in medieval European societies were often inferior in theological, legal-theoretical and canonical respects, and at best tolerated as living witnesses of the Old Covenant and even protected from afar, by emperors, kings, and sovereigns,[5] the situation in concrete urban contexts may have been quite different. Here, Jewish men (and women) possessed skills, material resources, knowledge or economic contacts that made them partners not only selectively but permanently, in short, neighbours. This very fact made it necessary to integrate them also beyond the religious border into the web of sworn obligations and assertions and created the “Jew’s oath”: a form of conditional religious oath swearing that was credible and reliable also for the Christian partners.

In accordance with this objective and against the background of a rich and diverse pagan, Jewish and Christian tradition of oaths, rituals were created that took into account both sides, the highest obligation and deterrent for the Jews who took the oaths, as well as the Christian witnesses who had to trust in the effectiveness of the self-commitment. The oath worn before the Creator God and the representation of this God by his most important sacred writings – the Pentateuch instead of the Gospels used for Christian oaths – offered the solution that had certainly been pursued since late antiquity. The imagination of the sanctions and the sanctioning instances to be formulated in the “self-cursing” of the oath taker were oriented on precedents in exactly these texts, the stereotypes remained quite stable, even if oaths were repeatedly reformulated. One can rather speak here of a transferable motif than of a textual genealogy.[6]

Variations were offered by the ritual arrangement of the oath. The tendency was that in cases of lesser importance the taking of the oath was tolerated to be performed in immediate Jewish contexts, e.g. by swearing an oath by a Torah in a synagogue, taken by a person understood by Christians as a Jewish cleric. “Self-cursing” had to work in its own religious context after all. But the emphasis could also be shifted to the public sphere of the witnesses to the oath, from the synagogue door to the courtroom.[7] In the former case, the ritual could also be designed as an utterance when holding on or connecting to the doors of a synagogue. In public spaces it was important to guarantee the authenticity of the sacred text present in the ritual of the oath. This may have required reassurances from Jewish specialists.[8]

A last loophole had to be closed by the formulaic nature of the oath itself: It was not to be spontaneouly formulated, but had to be written, read out loud and repeated.[9] All this in a language that allowed the person swearing, but above all the witnesses, to understand the process including the far-reaching consequences that resulted from the verbal act, the performative utterance. At Erfurt, the decision was taken to use the German language. And it was the oath of the Jews in which this language was given the status of a language of documents for the first time here, indeed in the whole of Germany as mentioned at the beginning.[10]

Schwabenspiegel, MS Bruxellensis 14689-91, fol. 204r, early 15h century (Wikicommons)

The Erfurt oath

“Whatever this [man] accuses you of, you are innocent of it, so help you God, who created heaven and earth, leaves, flowers, and grass that did not existed before. And if you swear falsely, may the earth swallow you like Dathan and Abiram [from those around Korah]. And if you swear falsely, you shall be afflicted with the leprosy from which Naaman was healed and which attacked Gehazi [cf. 2 Kings 5]. And if you swear falsely, the law which God gave Moses in Mount Sinai and which he wrote with his own hand on the tablets of stone shall destroy you. And if you swear falsely, all the scriptures contained in the five books of Moses shall prostrate you. This is the oath of the Jews that Bishop Conrad gave to this city.”[11]

“Des dich dirre sculdegit, des bistur vnschuldic. So| dir got helfe. Der got der himel vnde erdin gescuf, | loub, blumen vnde gras, des da uore nine was. Vnde | ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich di erde uirslinde, | di Datan unde Abiron uirslant. Vnde ob du unrech|te sveris, daz dich di muselsucht biste, di Naaman-|nen liz vnde Iezi bestunt. Vnde ob du vnrecht | sweris, daz dich di é uirtilige, di gut Moisy gab | in dem berge Synay, di got selbe screib mit sinen | uingeren an der steinir tabelen. Vnde ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich uellin alle di scrift, di gescriben | sint an den uunf buchen Moisy. Dit ist der Iuden | heit, den di biscof Cuonrat dirre stat gegebin hat.”[12]

With the exception of the last sentence and one detail, both of which I will discuss in a moment, the text is unobtrusive. It brings together motifs that can also be found elsewhere, some of them already in Carolingian formulas. What is striking, on the other hand, is the magnificent design, which refers to a no less magnificent and publicly visible ritual. Even if the parchment is not worn out, it must have been used at least occasionally: The certificate cannot have been issued for display. In a very striking way the seal is attached upside down. This was not by chance, but suggests that it must have been held in a certain way: Only when someone is facing the person holding the parchment can that person see the seal properly when it is held up.[13] However, this finding by Ullrich Bruchhold needs to be further elaborated. Who holds an oath on a silk cord? It must have been the person taking the oath himself, who in this way connects himself with the text of the oath, which he must repeat in the first person, and also makes it his own physically. And here the process takes on a dimension that goes beyond the text: the oath given by Bishop Konrat II (1161-1200) is performed in the face of the city arms, the city of Erfurt, as written on  the seal: Erfordia. fidelis. est. filia M[o]gontine. sedis: “Erfurt is the faithful daughter of the bishopric of Mainz.”[14]

The ritual is, as historian Gerd Althoff puts it, a “made”, a composed, ritual, which sends certain messages in its details and yet is also able to undercut superficial messages – the rule of Bishop Konrat – [15] and bring the city of Erfurt to the fore. The oath of the Jews was an urban necessity. Like the de facto or even explicit civil rights for Jews, it was not an outflow of canonical legal thought, but a pragmatic construction that was contrary to canonical thinking. The bishop could only cover this up with his granting the privilege of an oath or citizenship – the latter in Erfurt since 1306 (perhaps not for the first time).

But the ritual still lacks the most important instrument, holy scripture. While some Jewish oath formulas stipulate that the swearing person should place his hand in a biblical book (or even a specific passage like the Decalogue), here we are referred to the Pentateuch in a very idiosyncratic formulation: “that the Scriptures might fell”, “prostrate you”.[16] This formulation, which elsewhere can only be found in the Judeneid of the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata in a manuscript from 1369,[17] would be much more concise if we imagine the presence of the biblical text in the form of one of the Erfurt giant torah scrolls. The large publicity of the ritual suggests the presence of a role instead of a book, as is regulated, for example, in citation 3.17.46 of the Meissen Law Book for higher amounts in dispute.[18] The imaginary fall of the bronze figure with its four and a half hundred weight (including the roll) above the base, which clearly towers above any oath taker, probably made such an end very vivid.

The carrier of the giant gate roll

Bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral, courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E00952 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Yet, it is not the statue but its base that my hypothetical reconstruction of the ritual directs us to. The ritual was an urban ritual that enabled the citizenry to act by making the Jews legally responsible. Jews had the financial as well as demographic strength that made them build the Old Synagogue in the shape of the 12th century. At the beginning of the 14th century they accounted for perhaps up to ten percent of the city population.[19] They were supposed to “take part, like the Christian citizens, in guard services, entrenchment work and, in an emergency, in the defence of the city”.[20] It is the walls that made up the medieval town.[21] This also applied to Erfurt. The Torah roll carrier stands with both feet inside of such a wall, is surrounded by it. In this ritual these miniature walls, which form the bronze basis of the statue, would refer to Erfurt, not to any other historical or eschatological city.

But the base is also essential in another, quite pragmatic sense. It made the Torah roll holder moveable. This figure could not be used without stable scaffolding with eyelets for support bars. Wherever else it might have had it usual place, it had to be taken to a public square, a place of justice – most likely to the cathedral square. Even if city councillors had had it made for this ritual, the process of design of figure and ritual must have been in close contact with those religious specialists that had to ensure the oath worked. Confronted with the episcopal image on the one hand, Aaron would have been the figure to counterbalance this on the other.

— 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”.


Althoff, Gerd 2003. Die Macht der Rituale. Symbolik und Herrschaft im Mittelalter. Darmstadt.

Blaha, Walter 2002. “Die Eidesformel für Erfurter Juden aus dem ausgehenden 12. Jahrhundert.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. 3-4.

Bruchhold, Ullrich 2002. “Vom rituellen Vollzug zum Verständnis Überlegungen zum Erfurter Judeneid.” In Hellrardt, Ernst, Stephan Müller, Peter Strohschneider (ed.). Literatur und Macht im mittelalterlichen Thüringen. Köln/Weimar. 31-44.

Casteigt, Julie, Dietmar Mieth, Jörg Rüpke 2016. “Der Träger der Erfurter Risentorahrolle: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Hypothese zu einem übersehenen Judaicum.” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 68 (2). 97-118.

Cohen, Jeremy 1999. Living letters of the law. Ideas of the Jew in medieval Christianity, The S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. Berkeley.

Flachenecker, Helmut 1988. Eine geistliche Stadt: Eichstätt vom 13. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert. Regensburg.

Frankel, Zacharias 1861. Der Judeneid vor den preussischen Kammern.

Herz, Gerhard 2008. “Der Erfurter Judeneid zu Ende des 12. Jahrhunderts.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. Sonderheft 8. 13-14.

Hillmann, Helmut 1930. Das Gericht als Ausdruck deutscher Kulturentwicklung im Mittelalter. Ein geistesgeschichtlicher Versuch als Beitrag zur Geschichte des ostsächsischen Rechtes auf Grund des Sachsenspiegels und des Magdeburger Rechts, Deutschrechtliche Forschungen. Stuttgart.

Isenmann, Eberhard 2012. Die deutsche Stadt im Mittelalter 1150 – 1550. Stadtgestalt, Recht, Verfassung, Stadtregiment, Kirche, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft. Wien.

Kisch, Guido 1978. Forschungen zur Rechts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden in Deutschland während des Mittelalters. Vol. Band 1, Ausgewählte Schriften. Sigmaringen.

— 1979. Forschungen zur Rechts-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden. Ausgewählte Schriften 2. Sigmaringen.

Kümper, Hiram 2007. “Juden vor Gericht im Fürstenstaat der Aufklärung: Die Kontroverse um den Judeneid.” Aschkenas-Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Kultur der Juden 17,2. 499-518.

Lämmerhirt, Maike 2007. Juden in den wettinischen Herrschaftsgebieten: Recht, Verwaltung und Wirtschaft im Spätmittelalter. Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Thüringen 21. Köln/Weimar.

— 2012. “Die Stellung der jüdischen Gemeinde Erfurts in Thüringen und Aschkenas, Erste Ergebnisse.” In Stadtverwaltung, Landeshauptstadt Erfurt (ed.). Erfurter Schriften zur jüdischen Geschichte – Die jüdische Gemeinde von Erfurt und die SchUM-Gemeinden, Kulturelles Erbe und Vernetzung. Erfurt. 28-39.

Magin, Christine 1999. “Wie es umb der iuden recht stet”: Der Status der Juden in spätmittelalterlichen Rechtsbüchern. Göttingen.

Prodi, Paolo 1992. Il sacramento del potere. Il giuramento politico nella storia costituzionale dell’Occidente, Annali dell’Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento : Monografie ; 15. Bologna.

Rauschert, Jeannette 2008. Herrschaft und Schrift: Strategien der Inszenierung und Funktionalisierung von Texten in Luzern und Bern am Ende des Mittelalters, Scrinium Friburgense. Berlin.

Ruf-Haag, Reinhold S. 2007. Juden und Christen im spätmittelalterlichen Erfurt. Abhängigkeiten, Handlungsspielräume und Gestaltung in einer mitteleuropäischen Großstadt.  Diss. Trier.

Schmidt, Annette 2002. “so dir got helfe – Die Judeneide.” In Schulze, Ursula (ed.). Juden der deutschen Litratur des Mittelalters – Religiöse Konzepte – Feindbilder – Rechtfertigungen. Tübingen. 87-105.

Stobbe, Otto 1866. Juden in Deutschland während des Mittealters in politischer, socialer und rechlicher Beziehung. Braunschweig.

Vormbaum, Thomas 2006. Der Judeneid im 19. Jahrhundert vornehmlich in Preußen. Jurisitische Zeitgeschichte 2. Berlin.

Zimmermann, Volker 1973. Die Entwicklung des Judeneides – Untersuchungen und Texte zur rechtlichen und sozialen Stellung der Juden im Mittelalter. Europäische Hochschulschriften 56. Frankfurt a. M./Bern.

[1] Demonstrated by Casteigt, Mieth, Rüpke 2016 (open access: DOI: Thus far, no arguments to the contrary have been presented. The present text has been presented in German at a conference organized by the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt in August 2016.

[2] Magin 1999 (based on Zimmermann 1973; Kisch 1978,  1979); Ruf-Haag 2007; Lämmerhirt 2007,  2012. On German Jewry s. a. Schmidt 2002.

[3] For the connection with a written legal status, see Rauschert 2008, who refers to the “sworn letter” first publicly sworn in Lucerne in 1252 (99). – The citizens’ oath was partly repeated annually, for example in Eichstätt Flachenecker 1988, 142.

[4] See Prodi 1992, 72-75; 130.

[5] Plus Cohen 1999.

[6] See the above-mentioned broadly based studies of the Jewish oath in medieval Germany – and beyond (see for example Frankel 1861, Vormbaum 2006, Kümper 2007).

[7] See, for example, the regulations of the Vienna Jewish Oath, Magin 1999, 303; see also the Görlitz Oath, possibly dating from the 12th century, ibid. 304.

[8] E.g. in the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata, Magin 1999, 307.

[9] Short Herz 2008, 14.

[10] See Bruchhold 2002.

[11] Book of Documents Hesse and Thuringia p. 150, no. 192 with the replacement of “destroy” by “prostrate” (i.e. “fell”).

[12] Mainz Book of Documents 2.2, p. 1097, no. 672.

[13] Bruchhold 2002. The performative use of the text has now been shown independently and in detail by Andreas Lehnertz (talk in November 2019, Erfurt, forthcoming in a book edited by Claudia Bergmann and Maria Stürzebecher).

[14] On the seal Blaha 2002, 4, stating that accidental improper attachment of the seal is very unlikely.

[15] Althoff 2003.

[16] See Hartmann von Aue, Erec 3774: “das in got velle!“

[17] Quoted according to Magin 1999, 307: “Dat die die die scrift velle, die bescreven stat an den vinf büken Moysi”. Stobbe 1866, 158, already gave a general description of the parallel formulas.

[18] Magin 1999, 324.

[19] Isenmann 2012, 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hillmann 1930, 74.

Christmas in the City

Erfurt’s Christmas Market

Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas market visits: Christmas is celebrated long before 25 December, almost worldwide, and it seems to have become a city festival long ago. This knowledge even makes some people feel a little guilty. Can it be called a Christmas party when it’s only Advent? Isn’t there too much jingle bells and too little Jesus child? Too much commerce and too little devotion? And perhaps going even deeper: Doesn’t the sweet Jesus child conceal the meaning of the Christian message of Christmas? But this text is not about a theological view, not about the question of what the true core of Christmas is. The religio-historical question is which traditions shape today’s practices, whether of Christians or non-Christians, of non-religious or religious people. To answer this, it is necessary to go deeper into history in a few steps, into pasts that still shape the present, here and elsewhere.

Step 1: The global family celebration

Christmas is the feast in and with the family. The commercialisation of the festival is based precisely on the reciprocal giving of presents and the willingness to spend a lot of money (and often on joint consumption) for our loved ones. It was not always like that. Christmas as a family celebration is romantic and Biedermeier. The fir tree in the middle-class living room is the most successful symbol of this connection. And perhaps the most successful German export product before the Volkswagen. Prince Albert of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha carried the Christmas tree into the palaces of his beloved Victoria – and from there they began their triumphal march into the Anglo-Saxon world, into the USA. And were further spread by Charles Dickens and Hollywood. The mass produced piano and the exploding number of Christmas songs make it possible to ritualize the domestic celebration even without any church organ. Johannes Daniel Falk not only composed “O du fröhliche”, but also built the Lutherhof in Weimar, a caring home for neglected children. The inventor of the Advent wreath, Johann Hinrich Wichern, himself an early orphan, invented it for a comparable institution. Especially for those lacking a family, “family Christmas” requires special efforts. That is another reason why many people donate these days for people in precarious situations, worldwide.

A Decorated Fir Tree – Symbol of Christmas.

Donations don’t just come from Christians. Even the folk song “O Tannenbaum“, “O fir-tree”, written in 1824, managed without any biblical figure. The bourgeois family Christmas does not need the church in principle – and nevertheless includes going to church even in the cities of Western and Central Europe. The long Advent season is today a time of preparation for Christmas presents, which works with a steady increase in symbols, first gingerbread, then lights, crib, scented candles, Nativity scenes. In the final phase, however, people like to leave themselves to the professionals, the specialists in the churches. And those know how to use the situation, how to mobilize against de-churching: with the Catholic invention of the “Feast of the Holy Family” at the end of the 19th century, with crib celebrations for different target groups and new ritual forms of Christmas praise today – baptism not presupposed. From the perspective of religious history, celebrating Christmas has always been a balancing act.

Step 2: Village community celebration

How was Christmas celebrated in front of the bourgeois family? A look into the folklore and the anthropological, folklore and local history museums give an impression. There, temporary rulers of the village are roaming and howling, clubs are carrying meter-high torches to a local mountain on December 24th, and horrible-looking women are beating their way through the village streets. Groups of children ring through the houses and perform scenes of shepherds or narratives from cribs in a more harmless way. Shepherds and kings – then towards the end of the Christmas season – fill their sacks in a similar way. Christmas is at the winter solstice and at the end of the year, and this has provided a helpful and problematic calendar setting right from the start. A Christmas party in the circle of friends is also at the end of the year – like so many company celebrations.

Even before “Merry Christmas”, Christmas was merry and loud. The village rituals marked (and in some places still mark) a state of emergency. Particularly the special role of those otherwise second or third in “rank” – children, young people, women – strengthened the broader community of the village to which even adult men had to subordinate themselves. After all, it was winter. When it wasn’t about big fires, village life was transferred to the heated rooms: there was no barrier of privacy behind which one could hide. It was worse not to be able to get a visit from these monsters or kings.

That, of course, is a Christmas, which did not please a renewed Christianity. The protagonists of the Reformation did not only want to end church Latin, but also such “pagan nonsense”. The rigorous solution was to ban Christmas. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in 1649, in Boston, North America, in 1659. Clearly these bans did not last long. It was better to convert suitable customs to Christian customs or to theologically upgrade them. Not only Catholic baroque princes enjoyed Christmas theatre plays.

Step 3: The poor Jesus child

Spiritual performances, however, were not an invention of the early modern period. To see a Jesus figure being raised at Easter or on Ascension Day and disappearing behind the church ceiling is different from just hearing some short biblical text. Playing along, whether as the one who carries a cross or as the evil Pilate, enabled a different experience. The same applies to all the Maries, Josephs and shepherds of the Christmas performances. Already for medieval piety, emotional identification, compassion and help were the most important approaches of an intensified, individualized Christianity.

The Christ Child in the Crib.

What Good Friday performances and processions offered to the men, the Jesus child, wrapped in diapers and in the cradle, offered to women and girls. Since 1300 the wrapped Jesus developed as a baby doll. At first it was made as a toy by and for nuns. From then on, it spread as a girl’s toy or handicraft project – even into the middle-class children’s rooms. Rocking the Christ child (Kindelwiegen) – which Josef, who was initially presented as old and thertefore weak , was not yet able to do – became a religious achievement. Mary showed it off in the pictures of the High Middle Ages, she lovingly looked at the child in the manger, took it out, breastfed it. But Joseph also had to find his role and later became an active foster father who supplied his wife and child with the porridge he had stirred.

It was Franciscan and Dominican monks who, from the 13th century, gave these scenes a central place in the piety that they themselves practiced and preached. In their entourage, crib depictions appeared in the following centuries. After the Reformation it was the Jesuits who placed this object at the centre of their Christmas games. It quickly spread as something that could also be set up in one’s own home as a Christmas symbol. The crib, a feeding trough for animals, not a sleeping place for people and at the same time an old iconographic motif, became the object of devotion as well as an invitation to action – and this tradition is also part of the contemporary approach to Christmas.

Step 4: The Son of God

Christmas is older than the Middle Ages. But it’s not “super-ancient”. For those Jews of the first centuries, who saw themselves as “Christians”, the crucified one was important as the first Person persecuted by the Romans, and a resurrected Jesus was identified as the future ruler of the world. Christmas was only invented when minds heated up on the question of how exactly Jesus Christ was to be thought of: an angel of God? God in human disguise? a man who became God? God and man at the same time?

How to celebrate the appearance of the Redeemer became a declaration of war. Natalis domini, “Birthday of the Lord”, was really for the “true man”, a slap in the face for all the churches and theologians who saw only God in Christ. The “appearance” (Epiphany) in the manger conveyed the same message: down with the false believers. In the eastern Mediterranean, for example, this was emphasized by the fact that Mary was represented not only as the Mother of God, but also as the mother of a human being: She was laid on a puerperium, close to a bath tub – it was just a real birth with midwives and the first bath of the newborn. Where that was not important, she would sit next to it and looking around.  

While in Constantinople in the middle of the 4th century, the theologians argued, the church in Rome introduced 25 December, the churches in Alexandria or Jerusalem 6 January as Christmas Day. The one date before, the other after the beginning of the new year on 1 January. No one had ever claimed to know the day Jesus was born. From the beginning, Christmas was associated with celebrations and rituals of the end of the year and the turn of the year – or competed with them, with Saturnalia and sun worship, with New Year customs and divination about the future. Which of the two dates became more important depended on power and trade relations. In Armenia the 25th of December never arrived, in Gaul, later called France, it interrupted at first only briefly a six-week fast before Epiphanias. Advent was also a question of interpretation: Preparation for Christmas, for the celebration of the historic birth of Jesus, as with the Romans, or preparation for the Second Coming, the Last Judgment? Here most of today’s practices position themselves very clearly, namely Roman. Protestant strongholds are on the same page. For confessional sophistry, Christmas was no longer the most important place in modern times.

5. Going to Bethlehem and into the stable

But where in a spatial sense does Christmas belong? Are people adequately celebrating Christmas in the hustle and bustle of the inner cities, crowded with Christmas markets? Does not Christmas belong where it actually happened: out in the fields, in the mountains, where the view of the star is unspoiled by light pollution and the shepherds do not have to be afraid of being run over? One does not have to think of the nationalist excesses – especially the “German Christmas”, which the Nazi regime used and pretended to protect – to ask this question. The answer leads back one last step.

The Nativity – Jesus’s birth in a stable.

Since the fourth century Jesus was born in a lonely stable or even, in Eastern Mediterranean traditions, in a cave. The greatest mystery of the world invisible to most, and yet visible to those who want to see it: the shepherds, in whom the respective viewers can find themselves, and the others, the Jews and the Gentiles, who become witnesses at least in the form of animals, as ox and donkey. The earliest narratives, probably written more than a century after the birth of Jesus (someone like Paul was not yet interested in biographical­­­ details), are unambiguous here. With Matthew and Luke, Jesus is born in the city of Bethlehem. Luke is really important for the urban: he emphasizes the urban character of Bethlehem, speaks of the lack of rentable spaces. The shepherds must leave their place of work, change their location. Epochs that were once again proud of their urban culture also settled their Christmas stables in their pictures in cities, in the Carolingian-Ottoman period, in the High Middle Ages and later. In this respect, the urban Christmas of the present is in a very old, even the oldest tradition. It is in the city in particular that the contrast of the Christmas story increases. Right here, the stable is even more a place that is inappropriate for a birth. This tension does not spare any tradition.

— 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”.

All images (c) Jörg Rüpke.

Sacred Places and their Co-Use

The third edition of our ‘Religion and Urbanity’ city walk continued our exploration of dynamic religious spaces in Erfurt. While last time we looked at the transformation of religious spaces, for this new Edition., we engaged with diachronic (plurality of usages over time) and synchronic co-use (confessional coexistence) of sacred places.

Besides rehabilitation, confiscation and change of use that resulted in the desacralisation of religious spaces, certain sacred places also underwent confessional changes or opted for bi-confessionalism. These examples of negotiation of allegiance and confessional mobility speak for the dynamism of sacral topography: religious places were constantly re-negotiated and re-affirmed.

The first station of our walk was the Old Synagogue, an emblematic monument for the city of Erfurt, and a place illustrating an ambivalent city narrative. Dendrochonological evidence date it back to 1094, making it one of the important religious places of early medieval Erfurt (and the oldest still standing synagogue building in Europe). The old synagogue was a solid cut stone monument, competing in size with other important religious buildings of the time. It represents, along with the so called ‘treasure of Erfurt’, now preserved in its underground room, the vibrancy and growth of Erfurt’s medieval Jewish community. Its activity and social life was tightly woven with Erfurt economic success as a ‘Messestadt’ and woad producing place. However, 1349 was the tragic year of the massacre of the entire Jewish community as part of wider persecutions during a plague epidemic. The synagogue was damaged and converted into a warehouse. Later Jewish communities rebuilt synagogues that never reached the size and importance of the original one. The building of the old synagogue was used for storing goods until the 19th century, when the building eventually got converted into a ballroom and a restaurant. The wooden railing and the painted decoration in the first floor of the building are reminiscent of the place being used for dancing. The desacralisation and long historical omission might have protected the monument during the Nazi period. It is only in the 1990ies that rising interest for history and heritage brought to light the significance of the monument. The restored building is now a museum and place of memory.

The Old Synagogue, Erfurt (see here for copyright information).

Another example, in a very different context, of diachronic co-use of religious space is the Kaufmannskirche. Contrary to the Old Synagogue, the Kaufmannskirche did not suffer desacralisation, but it witnessed the movement of confessional change following the Reformation and thus underwent spatial and interior desig re-arrangements. The Kaufmannskirche owes its name to its function of parish church of Erfurt’s first market. We saw during our previous walks that monasteries and other religious foundations developed very large religious space within the walled city, but as a parish church, the Kaufmannskirche was of particular importance. In the early 16th century, the introduction of the Reformation brought agitation to the city: Martin Luther preached in the Kaufmannskirche in 1522 about his doctrines in order to defuse rising conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The community of the church supported the Lutheran ideas and the church became a Protestant church. After the choir suffered heavy damages in 1594, the entire choir furniture was redone in line with a Protestant program: pulpit, baptismal font, altar and epitaph were carved by the carpenter masters Hans Friedemann the Older and the Younger. These Renaissance masterpieces reflect a Protestant iconography, while the same carpenter workshop also produced furniture pieces for the Dom and other Catholic religious spaces – another example of confessional cohabitation.

Erfurt’s Kaufmannskirche. (See here for copyright information).

The last station of our walk took us to the Reglerkirche, a contemporary example of pluri-confessionnal use. Both Catholic and Protestant services take place there, and it presents itself today as a space shared by the Augustinians (Catholic) and the Protestant Reglerkiche community. The co-use of the church is regulated through th allocation of different time slots to each service, ecumenical services are also organised. The church’s connection to the Augustiner-Chorherren goes back to the foundation of the place: The church was started 1130 by the Augustinians canons ‘regular’, thus the name of the monument. The collegiate Reglerkirche was the first church when entering from the south of the city: For this reason, it got significance in the context of Erfurt trade activity and medieval economic dynamism. The church became Lutheran in 1525 as many other religious places of the city did. Yet some churches remained Catholic: The bi-confessionnal geography of the Erfurtian city space illustrates the un-achieved attempt to adopt Lutheranism during the 16th century. During the French occupation (Napoleonic wars), the Reglerkirche also serves as a ‘Lazarett’ or hospital and local asylum for the sick. After this short period that also reflects on the transformative capacity of a religious space, the monument was renovated and served again as a church.

The Reglerkirche in Erfurt. (See here for Coypright information).

With these three stations enriched by fascinating discussions, the time allocated to the walk was soon over. We are thankful to all the participants and look forward to update you on the project. Please feel free to send us your suggestions and comments to:

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.

Cities Make Martyrs

Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (oil on canvas, 1863-1883; see here for copyright).
Photo of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation (takne by Malcolm Browne, 1963; see here for copyright).
The northeast face of Two World Trade Center (see here for copyright).

What do these three images have in common? Violent deaths apart, it seems nothing. The first one is a 1883-canvas by French painter Jean-Léon Gérome, which represents a group of early Christians praying before being devoured by lions in a Roman-styled circus. The second is the Pulitzer-winning photo that captures the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức on a busy road intersection in 1963 in Saigon. The third, dated 9/11 2001, is simply too famous to require any further comment.

The first and the third image show killings. The second reports a suicide, that is, a self-destructive act, also like like that of the Twin Tower attackers, which is, however, unphotographed because the self-produced death of the ten hijackers melts away with the collapse of the buildings and the simultaneous extermination of thousands of passengers, crew members, workers, and visitors. Albeit coupled with aggression and murder of unarmed people, such “suicide attackers” committ suicide nevertheless, like the burning monk and contrary to the sentenced Christians. Moreover, only the Buddhist monk and the Twin Towers’ attackers planned their death. For the early Christians, their cruel killing came as no surprise, as they were sentenced to death before, but it was designed and choreographed by powerful others, while the people murdered on 9/11 had very different plans for that day. They were as unaware of their impending fate as us spectators.

Although none of these features (killing, suicide, premeditation, agency) is shared by all three scenes, I guess our brains still resist considering this juxtaposition meaningless. There is something that links the pictures. Let us continue then.

A more in-depth analysis of the three scenes is likely to increase their dissimilarity on several levels of interpretation. Take, for example, a political code. Would we agree that the ‘last prayer’ performed by the early Christian prisoners in an arena filled with pagan onlookers express a protest against oppression in the same way the theatrical self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức does with regard to the religious policies of the Vietnamese government? Would we feel comfortable in applying to the Muslim hijackers crashing two American airplanes against the ‘temple of American capitalism’ the same label of resistance we would attach to the Buddhist monk torching himself against the establishment of Catholicism in his country? Do we think that the concepts of empire or imperialism fit both the ancient Roman state executing Christians, the 1960s Kennedy administration backing the Vietnamese regime in a cold war scenario, and the post-cold war United States facing the international terrorist guerrilla of al Qaeda? I sincerely doubt it.

Looking at conclusive analogies with psychiatric lenses is probably the least recommendable approach. Behind any display of murderous and/or self-annihilating radicalism, the hostile counterpart and the appalled audience tend to see a fanatic in action; in any fanatic a psychopath potentially lurks. Put differently, the if a death-seeker is insane, and the extent of such insanity, lies in the eye of the beholder. As a rule of thumb, the greater the distance from the world-view, the agenda, and the stated motivations of the self-destructive actor, the easier it is to believe his or her brain “cracked”.

Economic and cultural explanations are of no more help in finding more analogies than differences in the three scenes. So I will explore two interpretive paths the relation of which I consider most promising for making sense of the unity of this triptych of violent deaths. To turn back to our initial question, ‘what do these three images have in common?’, a good answer could be: in all three cases, there are martyrs dying in a city. Fed by a number of figures, stories, photos, and videos, our imagination of martyrdom is largely urban. Martyrdom and the city link together the early Christian prisoners, the Buddhist monk, and the 9/11 massacre. I deliberately say ‘9/11 massacre’ without  specifically referring either to the armed hijackers or their unharmed human targets, for, as we will see, the question as to who are the martyrs in this scene is debatable.

Throughout history, people have sought to die violently for many reasons and for the sake of many causes (kinship, love, their companions, fellow-citizens, philosophical ideas, religious creeds, political allegiances). However, the word ‘martyr’ began to apply to death seekers only when, in the 2nd century CE, a tiny selection of the population of the Roman Empire started being sentenced in city tribunals and murdered in city venues for a specific reason: religious commitment to the Christian god. Yet, if you need Christianity to rise for having death seekers to be technically called ‘martyrs’, the original meaning of the word is not religious but juridical: martys, in ancient Greek (μάρτυς), the first literary language of the early Christians, means ‘witness’. This etymological remark already suggests that, in order to start a history of martyrdom, three geographies must be factored in: 1) Greece provided the language; 2) Palestine supplied both the initial environment of the religion of Christ, as well as the supreme example of Christian martyrs of all time, i.e., Jesus himself; last but not least, 3) Rome furnished the city-based political apparatus in whose courtrooms the Christian martyrs displayed their testimony, that is, their confession of adherence to Christianity before judges of different minds and audiences of different sizes. Rome also supplied the large-sized urban architecture that broadcast the martyrdom phenomenon via eventually transferring the location of the witness from relatively small juridical settings to mass entertainment venues: circuses and amphitheatres. By coordinating and urbanizing this triple geography of martyrdom, the Roman superpower launched the scattered and occasional phenomenon of early Christian martyrdom into history: without the Roman colonization of the ancient Mediterranean urban world, the trope of the Christians being publicly tortured and awfully butchered would not have colonized the Western imagination of what a violent death for god looks like. As shown, for example, by Martin Scorsese’s recent movie on early modern Jesuit missionaries in early modern rural Japan, this model feeds into a long-lived apologetic imagery of persecution.  

Over the last decades, due to the statistic escalation, murderous efficacy, and – above all – media explosion of Islamic terrorism, modern suicide attackers (especially bombers) and their targets (especially civilians) have unseated the ancient Christians and their oppressors from the centre of the martyrdom imaginary. Yet the city as prime martyrdom scenery has remained. Four notable differences between the old and the new urban prototype of martyrdom must be stressed. First, once associated with a specific spatial context (Roman tribunals and arenas), the new prototype has no fixed background. The spatial coordinates are unpredictable, the practice visually ubiquitous. Second, the broadcast coverage of the globalized world creates a planetary amphitheatre with billions of seats. Third, the difference between the audience and the scene is circumstantial: victims and publics are unaware of their roles until the attack divides the world population into murdered, injured, bystanders, and spectators. Fourth, the public itself negotiates and decides whether the role of ‘martyr’ should be ascribed to the perpetrator or the victim. As a rule of thumb, homegrown and international sympathizers of the attackers, foreign patrons of the cause, and scholars specialized on the topic usually call the perpetrators ‘martyrs’; conversely, for shocked laypersons, Western conservative politicians, Christian bloggers, and the mainstream press ‘martyrs’ are generally the victims. Both options are somehow right: on the one hand, the history of so-called ‘Abrahamic religions’ bespeaks a clear semantic confluence between the ancient Christian model of martyrdom (in Greek: martys) and the Muslim martyr (in Arabic: shahid), both being technically authors of a ‘witnessing’ (martyria, shahadat); on the other, the harmless quality of the original martyrs and their supreme model, Christ, allows for the commonsense identification of martyrdom with the victims’ side. The semantics of ‘sacrifice’, overlapping since millennia with that of martyrdom, follows the same rule: the hermeneutic pendulum oscillates between the martyr-perpetrator sacrificing him/herself and the martyr-victims being sacrificed.

In-between the ancient prototype of the persecuted Christian and the modern prototype of the suicide attacker lies the icon of the self-immolating protester, like the aforementioned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức. His most famous secular counterpars are: the Czech student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 in Prague after the Soviet army had invaded his country to suppress the Prague Spring, and the Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2011 in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid thereby catalyzing the revolution against the regime of long-time president Zine Ben Ali.

A suicide performer exerts the maximum of violence upon him/herself, creating a figure that combines the self-destructive attitude of an extremist Christian tradition of ‘voluntary martyrs’ with the performative effects sought after by the suicide attacker. The self-immolating protester kills only him/herself in order to change the state of affairs by rousing people to action: either via sensitizing “Outgroups” or encouraging a disheartened “Ingroup”, or both. When widely publicized, a spike of “copycat suicides“, also known as “Werther effect”, can follow up. The BBC reported that no less than 107 Tunisians tried to self-immolate in the wake of Bouazizi’s act, ‘mostly young unmarried men from poor, rural areas, and had only basic education’.This last episode, happening in a small town and copied in rural areas, breaks the previously established visual connection between martyrdom and cities. Put differently, one does not necessarily need a full-fledged urban setting like 20th-century Saigon to self-immolate in protest. Effective communication pathways between cities, small towns and the countryside, past and present, may well broadcast a spectacular event far beyond its original location and generate emulation episodes that can be broadcast back. Couched in religious language or not, martyrdom per se is not an urban phenomenon. Nor are cities distinctively conducive to martyrdom simply because, as classic sociological studies have shown, suicide is more urban than rural. Psychic aggravations of urban livings that are traditionally held to induce city-dwellers to suicide, namely social disorganization (Émile Durkheim) and social alienation (Maurice Halbwachs), are not a sufficient cause for the framing and coding of self-destructive tendencies as martyrial resolutions. The same holds true for other eminently urban characteristics enabling martyrdoms, such as:

  1. the production and dissemination of radical ideas related to high-risk behaviors;
  2. the assortment of networks of recruitment, socialization, indoctrination, cultural breeding and training;
  3. the variety of high-visibility places and events;
  4. the substantial presence of receptive publics and counterparts (friends, competitors, and foes);
  5. the large supply of incentives and rewards that also work as means to amplify the value of the act, engender identification, and foster imitation (e.g., accumulation of public and private settings, rituals, and strategies of commemoration and historicization).

Yet the more urban the environment that forms and/or annihilates the martyr is, the more these factors are expected to find their way into a martyrial mode of seeking death. This is why martyrdom is to be considered a relevant subject matter for the cross-cultural and cross-temporal investigation of the relationships between religion and urbanity as pursued by our overall research project.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli is a Junior Fellow in the “Religion and Urbanity” Project. He is a specialist of early Christianity and currently works on the concept of “citification”.

Annual Conference: Urban Heterarchies: Changing Religious Authority and Social Power in Cities

The KFG’s annual conference on Urban Heterarchies will take place from 11 to 13 December 2019. It is organised by Emiliano Urciuoli, Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke. To register, pelase contact Valeria Wahl.

According to archaeologist Carole L. Crumley, heterarchies are systems in which the component elements have ‘the potential of being unranked (relative to other elements)’ and/or the potential of being ‘ranked in a number of ways, depending on systemic requirements’. In contrast, explains archaeologist Alison E. Rautman, the concept of a ‘hierarchy’ ‘involves three assumptions regarding the organization of the constituent elements of a system: that a lineal ranking of constituent elements is in fact present; that this ranking is permanent (that is, the system of ranking has temporal stability); and the ranking of elements according to different criteria will result in the same overall ranking (that is, the relationships of elements is pervasive and integral to the system, and not situational)’.

For the issue of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, ‘heterarchies’ open up diverse directions of analysis within cities as well as with regard to interurban networks. In both fields, the conference papers will deal with institutional arrangements as much as media of representation, narratives of legitimation, practices of comparison, strategies of mutual recognition or critique and interference up to the point of violence.

As a result, we will try to develop more complex models of constellations and paths of development that will help us to better understand and explain religious change and changes of urbanity. The conference will bring together leading experts focusing on empirical and theoretical questions and representing multiple disciplines, such as religious studies, Asian studies, history, classics, archaeology, geography, and sociology, in order to bring the heuristically promising concept of heterarchy to bear on the study of the cross-cultural and cross-temporal entanglements of religion and urbanity.

For the programme and further Information, see here.

Placing the Dead: The Changing Meanings of Burials and Urban Cemeteries

After decades of disputes, legal challenges and negotiations, the body of Francisco Franco, Spain’s infamous dictator, was moved from a grande Catholic mausoleum to a municipal cemetery this week. In 1975, Franco’s body was placed in the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) memorial near Madrid. He ruled Spain from 1939 onwards, after emerging victorious from the Spanish Civil War. Proponents of the exhumation and movement of the body argued that the Franco’s commemoration glorified the dictator and his deeds. Opponents of the decision argued the exhumation disturbed the peace of the dead and gave further, politically motivated reasons for their criticism. Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, tweeted: “This is how the socialist campaign begins, profaning tombs, digging up hatreds, questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy. Vox alone has the courage to defend freedom and common sense in the face of totalitarianism.” The debate around the proper burial and commemoration of Franco gave parties like Vox the opportunity to use some popular tropes of the far right: Portraying themselves as victims, railing against a supposed undermining of liberties and claiming a role as protectors of freedom of speech. Particularly objectionable to those opposing the move was the fact that the body was moved to a simple graveyard and the decedants of Franco wanted to, at least, move the body to the seat of the Archidiocese of Madrid, Almudena Cathedral in Madrid; a request that was eventually denied for reasons of safety. Eventually, Franco’s body was moved to the cemetery where his wife is buried. The mausoleum, municipal cemetery and cathedral all carry different symbolic, religious and political meanings, leading to fierce arguments between proponents of one or the other burial space. Where a body lies matters.

The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), where Franco's body used to be.
The Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), where Franco’s body used to be.

The placement of the dead was always important. Ever since humans started to bury their dead, where burials took place was of great significance. In many cases, specific areas were assigned, where the dead were placed and rituals of commemoration were performed. In many of these sites, religious, occult or spiritual practices played a particularly important role, also giving rise to stories of miracles, ghosts or other activities that connect the living and the dead. Pressures of persecution, for example among early Christian martyrs, or political display, for instance when it came to the building of royal mausoleums near churches, all played an important part in the constructions, real and metaphorical, of these burial sites.

But the meaning of these sites was never fixed and what may have been an honourable and desirable burial space in one century could be turned into an undesirable spot in the next. These shifting interpretations of cemeteries, graveyards, execution sites and other places, where dead bodies went, are particularly visible in towns. In urban centres, many changes were implemented because of an increasing density and the need for more space for other buildings or living quarters. In Erfurt, a park and parking spaces were built on top of the former execution site. At the same time, intellectual discourses on religion and hygiene spread more quickly in urban settings, meaning that their influence was felt more strongly in an urban context. The desire to show oneself as wealthy, sophisticated or well-travelled, elements that shaped what grave stones and epitaphs looked like, was also particularly pronounced in urban settings, where one could show off to the whole urban community and have a funerals commemorated in pamphlets and broadsheets.

In the period 1500 to 1800 we see several such shifts in urban cemeteries. Some burial spaces were moved during or soon after epidemics. This happened throughout the medieval and early modern periods, but one of the most famous cases of such a movement of a cemetery came in the early sixteenth century, prior to the Reformation. In Nuremberg, in 1517/18, the cemeteries of St. Lorenz and St. Sebald were moved to spaces outside of the town, creating the cemeteries of St. Rochus and St. Johannis. These cemeteries were deliberately moved outside of the city centre to prevent any spread of the plague among the densely populated town. Rochus was named after one of the most famous plague saints, illustrating the continued relevance of religion, even when cemeteries were no longer directly attached to churches.

Nuremberg's Rochusfriedhof.
Nuremberg’s Rochusfriedhof.

A second change in this period saw the Reformation create what Craig Koslofsky has called a “separation of the living and the dead”. By this he means that both theologically and spatially the living and the dead were separated by important evangelical reformers. As prayers for the souls of the deceased no longer functioned to decrease the time of souls spent in purgatory, cemeteries were moved outside the city walls. Instead of indulgences and saintly intercession, men and women were supposed to focus on the promise of eternal life and divine mercy. How much the movement during these times was a ‘wave’, as it has been called in litertaure on the topic, and if the advice of the reformers was really put into place in many German towns, further research will have to show.

In Reformation Switzerland, we can see that the political and religious demands did not always lead to permanent change when it came to burials and graves. Town councils ordered that family coats of arms and elaborate crosses should be removed from tomb stones, so as to ensure no undue display of wealth in cemeteries. Just like the changes of the Reformation were felt in towns more broadly, so they also influenced the urban cemeteries and changed the way they looked. Tellingly, however, this particular Reformation change was reversed in the seventeenth century, when patricians started adding elaborate coats of arms and depictions to their tomb stones once more. While many Swiss territories were thoroughly Reformed, some changes were not permanent. Apparently, some aspects of burial cultures were so deeply engrained in the self-understanding of the elites that they were not willing to give them up, even if it meant going against the advice of important reformers.

In the seventeenth century, the turmoil of the Thirty Years War led to some repositioning of burial spaces, for example when towns were besieged. On the battlefield, other kinds of burials and commemorations were used. Military chaplains played an important role in making sure that soldiers who had died were buried, but there are also instances where mass graves were used to hold the many bodies of the deceased. Archaeological work has uncovered a range of such graves at important sites of the Thirty Years War, for example fifty skeletons discovered in Nördlingen.

However, as the work of Peter Wilson has shown, that is not to say that during the Thirty Years War chaos ruled in the German lands. There were still significant attempts to bury individuals with at least some of the proper rites. For example, when Gustavus Adolphus died in Lüzen, his body was transported back to Sweden, so that he could receive all the proper rites there and be buried in the royal crypt. The funeral ceremonies influenced Sweden, particularly royal residences, for months. It was of crucial importance that important leaders like Gustavus Adolphus were buried and commemorated in the appropriate manner, even it meant a compliacted transport.

Carl Wahlbom: Gustav II Adolfs Tod bei der Schlacht von Lüzen
Carl Wahlbom: The death of Gustavus Adolphus during the Battle of Lüzen.

At the same time, the increasing European colonization lead to significant shifts in the burial cultures of European colonial powers. Men and women dying on ships could be thrown over board, as there was too much risk that they might contract diseases. In the colonies, funeral rituals and grave spaces could also be adapted. In Asia, the commemoration of Jesuit missionaries and martyrs could take on elements of the local populations, for example, leading to kinds of syncretism, which historians have uncovered in a range of contexts recently. Dying away from one’s home country, whether as mercenary, trader or missionary meant that burials and funerals had to be adapted. Although people died travelling in the Middle Ages, of course, the increasing inter-connectedness of the early modern world meant that deaths abroad became more common.

If we return to Europe and its towns, there was one further big change and that came in the eighteenth century. Increasingly, town inhabitants and councilors wanted to move cemeteries for reasons of hygiene, a trend explored by Norbert Fischer and others. For example, in late eighteenth century Munich, a public campaign ensued to force urban dignitaries to move the cemetery from the town’s centre to the outskirts. For medical considerations and a fear that diseases might spread, letters argued that ‘poisonous exhalations’ would ‘damage the health of the town’s inhabitants’. Alongside these changes to the burial spaces also came other considerations. In the late eighteenth century, Joseph II. of Bavaria argued, for instance, that the state at large would benefit from a thorough investigation of the corpses (Leichenbeschau) in order to ascertain why someone had died and to protect towns from further outbreaks of disease. In another text, an anonymous author criticized that the burials underneath the church could harm people while they were worshipping: ‘The foul air locked in the crypts can even damage the people present in the church, the Temple of God’. In the margins, the author wrote that the tomb stones can be put into the church walls, as is deemed fit, suggesting an awareness that many families would have wanted their family epitaphs and tomb stones to survive any changes in the church space.

As a result of the campaigns, Munich’s former plague cemetery, the Alter Südfriedhof, located outside of the city walls anyway, became the main burial site for the town’s inhabitants. To use a term coined by Thomas Laqueur, the town’s necrogeography changed. The movement of the cemetery changed how and where people were buried, but also what a town looked like and how it would have been experienced by inhabitants and visitors alike. The movement of cemeteries also meant that the church lost some of ist influence, as it no longer received money from the burial spaces, which used to be attached directly to the churches.

The features sketched out above show three general trends in the burial culture of early modern cities: A diversification, where not everyone was buried in their home town; some people died on ships, in wars or while travelling in an increasingly inter-connected world. Secondly, the way towns looked and where experienced changed because, generally speaking, many cemeteries were moved outside of towns, outside of city centres and town walls. Thirdly, the example of urban cemeteries shows one aspect of the mutual influence of religion and urbanity. Movements of cemeteries because of reformers’ demands, complaints by clerics that they no longer received money for burials, which went to the town instead and the spread of diseases in dense, urban environments were all connected to cultures of death. Whether one can interpret the movement of burial sites away from the churchyard, towards sites outside of towns administered by urban actors as a sign of an increasing secularisation is perhaps one of the most interesting questions connected to these dynamics. In the past, as today, cemeteries can tell us as much about death as they can about life.

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.

Select Bibliography:

Norbert Fischer, ‘Topographie des Todes. Zur sozialhistorischen Bedeutung der Friedhofsverlegungen zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit‘ in: Fischer/Kobelt-Groch (Hrsg.): Außenseiter zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, S. 81–98.

Norbert Fischer, Vom Gottesacker zum Krematorium. Eine Sozialgeschichte der Friedhöfe in Deutschland seit dem 18. Jahrhundert. Köln/Weimar/Wien 1996.

Martin Wangsgaard Jürgensen, ‘Spacing Death – Facing Death: Conceptualizing the Encounter With Death During the Early Modern Period’ in: Tarald Rasmussen (Hg.), Jon Øygarden Flæten (Hg.), Preparing for Death, Remembering the Dead, S. 123-152.

Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in early modern Germany, 1450-1700. Basingstoke u.a.: Macmillan u.a., 2000 (= Early modern history).

Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead. A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton 2015)

All images taken from Wikipedia. For details, see here, here and here.

The Religion and Urbanity project “in the field”

Excavations at the urban site of Barikot (Swat, NW Pakistan)

The sound of the muezzin’s call to the first prayer of the day has been marking out the start of our working day for four weeks now. At dawn, while arriving by car from Saidu Sharif, the isolated steep hill of Barikot, overlooking a large stretch of the middle Swat river, has the capacity of capturing our glances usually distracted by the very busy bazaar road, by somehow reminding us of the substantial value of its strategic location exploited by all the communities who pretended to control the great economic resources of the Swat valley over centuries.  

The Swat valley, or ancient Uḍḍiyāna, located between the extreme north-west of the Indian subcontinent, the extreme eastern offshoots of the Iranian Plateau and to the south of the vast Centro-Asiatic area, seems to materialize well the conceptual idea of a space of constant dialogue, negotiation, translation and remaking of cultural and political identities. The interactions between locals and people who politically dominated the Gandhāra region over centuries, triggered multiple and overlapping processes of cultural osmosis resultign in a complex picture of social and religious horizons.

The Swat area has been investigated by the ISMEO-Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (hereafter MAIP), funded by ISMEO, MAECI and recently by the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, since 1955. Since 2010 MAIP is under the direction of Dr L.M. Olivieri. The Swat valley has recently become one of the lenses through which we explore the mutual formations of “Religion and Urbanity”.

The 2019 excavation season of the MAIP opens a new chapter in the history of research of the urban site of Barikot (Swat valley, NW Pakistan) that has a clear intersection with the “Religion and Urbanity” research project.

The Swat river from the hill-top of Barikot.
The Hill of Barikot viewed from the South-East.

The continuity of its occupation over more than one millennium and the reliability of its stratigraphic sequence make Barikot a crucial key-site in the urban archaeology of the Gandhāra region (i.e. NW Pakistan and part of NE Afghanistan). Thus, the site has the potential to offer reliable information on the real impact that Buddhism – the major organized religious phenomenon in Gandhāra – had on the local society and on the incidence of local and Brahmanic traditions to Buddhist spaces, practices, iconographies and vice-versa. Indeed, the overwhelming visibility of Buddhist remains in the rural area has risked to put into the background various socio-cultural and religious realities that might have had a crucial role in the formulation of a religious system and its relation with the “in-between” (urban/non-urban) context of the Swat area. Within the framework of the “Religion and Urbanity” project I will try to assess the connections between different religiosities and their meaningful and effective interactions. The latter will be analyzed within a long-term perspective in order to highlight variation and continuity, in their interplay with the socio-economic realities of the contemporary urban society. Barikot, of course, cannot but play a pivotal role in this study. Before going into details let me take a brief step back.

The excavations at the urban site of Barikot, the ancient Bazira/Beira of Alexander’s historians, started more than 30 years ago under the direction of Prof. P. Callieri with the aim to explore the socio-cultural and economic context of the urban society related to the well-known Buddhist Gandhāran art, which for years had monopolized the archaeological research in the area. The results went far beyond expectations. On the southern plain, at the foot of the hill, digs have exposed a good portion of an ancient town (c. 12 hectares including the acropolis) encompassed within an imposing defensive wall with massive rectangular bastions, dated on numismatic evidence and radiocarbon data to the Indo-Greek phase, c. 150 BCE (see map, below). Thanks to a thick series of C14 dates collected over more than 30 years, the occupation of the site is today confidently dated between 1400-800 BCE and the 10th century CE. It goes without saying that today the ancient town of Barikot represents a key-site in the Gandhāra region, the only one with a statistically stable chronological sequence running from the Bronze Age to the Hindu-Shahi period.

Up to now a large portion of the ancient city – mostly corresponding to the SW quarters of the ancient city (see map below) – has been exposed (trenches BKG 1-13) revealing a succession of residential areas, public courtyards, private and public cultic areas reflecting both Buddhist and local religiosity.

General map of the archaeological area of Barikot with indication of the excavated trenches.

The archaeological sequence exposed in the SW portion of the city – the sector where excavations carried out between 2011-2018 have been focused – suggests that the site there was abandoned between the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century CE. This is also the time when a drastic decrease of Buddhist monasteries and sacred areas is attested in the Swat countryside together with a gradual process of development of new Buddhist doctrines/philosophies (Vajrayāna Buddhism) and a revival of Brahmanic religiosities.

According to epigraphic sources, the early-historic city of Beira/Bazira, was followed by a later settlement called Vajirasthāna (vajira(sthā)ne) in a Brāhmī-Śāradā inscription of the time of King Jayapāladeva (10th century CE) found on the hill-top of Barikot. However, archaeologically speaking, very little is known of this “second Barikot” and of post-abandonment structural phases, when the area seems to have been occupied by a tower-house fortified Settlement, a feature common to several other sites in Swat and southern areas starting from the 7th century CE.

— The pillared room of the “turreted building” in BKG 2.

The 2019 season focuses on the “second Barikot” with the aim to explore: a) the Shahi and pre-Shahi stratigraphy (5th- 10th centuries CE) of the area surrounding the so-called “turreted building” with pillared hall and cultic spaces (trench BKG 2, excavated in 1984-1990; see map and image above) and the related settlement; b) the Shahi Brahmanical temple (7th-10th centuries CE) at the top  of the acropolis (BKG 6, partially exposed in 1998-2000) and the coeval fortification.

This first part of the archaeological campaign of the MAIP has a small and diverse team: myself (Max Weber Centre, University of Erfurt; MAIP Acting Director), Niaz Ali Shah Bacha (archaeologist, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, DOAM), Dr. Omar Coloru (historian, University of Genoa), Marco Pinelli (conservator, Accademia delle Belle Arti di Brera) and Sirat Gohar (archaeologist, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad). To this small group must be added the crucial backbone of the MAIP that is our permanent local staff both at the headquarters (the historical “Mission House” in Saidu Sharif) and in the field, mostly consisting of the same people who have been working with the Mission for the last 15-20 years.

During this first month the field activity has follow three parallel paths: (1) bibliographic research and survey of the sites associated with the Indo-Greek occupation of the area (2nd to mid 1st centuries BCE), (2) archaeological excavations in the inhabited area and (3) consolidation activity on the stucco decoration of the Brahmanic temple on the hill-top. The latter has been the target of the Taliban who intentionally damaged it in 2001. Following the line of restauration of the colossal rock-carving of the Jahanabad Buddha – severely damaged by the Taliban in 2007 – the MAIP has decided to re-expose (the temple was in fact re-buried for protection) and consolidate the temple and to continue the excavation there. The first steps undertaken in this direction were the removal of the modern refilling of the 1998-2000 trenches and the consolidation of the stucco in situ along with the analysis of hundreds of pieces of architectural decoration stored in the godown of the Mission House now handed over to the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif.  

While Marco Pinelli and his Pakistani collaborators are working on the hill-top, myself, Sirat Gohar, Niaz Ali Shah Bacha and our field staff are focused on the archaeological investigation of the sectors surrounding the so-called “turreted building”, bringing to light the different faces taken on by the “second Barikot” over time: from a plain urban layout to a terraced and fortified aspect. The preliminary analysis of structural remains, ceramic material and small finds recovered during excavations suggest to date back the occupation of this area and the foundation of the cultic space associated with the “turreted building” to a pre-Hindu Shahi phase. This result, if confirmed, has a series of implications for the urban and religious history of the site. However, only the analysis of the materials – still ongoing – will tell us a more detailed story.

Another parallel activity concerns the investigation of the Indo-Greek economic and political program, something that, until a few years ago, appeared as imperceptible at the archaeological level. Interestingly, in the middle Swat valley, over a distance of only 20 km, there is evidence of at least three large urban settlements in the Indo-Greek period: Barikot, Udegram and Barama. To this list should be added the site of Shaikhan Dheri at Charsadda, to the south of the Swat valley.

Omar Coloru during the survey of the Kandak valley.

At the moment Barikot is the only site where a reliable and consistent stratigraphy (three structural phases) related to the Indo-Greek acculturation phase has been documented (also in association with Greek inscriptions on sherds). Moreover, the fortification wall of Barikot represents the only excavated Indo-Greek urban defence, as well as one of the most outstanding examples of Hellenistic military architecture in the Hellenized Far East. This data combined with several textual (Classical and Indian) sources led to reflections on the political and economic reasons behind the significant financial investment of the Indo-Greek period in these territories and on their role in the diffusion of Buddhist religion. The preliminary results of this research were presented during the Conference The Hellenistic king and the Indian wise man. Putting the Milindapañha in its contexts held at the University of Bologna from the 19th-20th September 2019.

Our working days are quite busy and often push us towards quite different activities, sources and places, only seemingly disjointed. Actually the variety of questions asked during our targeted investigations helps to build up (while preserving it) a coherent and substantial picture of the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic urban society of the Swat valley from the Early to Late Historic period. By putting this within the question-oriented framework of the “Religion and Urbanity” project I will try to assess the role played by the religious systems as socially active agents and to question how the various political and economic entities negotiate with the different forms of religiosity (and vice-versa) over time by highlighting the internal logics they re-defined.

— Elisa Iori.

Elisa Iori is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. She is an archaeologist specialising in the religious history of South Asia.

At Markets and Fairs in Lyon

It’s the end of July, I’m in Lyon, primarily to do research for the annual conference of our Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies, to be organized around the topic of “urban heterarchies,” and I am working on the St. Trinitatis Brotherhood, which in the late Middle Ages must have represented an important link between the “power” of the clergy and that of the newly formed city council. You can hear more about this in December at the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt.

Today is Saturday and the day of my departure, and I still have plans to go to one of the markets, specifically the Marché Quai Saint-Antoine. There are fewer people there than usual, probably because most people who live in the city are already on vacation.

To the left, on the other bank of the Saône, is Saint-Jean Cathedral, dating from the Middle Ages, and above it, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (nineteenth century), which majestically overlooks the city, almost as though it were watching over the market.

Saône, Lyon Cathedral and Notre Dame.

The market traders come from all over the region, from the Monts du Lyonnais, Savoie, or Ardèche; some sell goods from the wholesale market, others are the producers themselves, who sell their goods directly (farmers, bakers, gardeners, butchers, cheesemakers, etc.). There are the first fresh figs (from the Ardèche) and Charentais melons (from Provence) as well as many other seasonal vegetables and fruits and, of course, cheese. I buy Comté and Tomme from Savoie and a few fine rigottes de Condrieu; finally, some baguette de campagne for dinner, which will be at home in Germany.

Vegetables sold at Lyon’s market.
Melons sold in Lyon.

Markets and Fairs Have a Long Tradition in Lyon

Lyon has “always” been a trading city—it’s not only the citizens of the city who will tell you this, but historians, too, who have made this claim since early modern times. One can consult Guillaume Paradin (ca. 1510–1590), whose history of Lyon was published in the sixteenth century:

“Des foires, qui de temps immemorial ont esté continuees à Lyon.

L’on ne pourroit nier, que les foires publiques, & le commerce de toute Europe, n’aist esté frequenté à Lyon des la foundation de la cite par Plancus, & possible autant que Plancus fut naiz: estant encores la cite en-bas, entre les riuieres. Et qu’ainsi soit, Strabo qui viuoit du temps d’Auguste & de Plancus, parlant des habitans de Lyon, escript ainsi. Nam et usui magno, est illis emporium. I. Ilz tirent vn grand profit des foires & commerce. Par lesquelles paroles, lon peust bien iuger par coniecture, que deia ce commerce s’exerçoit à Lyon autant que Plancus vin ten Gaule: car il estoit impossible, qu’estant la cite si nouuellement rebastie par luy en la montagne, lon y feist tel profict des foires, lesquelles n’eussent peu encores ester publiees par les prouinces voisines: tant s’en faut, que le profit y eust esté si grand que dit Strabo.” (Paradin, Chapter IX, 12–13). (See here for the digitized version.)

Lyon is indeed famous for its fairs (“foires”). But Paradin’s claim that these already existed in antiquity, since the city’s founding by Lucius Munatius Plancus, is exaggerated. Like every larger city, Lyon, of course, had its weekly markets. However, the fairs were not established until the fifteenth century: in 1420, they began with two fairs a year, and in 1464 there were already four because the king wanted to lure the trade merchants from Geneva to Lyon. The brief suspension of the fairs (1484) was due to the calamities of the time. But in 1494, there were already four annual fairs again. From then on, Lyon experienced an economic and demographic boom, interrupted only by the religious wars in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Religious Fairs and Trade Fairs: Temporal Orderings

The influence of religion is also repeatedly visible with the trade fairs. The dates of the fairs were guided by the liturgical year, meaning that, if the four dates could be arranged accordingly, the fairs began after Epiphany (January 6), Quasimodo (the first Sunday after Easter), August 4 (the day of a local saint), and All Saints’ Day. They usually lasted fifteen days, with the merchandise fair taking place in the first week and the exchange fair in the second. Hence, that’s when prices and payment dates were negotiated. Here, again, is what Paradin wrote about this:

“Mais reuenant aux foires, il me souffira de dire, que diuerseme[n]t elles ont esté reglees, selon les temps, & les regnes: car de ce qui en est memorié, nous trouuons, que le roy Charles septieme de France estant en la ville d’Angiers, en l’an mil quatre cens quarante trois, octroya à la cite de Lyon deux foires, lesquelles il ordonna estre tenues, assauoir la premiere, le mercredy apres pasques, continuant vingtz iours: la seconde, commenceant lendemain de la feste sainct Iaques, & sainct Christophle, le vingtsixieme de Iuillet, continuant vingtz iours. Et depuis par ampliation de grace, en octroya vne troisieme, commenceant le lendemain de la feste sainct André, continuant vingtz iours ensuiuant. Depuis estant venu à la coronne le roy Loys vnzieme de ce nom, son fils, & estant à sainct Michel sur Loyre, l’an deuxieme de son regne, luy fut remonstré, que les foires que lors les marcha[n]s de son royaume freque[n]toyent en la ville de Geneue, estoyent grandeme[n]t preiudiciables au royaume de France, pour raison de l’alienation & transport des deniers, & denrees de ce royaume: au moyen dequoy il octroya lors aux habitans de Lyon, quatre foires l’an, comme ells sont continues iusques auiourd’huy.“ (Paradin, 13–14)

It was normal in Christian Europe in the late Middle Ages for the general calendar to be oriented towards the Christian liturgical year, beginning with Advent and brought into a rhythm with the calendar of saints and feasts. Indeed, German uses the same word, “Messe,” for a church service (the Catholic mass) and a trade fair. “Messe” is derived from the Latin “missa.” The fact that the same word refers here to two very different events can be explained in various ways. First, the Latin “missa” (“religious service,” “celebration of mass”) developed from the formula “ite, missa est” (in English: “Go it is the dismissal”) which concluded the liturgical celebration of the sacrifice. It marks, in other words, the end of the event. Second, as was recorded in many ordinances, church services and markets such as fairs were to take place one after the other: the market after the service, the trade fair often only after the day in honor of a saint. Third, the markets or fairs often took place near a church—not least because there was a large open square where the traders could set up their stands. Evidently due to proximity, a transfer of meaning took place here. Both the spatial and the temporal context (the juxtaposition and succession) of religious and mercantile practices have made their mark in the formation and use of the term. Terms in other European languages (English: fair French: foire, Italian: fiera, Spanish: fiesta) derive from the Latin “feria, feriae.” Yet this, too, not only meant “market” but “religious holidays,” which sometimes took place during the same period. Here, too, one can see the spatial-temporal interrelations of practices that regularly took place, which, precisely through their competition, presumably took shape and continued to develop in parallel. Today, a distant reflection of this opposing pair is manifest in the closing of shops on Sundays (where this still occurs) or in special events such as Whitsun markets, which often combine consumer fairs with folk festivals. The fact that these markets began on an ecclesiastical holiday—or, to be precise, on the following day—often goes back to a royal or imperial privilege granted during the Middle Ages.

Goods from All Over the World

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, textiles, spices, metal goods, books, and paper, as well as leather and skins, were traded in Lyon (Garden, vol. 1, 55–108). Merchants also brought many finished products—such as knives and other iron goods, bed linen, hats, menswear, shoes, wallpaper, carpets, and weapons—from all over France. There are no detailed records in this document of the areas of origin of the raw materials, since they were often imported via Italian, German, Swiss, and Spanish merchants based in Lyon. But the list of spices and medicines (“drogueries”) alone suggests that many of these raw materials came from the Levant or from farther away in Asia: Almonds, aniseed, cinnamon, cassia, coloquine (pumpkin), shells from the Levant, coriander, caraway, incense, Folii Indi (feuille des Indes, Indian leaf, probably: Indian bay leaf), ginger, cloves, Arabic gum, seeds (often “graine de paradis,” meaning melegueta peppercorns), hermodactylus (Iris tuberosa or snake’s-head iris), mace, grains of paradise, mastic, myrobalans (cherry plum, usually dried), nutmeg, pepper, long pepper, musk, pyrethrum, rice, sandarac, seeds for planting, senna, spikenard, turmeric (terra merita, saffron), zinc oxide (vitriol?), zeodary (Curcuma zedoaria). (Gascon, vol. 2, 883; Archives municipales de Lyon: CC 4293, 1519)[1]

Spatial Orderings

Unlike in Calicut (modern-day Kozhikode) in India, at the time there was no fixed location for the Lyon fairs at which mainly wholesalers and long-distance merchants came together. This was the case only for the smaller weekly markets: here, each category of goods was assigned a fixed public place where trading was allowed on a certain day. And later on (or, to be precise, between 1856 and 2005), Lyon had the Grand Bazar, the first large department store in the city, located in the rue de la République, very close to the Franciscan convent (Cordeliers). But where did merchants meet in the early modern period? Let’s take a look at the classic work by Marc Brésard to see if a trade fair topography can be reconstructed.

As early as 1420, just after Lyon had received the privilege of holding two fairs, the consuls determined the places where the wares could be displayed (Brésard, 243–249). The first fair was to take place on the near side of the Saône, i.e., on the Empire side, today’s Presqu’île; the second fair of the year was to be held on the other side of the Saône, the Royaume side. In 1461, certain goods were to be displayed in certain places in the city, each approximately limited to the width of one house. In 1462 the planning of a hall was considered, but this plan failed. Finally, it was agreed, not least after the intervention of the king, that the goods could be displayed anywhere in the city, to the right and left of the Saône and wherever the merchants liked. For this purpose, displays (“étalages”), presumably wooden benches, were made available, which stood everywhere along the streets, on the squares, on the bridge over the Saône, as well as near the city gates, and which could be covered in case of rain or sun with linen sheeting held in place by cords. After that, the perimeter was somewhat restricted: between the rue Juiverie (and quarter named after it), the hospital (with the name of la Saônnerie or la Saunerie), and the place de Roanne on the right side, and la Platière, la Grenette, Saint-Antoine, Cordeliers, and Rhône on the other side. Later, the area was extended to the place des Terreaux (Brésard, 254). Hence four times a year, the whole city transformed into a large market. This was something very special, as fourteen-day fairs with comparable international reach and total sales were held in only a few cities: Lyon, Medina del Campo, Piacenza, and Antwerp. One can imagine how narrow it must have been on the streets and in the alleys at the time. There was no shortage of complaints from drivers who could no longer get through with their horse-drawn carriages. So it proved less disruptive for traffic in the city when the merchants rented space in city shops or deposited their goods immediately upon arriving in the large inn where they were being accommodated. Some unsold goods were also left in these depots until the merchants returned to the city two or three months later. The temporal and spatial organization of the fairs, the presence of many foreign merchants and bankers, and the diverse range of goods also created a specific urbanity.

As can be gleaned from the minutes of the Council and royal letters, trade also took place on the other side of the Saône, which in the sixteenth century could only be crossed via a single stone bridge, the pont du Change, assuming a rowboat was not available. After visiting the market, I cross the pont Bonaparte to the other side of the river, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to visit the most important sites and buildings. The square in front of the cathedral, created only by partially demolishing and reconstructing the St. Jean monastery in the second half of the sixteenth century, was located outside the fair district. The route continues along the rue Saint-Jean, where buildings in the local style typical of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can still be found today. Along the way, I pass by newer buildings in the Italian Renaissance style arriving via a traboule, one of the passages typically found between buildings in Lyon, at the former Hostellerie du gouvernement and I finally finish my tour at the place du Change, where the money changers met in the fifteenth century, before the first merchant’s loggia (loge du Change) was built here in the seventeenth century, later to be enlarged and redesigned in the middle of the eighteenth century according to plans by Jacques-Germain Soufflot.

Later Uses

Following the French Revolution, the exchange was transformed into a house of worship for the Reformed Church, which still meets there today. But the clocks at the top of the building continue to remind us today that the merchants were “watching the clock.” Such conversions of building uses were not rare around 1800, as we have already seen with St. Peter’s Church in Erfurt, except that here the conversion ran the other way: a formerly secular building was converted for future religious use. This is hardly visible on the exterior of the building; the alterations were mainly internal (cross, altar, pulpit, benches) to adapt the building for the Reformed liturgy.

What is equally interesting for the research group, however, are the rhythms that shaped the use of urban space during the fairs. The presence of the many foreign merchants and trading companies in the city left less of a visible mark in striking architectural structures than did religious practices. At least for trade fairs, a certain ephemerality can be observed, as I showed above. Lasting much longer than practices of commerce and payment, the religious practices of some merchant families or trading nations established themselves in the city: for example, the establishment of a chapel in the church of Notre-Dame-de-Confort by the very wealthy Gadagne family (Italian: Guadagni).

Instead of continuing my stroll through the city, it’s time for me to focus on my essay on urban heterarchies, turning again to the history of the St. Trinitatis Brotherhood. There will be more to read about that by December, at the latest.

Translated by Michael Thomas Taylor.

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Marc Brésard, Les foires de Lyon au XVe et XVIe siècles, Paris 1914.

Richard Gascon, Grand commerce et vie urbaine au XVIe siècle: Lyon et ses marchands (environs de 1520 – environs de 1580), 2 vols., Paris 1971.

Heinrich Lang and Susanne Rau, Weltwirtschaftszentren, 10. Lyon, in Friedrich Jaeger (ed.), Encyclopedia of Modern Times Online (2017),

Sophie Landrin, “Le Grand Bazar va être détruit malgré les protestations,” in Le Monde, March 31, 2015, (August 1, 2019).

Guillaume Paradin de Cuyseaulx, Mémoires de l’Histoire de Lyon, Lyon 1573.

Susanne Rau, Räume der Stadt: Eine Geschichte Lyons 1300-1800, Frankfurt/Main 2014.

[1] The French original is: “amandes, anis, cannelle, cassie, coloquinte, coques du Levant, coriandre, cumin, encens, folli Indi, gingembre, girofles, gomme arabique, graine, hermodates, macis, maniguette, mastic, mirabolans, muscades, poivre, poivre long, pousse-muscade, pyrètre, riz, sandarac, semencine, séné, spicenard, terra merita, tuthie, zédoaire”.

A digitized version of a book from the “Garbeau de l’épicerie” (basically the spice inspection department) from 1519 can be found on the website of the Lyon municipal archive: (August 29, 2019).

Picture credit for all images: Susanne Rau.


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.

How can one describe a bazaar? A first attempt: Walking over the “Big Bazaar” in Calicut

In April 2019, when I accepted an invitation to give a lecture at Kannur, our partner university, I combined my stay with initial on-site research on our research project “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. I already had a first idea of what I wanted to investigate in selected West Indian coastal cities. As with any historical research question, I first wanted to check whether the necessary sources were available to answer my questions – especially since this is a completely new region that I am currently exploring. So I used my stay to visit museums, libraries and archives in Kerala and to get an overview of existing objects and texts. One of my excursions took me from Kannur to Calicut (or, as it is called in the national language: Kozhikode). Since I didn’t want to repeat the adventure of a three-hour bus ride (for about 90 cents), I bought a ticket in an air-conditioned train compartment for 12 April 2019 (for about 7 EUR and only a two-hour ride).

Train in Calicut, India (© Susanne Rau).

Arriving at the station in Calicut, I approached the city on foot and, turning left shortly before the SM-Street, famous for its sweets, reached the Railway Bridge. On the right I see a mosque, straight ahead, after the crossing the Bazaar Road starts, which is called MA-Road for the first half. This bazaar in Calicut is in fact a street, as the name says, and not a market with stalls or a kind of big department store that could carry the name bazaar in modern times. It is essentially a wholesale market, although one can still buy there as an individual consumer. To the right and to the left of the street are stores lined up, at first mostly metal goods, but a few meters further there are already dried fruits, dates, nuts, but also rice, sugar, chili, spices (a lot of turmeric and other local spices) in large quantities to choose from. Many products can be tested, i.e. viewed, touched, compared and tasted. Large bags are loaded onto trucks, which sometimes block the road, and brought to the countries or the storage rooms behind them, which can be reached via alleys and courtyards between the shops. It is loud with the horns of motorcycles, cars and trucks, but also with people on the phone and communicating across the street. People draw attention to themselves, negotiate prices or shout something to the loaders. At the other end of Bazaar Road there are warehouses again, then a standing snack where some young men eat something – and again a mosque.

This morning it’s so incredibly hot that the next thing I do is call a taxi, or rather one of those yellow-black autorickshaws. But the driver has no time, he has to go to the mosque to pray and therefore drives on. So I walk a few steps further and come to the Beach Road that runs parallel to the Arabian Sea. I walk as far as Gujarati Street, then finally an autorickshaw driver has mercy on me and drives me to the archive further north in the city, which is located in the Civil Station. In the Regional Archives Kozhikode I am allowed to look through some finding aids. But I also have to think about this Bazaar Road, which is also called “Valiyangadi” in Malayalam. Since when does it exist? What is it about this conspicuous structure that there are mosques at both ends?

In the evening, after the visit to the archive, I go back to this street and record a 15-minute video with my mobile phone by slowly walking the street from front to back again. This is a 1.5-minute short version of the video, cut by Fritz Unruh. You can go to the video by clicking on the image:

Calicut Bazaar (© Susanne Rau).

Then I must hurry to the train and continue my reading. I read in Narayanan’s History of the City of Calicut, where I also find some interesting reference to this street (Narayanan 2018, p. 25-27, 66, 96, 98, 246): It has been documented in the sources since 1442. At that time, of course, it was not yet paved. It was asphalted under British rule in the 1930s. For some time there must have been tracks on which wooden shutters were used to transport the goods. For centuries Muslims, Jains, Hindu Seths, Gujarati and Marwari moneylenders as well as Tamils and Andhra Chettis have met here. They are the actors of this place, where large quantities of goods and money are handled. This must have been a hub of South Asian trade, which Calicut has been since the late Middle Ages. Religion played and plays a role here not only by the present representatives of different religious groups, which came from the north, east, from the Arabian peninsula, from Persia and since the end of the 15th century also from Europe.

Religious practices were integrated into the daily routines of trade. This can be seen not only with my rickshaw driver, who had to pray instead of driving me to the archives, but also in the commercial practices and morals for which the religions have always formulated rules. And it is evident in the urban structure (mosque – bazaar or suk), which can be found in many Islamic cities. Whether this is an urban planning concept remains to be clarified for Calicut. At the one end, near the Railway Bridge, is the Sunni Masjid, at the other end (seaside) the Khaleefa Masjid. Myths have formed around the long-lasting prosperity of the urban centre of Calicut, which the inhabitants pass on orally. Narayanan tells of a legend about Mangatt Achan, the first secretary of Zamorin Raja. „After a long and difficult penance, the Achan had succeeded in having Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, appear before him and offer a boon. He made her promise to wait in the same place until he returned, then went home and committed suicide. The clever idea was that the Goddess, unable to break her oath, will stay permanently in Valiyangadi (Big Bazaar), where the devoted Secretary had left her, and that is why prosperous trade continues in that street in spite of all sorts of changes. Besides illustrating the intelligence and self-sacrificing loyalty of the First Secretary, this popular tradition tries to offer a mythical explanation for the steady progress of trade in Valiyangadi from medieval to modern times. It provides an insurance against slump, and a source of confidence.” (p. 26-27)

The bazaar of Calicut, its historical depths, the worldwide interdependence of people and goods, the religious practices and urban structures that characterize the everyday life of this street have captivated me. I would like to know more about it – more about the different interdependencies and mutual formations of trade, religion and urban development in this ‘global city’ avant la lettre; but also more about the connection between piety and trade in cities influenced by Islam. Because only this should be undisputed so far: that bazaars, like the fairs in Europe, are a distinguishing feature. They seem to have existed only in cities, whereas there were cities without bazaars and without fairs.

In the coming weeks I will continue to read, go to the bazaars of different world cities and then report again…

— Susanne Rau


M.G.S. Narayanan, Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006)

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Bazars and markets in medieval India, in: Studies in People’s History, 2, 1 (2015): 61–70

Saskia Sassen, The global city. New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton, N.J. 2001 (2nd edn.)

New Book: History, Space, and Place by Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau, project leader of the KFG, has recently published a book entitled History, Space, and Place (Routledge, 2019). This book offers the first comprehensive introduction to the theory and methodology of historical spatial analysis.

Spaces, too, have a history. And history always takes place in spaces. But what do historians mean when they use the word „spaces“? And how can spaces be historically investigated?

History, Space. and Place by Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau provides a survey of the history of Western concepts of space, opens up interdisciplinary approaches to the phenomenon of space in fields ranging from physics and geography to philosophy and sociology, and explains how historical spatial analysis can be methodologically and conceptually conceived and carried out in practice. The case studies presented in the book come from the fields of urban history, the history of trade, and global history including the history of cartography, but its analysis is equally relevant to other fields of inquiry.

Recently, Susanne Rau has also reviewed a book which might be of interest to readers of this blog. The review concerns the volume La bourgeoisie statutaire de Lyon et ses privilèges. Morale civique, évasion fiscale et cabarets urbains (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles) by Olivier Zeller and can be read here.

Article Announcement: A New Perspective on Urban Religion

In the light of present-day urbanization a paper published by core group member Jörg Rüpke takes a fresh look at religion in the cities of the ancient Mediterranean. The widespread model of “polis” or “civic religion” is checked against its origins in Numa Fustel de Coulange’s La Cité Antique of 1864. The re-reading of this work lays open the deficit in the widespread model of coextension of political dominion and identity with religious practices and identity. De Coulanges’ insight is formulated in his idea of “two religions”, both equally relevant for the building up of “societies” of growing complexity – and the downfall of the ancient city: The belief in universal gods and a universal god brings along the end of the ancient Greco-Roman city. This end is helped on the political side by the growing number of people who are outside of the ultra-dense structure of the ancient city and state (which cannot by its very genesis expand beyond the city) and fighting (without knowing) for a wider and more universal structure than the city can offer. Thus, the beginning of the end of the ancient city is dated by Fustel to the seventh century BCE, that is, immediately after the start of Greco-Roman urbanization. In the end, however, it is not the historically contingent, even if fairly uniform, series of social and political revolutions of patricians and plebeians and the like, but the transformation of Rome into an empire (again led by a change in thinking) that led to the demise of the “municipal regime”. The growing distance between concepts of the divine and divine intelligence and the dead, the growing distance between cult without adequate concepts and the birth of philosophy had undermined the principles of polis religion. The critical review is then extended to concepts of the relationship between city and religion in other periods and areas. Only against that backdrop, a new concept of “urbanized religion” is proposed.

The article is published in German language: „Religion als Urbanität: Ein anderer Blick auf Stadtreligion“,  Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 27,1 (2019). 174-195. DOI: 10.1515/zfr-2018-0018.

— Jörg Rüpke

keywords: urban religion – Fustel de Coulanges – diversity – heterarchy – urbanized religion

Article Announcement: Relocating Religious Change

A new approach to religious change has been taken by Emiliano Urciuoli and Jörg Rüpke (in collaboration with Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, Harry O. Maier and Maik Patzelt) in an article that just appeared in the international journal for the history of religion, Mythos. The claim formulated in “Urban Religion in Mediterranean Antiquity” is that city-space and interaction with city-space engineered the major changes that revolutionised ancient Mediterranean religions. Whereas previous research on ancient religion has stressed the role of religion for cities and urban topography, we are suggesting a new focus on the impact of cities on religion and on how the interaction with city-space changed religion. This side of the dialectic is what we call urban religion. This concept is paramount, since it encompasses the development of specific religious agencies and practices (e.g. neighbourhood shrines; theatrical processions; authors and entrepreneurs), specific forms of religious knowledge and imaginaries (imaginative places; imagined communities; heavenly cities) and societal phenomena such as civic rituals or religious communities in the appropriation (and hence modification and formation) of urban space in cities of different size and character. The major Questions we propose are: how and to what extent is religion shaped by density, urban aspirations, diversity and conflict, city governance, heterarchy and division of labour, and urban identity, that is urbanity? The basic assumption is that religious change needs to be investigated in terms of the ongoing interaction between space and a variety of different agents, including residents, immigrants, and people who live from religion.

The article is published in Mythos 12 (2018), pp. 117-135.