Wash your hands and sing! Purification via Water and Word

28 March 2020

Sacred water can be anywhere. That is what seems to emerge from the flow of information currently circulating on handwashing and purification tips. Against the current dramatic global sanitary crisis, this information is symptomatic of a desire of (re) appropriating the sacred and the sanctification process.

Washing hands has become one of the essential “weapons” against the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. While our pragmatic modern societies are working on quick and efficient medical answers to the contamination, lots of voices are also rising to advocate the use of prayers and/or inspirational songs while washing hands. For this large panel of religious and non-religious agents, the action of washing hands advised by medical professionals is not sufficient to answer comprehensively the current crisis. Backed up by unprecedented means of communication (IT and social media), these “upgraded” handwashing initiatives spread not only via the agency of religious authorities, but also through personal initiatives.

Wash and Sing

Following the craze of tweeted singing suggestions, some sites started listing the best songs to sing while washing hands – for instance, “Songs to sing while washing hands: Coronavirus hand-washing songs”. Singing has an obvious entertainment purpose and it forces the practitioner to keep washing for an appropriate amount of time, 20 seconds according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also helps the singer to assimilate the washing steps and to cheer up during an anxiety-inducing situation. In the process, the gesture is ritualized, which represents, for new forms of spirituality, an individual appropriation of a purification process.

Wash and Pray

Religious authorities and spiritual practitioners are not to be outdone: The net is flourishing with posts suggesting to accompany handwashing with prayers and recitations. The poster below, for instance, was circulated by Catholic authorities (here a diocese in Vendée, France). It copies the pictograms currently circulated by the French government about how to wash hands, and it adds a prayer to be recited alongside. The poster is entitled “How to wash hands ‘the Catholic way’ ”.

Washing hands…the Catholic way.

The poster ascribes a part of the Pater Noster (or alternatively the Salve Regina) to each basic gesture of hand hygiene. This association could be read as a mnemonic method to remember the different steps of the handwashing. It also has spiritual virtue since the poster ends with the following sentence: “Clean hands save lives… and prayers saves souls!”

If reciting a prayer while washing hands is not a daily practice in Christianity, it remains an essential step for the celebrant before and during Mass (especially before beginning the Eucharistic prayer). During the celebration, a liturgical bowl and ewer are used. Many churches have also preserved their “lavabo” (or “piscina” or “sacrarium”), a stone basin that was constructed in the sacristy for the priest to wash his hands before starting the Mass (lavabo-s are also found in monasteries’ cloisters and refectories).

Lavabo niche with aquamanile in the sacristy of Erfurt Cathedral

For purification purposes, the lavabo rite includes the pronunciation of a psalm (Psalm 25). It brings the priest into a state of ritual purity, necessary for him to accomplish his duty of intermediary and divine agent.

Comparative overview: Islam and Judaism

In Judaism and Islam, ritual hand washing is not reserved for religious authorities, but is prescribed to everyone on several occasions. The Wudū, or ritual ablution of Islam, is an essential purification process in the context of the religious practice, either the formal prayer (salat) or before handling and reading the Qur’an. The gesture and recitations that go along are prescribed with details by the respective religious traditions. Wudū fountains and tanks are pivotal architectural elements of the Islamic prayer place, the masjid.

It is noteworthy that, in the urban context, an important part of the religious landscape developed around the need for creating a sacred space for codified ablution rituals: ablution tanks attached to mosques in the Islamic context, Jewish mikveh-s, Brahmanic kund-s (temple tank), Buddhist chōzuya-s (water ablution pavilion), etc.

In Judaism, ritual handwashing, or netilat yadayim, is a daily practice extended to several occasions and not restricted to worship and religious activities. It is for instance prescribed to everyone upon arising, before/after eating bread, after leaving a cemetery, upon leaving a bathhouse/room, or after touching part of the body which is dirty. Water has to be poured abundantly and a blessing is pronounced.

As an essential corner stone of Jewish spirituality, the idea of purity (ṭaharah) is accompanied by detailed precepts on the different grades of cleanliness and methods of purifying unclean objects or body parts. Recent discussions on the significance of purity in the study of Judaism associate pure/impure classifications with a cosmology proposing a social arrangement of the world (see, for example, Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Pelican Books. Neusner, Jacob. 1973. The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism. The Haskell Lectures, 1972-1973. Leiden: Brill). Just as physical distancing is prescribed to avoid the contact with the unclean, “the social body draws lines, restricts admission, expels undesirables and guards its entrance.” (Frimpong 2011: 89)[1]

In South Asia

We recognize here strong similarities with the South Asian experience of purity, though Douglas insisted on the universality of these anthropological concepts. Impurity and pollution are indeed strong spiritual and social markers of South Asian cultures, which is particularly prominent in Hinduism. Here, water plays a crucial role as ultimate purification element (and potential agent of inclusion or exclusion). In Hinduism, water is necessary to answer ritual and moral impurities and is thus present in all the rituals, may they be daily routine rituals, rituals linking to particular stages of life or exceptional rituals. Here also the water gets its purification properties from its association with the recitation of appropriate mantra-s. The highly codified Brahmanic tradition gives detailed prescriptions about the gestures, positions, visualizations, mantra-s, intonation and coordination of these parameters. The smallest inaccuracy invalidates the rite.

Parts of the hand as described for the fulfillment of Āchamanam

The ritual called Āchamanam (आचमनं) is about consecrating water and consuming it. It aims at eliminating physical and mental pollution. Its performance is an essential part of the Sandhyavandana (संध्यावन्दन), a set of rituals to be performed three times a day by Hindus that have been initiated through the sacred thread ceremony. Vaishnavist and śhaktit Purāna-s like the Bhāgavata Purāna or the Devi Bhāgavata Purāna describe how to perform the Āchamanam. Interestingly, Āchamanam practices are closely linked with the so-called “Narayana-kavaca Shield”, a Vaishnavist protection against fear and revealed by the Vedic deity Indra.

This crucial Hindu rite show affinities with Vedic material and Zoroastrian practices (that also emphasize ablutions). Both these traditions foregrounded questions of hygiene and physical, mental and spiritual purification.

This brief overview of some of the important rituals present in the big religious Indo-European traditions shows how much Water and Word are tied together for spiritual purification objectives. Today, singing while washing hands can be understood as a (only partly conscious) revival.

— 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] Frimpong, A.D. 2011. Purity and Impurity: Menstruation and its Impact on the Role of Akan Women in the Church. PhD thesis.

Walking through the streets of Calicut (II)

Calicut, 14th of March 2020

In times of Corona, is it still possible to walk through the streets of a big city that is always teeming with people? Especially in cities where there are no sidewalks, but where passers-by, vendors and automobiles (from autorickshaws to trucks) have to share the streets, it is easy to get in each other’s way. And it is exactly these things, especially physical proximity and touching, that we should avoid at the moment. Covid-19 has already changed our cities. In Tianjin, blue metal walls have been erected to separate shops from their customers or to seal off entire districts. It is known as the „Blue Great Wall“. The blue walls are a symbolic wall against the virus, but de facto they are supposed to protect people from themselves. This virus will further segregate our society in new ways. The demarcation measures issued by the local authorities, ranging from recommendation to prohibitions, are only the beginning.

What does Corona have to do with Calicut? Relatively little, actually. India is currently not one of the countries at risk. We’re currently talking 87 known and confirmed cases, 19 of them in the State of Kerala. However, since Germany is one of the risk countries, I was put under “quarantine” by the Indian authorities on March 13, 2020 “for my own protection”. Actually, it is only a “hotel quarantine”, i.e. I am not supposed to leave the hotel if possible, avoid all “non-essential” movements in the city and most importantly not use public transportation. There are certainly worse things, especially since the reports from friends and colleagues in Germany do not at all give me the feeling that I just wanted to be there. To understand why not only China, South Korea and Italy are counted among the risk areas, you just have to take a quick look at the map of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University on “Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases”.

The context of all this is a research stay in Calicut. Fortunately, I was able to do some of the fieldwork at the beginning of the week. Besides a visit to the regional archives, this included a short “city walk” with Dr. Muhammedali, head of the History Department of Farook College, and Dr. Shinoy Jesinth, a young historian from Malabar Christian College, who wrote his dissertation on the urban development of Calicut during the colonial period. We visited the Tali Shiva Temple, a Jain Temple (but haven’t had access to the interior of either one) and the Railway Institute, founded in 1888, went through the Big Bazaar (Valiyangadi) and finally ended up at the Mothakara mosque, which is believed to date back to the 19th century. (For images see Twitter).

The site visits are only one part of the program – of course to see which historical buildings, streets or squares are still there today and what they look like, in order to check which elements that early modern travellers have seen are still there today. By concentrating on the historical (preserved) travel accounts, I can circumvent the current problem to a certain extent. After all, it reminds us that these travellers, too, have already had to contend with epidemics and disease; and we can all take this opportunity to remember that it was always our journeys – private and business, voluntary and forced by migration – that contributed to the spread of disease and epidemics in the world. In order to be able to make further observations on the emergence and development of urbanity, we will today devote ourselves to the Italian Pietro Della Valle, whose reports combine ethnographic observations, object-related documentation, astronomical position-finding and precise route descriptions.

Again, it’s our interest to find out, 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.

The Italian travel writer, poet and composer Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), a member of the Roman nobility, actually wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1614. This turned into a journey as far as India, which lasted eleven years in total. On June 8, 1614, he started in Venice, sailed first to Istanbul to learn Turkish and Arabic. After about a year he continued his journey, via Alexandria and Cairo to Jerusalem, where he visited the holy places. However, he did not return to Rome, but continued his journey to Damascus, Baghdad (where he married a Syrian Christian woman, who died during the journey) and Isfahan (1617). Trained in ancient (European) languages, the nobleman also visited ancient sites such as Babylon, Nineveh and Ur, where he made transcriptions of inscriptions (cuneiform). The path led him further into the northwest of India. He reached Surat in 1623, from where he travelled south along the west coast in stages to Calicut. Via Muscat, Basra and Aleppo he returned to Rome, where he finally arrived on 28 March 1626.

After an honourable reception in Rome he was allowed to devote himself to the elaboration of his travel description, which was published in three volumes from 1650 onwards. The work consists of 54 letters to a friend. In the seventh letter, he reports on his “excursion” to Calicut, after having previously stopped in Mangalore, Kádiri, Carnáti and Cannanore [Kannur].

After the reception by the great Zamorin, he was able to explore the city and its inhabitants. So let’s follow him on his way through the bazaar, through the streets of Valiyangadi and into another, more “noble” quarter to the Palace of the Zamorin: „After Dinner I landed also with the Captain of my Ship and some other Souldiers; we went to see the Bazár which is near the shore; [1] the Houses, or rather Cottages, are built of Earth and thatched with Palm-leaves, being very low; the Streets also are very narrow, but sufficiently long; the Market was full of all sorts of Provisions and other things necessary to the livelihood of that people, conformably to their Custom; for as for clothing they need little, both Men and Women going quite naked, saving that they have a piece either of Cotton, or Silk, hanging down from the girdle to the knees and covering their shame; the better sort are either wont to wear it all blew, or white strip’d with Azure, or Azure and some other colour; a dark blew [turchino] being most esteem’d amongst them.” (Travels, p. 360) In the following he deals with hair and jewellery. Men carry sword and bucklers.

Before going any farther, Pietro Della Valle devotes himself to the division of the local population into social and religious groups. There are essentially two groups, the “Gentiles” and the “Malabari”, who live with the pagans, but are basically Muslims: „The Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Calecut and the In-land parts, especially the better sort, are all Gentiles, of the Race Nairi for the most part, by profession Souldiers, sufficiently swashing and brave. But the Sea Coasts are full of Malabari, an adventitious people, though of long standing; for Marco Polo, who writ four hundred years since, makes mention of them; they live confusedly with the Pagans, and speak the same Language, but yet are Mahommetans in Religion.[2] From them all that Country for a long tract together is call’d Malabar, [3] famous in India for the continual Robberies committed at Sea by the Malabar thieves; whence in the Bazar of Calecut, besides the things above mention’d, we saw sold good store of the Portugals’ commodities, as Swords, Arms, Books, Clothes of Goa, and the like Merchandize, taken from Portugal Vessels at Sea; which things, because they are stolen and in regard of the excommunication which lies upon us in that case, are not bought by our Christians. Having seen the Bazar and stay’d there till it was late we were minded to see the more inward and noble parts of the City and the outside of the King’s Palace; for to see the King at that hour we had no intention, nor did we come prepar’d for it, but were in the same garb which we wore in the Ship.” (Travels, p. 361-362) Then they continued through the city, towards the palace, along plots of land with large trees in which wild monkeys climbed. The passage is interesting above all because this part of the city is clearly different from the bazaar quarter in the eyes of the traveller: „Accordingly we walk’d a good way towards the Palace, for the City is great, and we found it to consist of plots set with abundance of high Trees, amongst the boughs whereof were a great many wild monkeys, and within these close Groves stand the Houses, for the most part at a distance from the common Wayes, or Streets; they appear but small, little of their outsides being seen; besides low walls made of a black stone surround these Plots and divide them from the Streets, which are much better than those of the Bazar, but without any ornament of Windows, so that he that walks through the City may think that he is rather in the midst of uninhabited Gardens than of an inhabited City. Nevertheless it is well peopled and hath many inhabitants, whose being contented with narrow Buildings is the cause that it appears but small.” (p. 362-363) From here they continued on to meet one of the viceroy’s men who knew from Goa. He finally persuaded them to meet the Zamorin, who also wanted to receive the group. The main gate of the palace was located on a small “piazza” with trees, which finally gave the flaneurs the shade they were looking for, before they went step by step into the inner area of the palace. (p. 363)

More will follow soon.

— 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” .

References:

[1] This is most probably the Bazaar Road.

[2] Many of the inhabitants were, in fact, Hindus.

[3] According to Grey, this is a misapprehension. The word is derived from Mala (Dravidian: hill) and Arabic bar or Sanskrit bara, denoting territory. (Travels, vol. 1, p. 121, n. 4). See also: “Malabar Coast”, URL: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Malabar_Coast (14.3.2020)

Bibliography:

Viaggi di Pietro della Valle il pellegrino ; con minuto ragguaglio di tutte le cose notabili osseruate in essi: descritti da lui medesimo in 54 lettere familiari all’erudito suo amico Mario Schipano, divisi in tre parti cioè: la Turchia, la Persia e l’India, Rom 1650-1658 (full text available on Gale)

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The travels of Pietro della Valle in India, 2 vols., from the English translation of 1664, by G. Havers, ed. Edward Grey, London 1892.

Research literature:

Ayyar, K.V. Krishna, The Zamorins of Calicut. From the earliest times down to A.D. 1806, Calicut 1999 (first published 1938).

Flüchter, Antje, Frühneuzeitliche Indienwahrnehmung zwischen Empirie, Antike und Antiquarianismus. Die Briefe des Pietro della Valle (1586-1652), Maritime Entdeckung und Expansion. Kontinuitäten, Parallelen und Brüche von der Antike bis in die Neuzeit, ed. Raimund Schulz (Historische Zeitschrift / Beihefte (Neue Folge), vol. 77), Berlin/Boston 2019, p. 361-390.

Micocci, Claudia, Pietro Della Valle, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 37 (1989), p. 764-770.

“Pietro della Valle”, in: Encyclopædia Britannica [2019], URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pietro-della-Valle (13.03.2020)

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@uni-erfurt.de.

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”.

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.

A box of chocolates or the challenges of working in an archive

Archival work comes close to exploring alien worlds. It might be best described by this modified quote of the movie Forrest Gump: „Archival work is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.“ During the last two months, I’ve visited archives in order to find sources for my PhD thesis. My project revolves around the authority of abbesses and priors in south-west German urban collegiate churches (15th/16th century). Collegiate churches were religious communities which didn’t require canons and canonesses to take eternal religious vows. So I checked the written records of potentially interesting collegiate churches. Due to the widespread disinterest in female collegiate churches until the recent past, the archival material isn‘t as accessible as in other (male) cases. For instance some of the charters of the male community in Ellwangen are digitized. But regarding one female case, the archivist told me that I might have been the first person other than him to check the archival material since he had started working there. Hence, archival work isn’t always easy. Nevertheless, I’ve tasted many different chocolates for the last two months. Sometimes they‘ve resembled truffles and sometimes very experimental Bertie Bott‘s beans.

The entrance to the state archive in Augsburg – what treasures lay ahead? ((c) Simone Wagner)

Five steps are necessary before historians can work with archival sources: Firstly, they need to know which archives might have preserved sources related to their project. Secondly, they need to learn about the structure of the archive they are going to visit. Thirdly, they need to choose which archival material their are going to look at and which not. Fourthly, they need to skim over the archival material in order to check which sources really comply with their research question. Lastly, they need to transcribe their sources. At different steps different challenges present themselves.

Step 1:

Before being able to look at sources pertaining to an institution, historians have to know where they are kept. In most instances researchers and archivists have already published where the written records of collegiate churches are today. Archivists are also usually helpful and able to give advice. It is more difficult to trace the complementary written records of the collegiate churches which weren’t kept in their archives. Since different actors were involved in the affairs of a collegiate church the archives of other institutions might also contain important historical records. The history of these archives can be quite complicated. For instance, the archive of the Further Austrian administration was partly captured by the French during early modern conflicts and the whereabouts of some historical records are still unknown. Luckily, this is the exception: The collegiate churches of my project were dissolved due to secularization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thus, their archives came into the possession of the German states as they were the legal successors of the collegiate churches. Naturally, archives can’t preserve everything but have to make a selection which sources they are going to keep. Hence, the sources still existing today are a result of the interests of nineteenth century archivists. As they mainly were concerned to safeguard the legal claims of the state as successor of the dissolved monasteries, especially administrative and legal documents were kept. In the case of some female collegiate churches it is possible to demonstrate that devotional sources were thrown away in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Most archives in Germany are owned by the state. But there are some exceptions: Companies, the church and noble families can also be responsible for their own private archives. For instance, the historical record of the monastery Riedern are kept in the „Fürstlich-Fürstenbergisches Archiv Donaueschingen“ (Princely archive of the family Fürstenberg in Donaueschingen). The family of Fürstenberg obtained the archive of the monastery Riedern in the eighteenth century. At this time, the monastery of Riedern still existed and the nuns always had to ask the prince whenever they needed to look something up in their archive. Thus, the state couldn’t secularize Riedern’s archive when they dissolved the monastery. As the archival material hasn’t left Donaueschingen for some centuries, the archive has a distinctive atmosphere. The archive is in an old building, the reading rooms are furnished with old antiques and some of the sources are spread throughout the room.

Step 2:

Knowing which archive stores relevant sources isn’t enough. Historians have to understand the structure of an archive in order to find what they need. There are two general sorting principles: the principle of provenance and pertinence. Today, the principle of provenance is preferred: Archival material should be stored according to its context of transmission. The principle entails not to rip apart sources originating from the same institution but to respect the original order the institution has established. In contrast, when organizing an archive based on the principle of pertinence archival material is arranged with regard to content. Classification criteria comply with what archivists at the time deemed reasonable e.g. to differentiate between acts and charters. As this principle was fashionable when many modern archives where created it is still highly influential. It is easy to imagine how much more confusing the principle of pertince is, when looking for material of a specific institution. For instance, Generallandesarchiv Karlsruhe (general state archive Karlsruhe) has torn apart the charters monasteries and collegiate churches received and sorted the charters according to the issuer. Thus, charters issued by kings, popes and every other issuer are kept separately. Some archives use a mixture of both principles, e.g. the state archive Augsburg. The archival material of Lindau is categorized depending on the archive it originally came from. Parts of the archival material were kept in the state archive Munich because acts (Akten) and office books (Amtsbücher) of one institution had been separated and brought to different Bavarian state archives. In the 70s, the state of Bavaria decided to honour the principle of provenance and relocated archival material according to its origin.

Some archives look rather unassuming from the outside, but may hold fascinating sources… ((c) Simone Wagner)

Step 3:

Having arrived at an archive, historians have to decide which archival material they are going to look at. Sometimes it is possible to check all of the written records, especially regarding the female collegiate churches a manageable amount of sources survives. However, the male communities e.g. Ellwangen and Kempten have extensive written record. These communities had enough money to go to court often which obviously produces more sources than solving conflicts informally. Thus, historians have to restrict the number of archival material they are going to inspect. It varies greatly how precise the archival material is described, though. The city archive of Constance provides an excellent overview over their inventory. The content of every file is outlined extremely specifically. But in other cases, the description made by archivists is relatively vague, incorrect or fragmentary. Here are some examples: For instance, a compilation of letters by the abbess of Lindau is filed under the label „private and public letters“. Disregarding that it is anachronistic to distinguish between private and public in premodern times, all of the letters relate directly to the reign of abbess Amalia of Reischach. The compilation of letters was probably used as a model in form and content by her successors. In comparison to other descriptions the label „private and public letters“ was even useful. The only information usually given about cartularies is the dates they cover. Mostly, it is unclear whether a cartulary is relevant for my research question or not. Some inventories actually prove beneficial, e.g. the inventory of Säckingen’s record in „Sammlung schweizerischer Rechtsquellen (compilation of Swiss legal documents)“. But as the creators were only focused on matters relating to today’s Switzerland (Säckingen today is German) their overview is incomplete and can’t be solely relied upon. All of these deficiencies are normal considering archivists don’t have the time to study all of their historical record. Besides, some descriptions are quite old. Archivists couldn‘t foresee future research and might have been interested in different aspects than contemporary historians.

Step 4:

After a historian has narrowed down the archival material, they have to read the sources to ascertain their usefulness. Having found the right archival material it is helpful to copy some of it. Depending on the (German federal) state, the policy regarding photographs or scans differs. Switzerland has been a pioneer digitizing archival material and letting users take photographs. Until recently, the German federal states were wary of photographs and insisted on users making (quite expensive) copies. But the state of Bavaria, for instance, has changed its policy in the last six months and now allows photographs. According to some rumours the state of Baden-Württemberg wants to change their policy on photographs, too. Curiously, at the state archive Augsburg just one person at a time may photograph archival material which can lead to tensions between users. There is a German saying for situations like these: “Die Decke der Zivilisation ist dünn” (The ceiling of civilization is thin). Users sometimes behave like a pack of wolves fighting for the last piece of meat during an especially cold winter. A warning sign in Augsburg indicates that some users tried to steal archival material shortly before I visited it. Naturally, an archive is caught between making its content accessible and preserving it for future generations. The less archival material is used the safer it is. Some prefer to digitize the archival material so that the original isn’t touched anymore. However, the material aspect of the sources is lost in their digitized version.

Step 4/5:

At home, the sources have to be transcribed so that a researcher can read them carefully. Both step 4 and 5 require good paleographical knowledge. I’ve come across many different fonts since, for example, the languages Latin and German were written in different styles. The style used for Latin in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century is based on the Carolingian minuscule which has influenced our way of writing. Hence, it is relatively easy to read. The bigger obstacle are the frequently used abbreviations in Latin texts. In contrast, German is written in a cursive and quite hard to transliterate for an unskilled reader. Furthermore, the sources exhibit a range of different hands from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Some sources are only accessible through later copies. Unfortunately, their originals are lost. During early modern times, the German cursive became heavily ornate. Thus, some historians prefer to read fifteenth century texts to early modern ones. The quality of the handwriting also varies greatly. The copies and compilations are usually written quite carefully, as someone wanted to preserve their contents for future generations. However, the files resulting immediately of the administrative practice are scribbled more carelessly.

Summary

Working in an archive is like exploring alien worlds or eating a box of chocolates – You never know what you’re going to get. Historians can’t always predict what sources they will find. They are at the mercy of the written record still preserved in the archives. Though archivists are doing a great job making written records accessible and helping historians, visiting an archive still has a lot of difficulties in store. What constitutes the challenge of working in an archive is also its appeal. Sometimes my plan didn’t work out and my expectations weren’t met. In other cases, the quality of my trove exceeded my wildest hopes. The thrill of spotting fascinating sources makes it all worthwhile.

— Simone Wagner

Simone Wagner is a doctoral research in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in late medieval religious history, especially that of southern Germany.

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” .

Bibliography

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), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2352-0248_edn_a4749000.

Sophie Landrin, “Le Grand Bazar va être détruit malgré les protestations,” in Le Monde, March 31, 2015, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2005/03/31/le-grand-bazar-va-etre-detruit-malgre-les-protestations_633771_3210.html (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: http://www.archives-lyon.fr/static/archives/garbeau-epicerie/ (August 29, 2019).

Picture credit for all images: Susanne Rau.

Religion and Urbanity at the EASR annual conference 2019 (part two of two)

After our first report on our project’s panels at the 17th annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions in the Estonian University town of Tartu, this blod post discusses the second series of panels organised by members of our research centre “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.

The session consisted of two panels organized by Emiliano Urciuoli and Cristiana Facchini and both of them treated the theme “Urban Religion and Religious Change. Intellectualization of Religion and Ritual Invention”. It asked ow and how far religious intellectualization and ritual invention are made possible by the engagement of religious communication “with the conditions of specific urban environments at particular moments in the environmental, political, and social histories of cities” (Orsi)?

Emiliano Urciuoli’s paper “Christian intellectuals in a heterarchical world: Religious changes in the ancient Mediterranean city fabric” discussed the relationship between three aspects connected to the state of early Christ religion in 2nd century Rome as urban religion. Fristly, the phenomenon that religious scholar Heidi Wendt has called the rise of “the freelance religious experts” in the Roman empire, referring to the Mediterranean-wide emergence of “self-authorized purveyor[s] of religious teachings and practices who drew upon such abilities in pursuit of various social benefits and often more transparent forms of profit” (Wendt 2016). Secondly, the reliance of these professionals on a specific kind of capital that the urban concentration of recognized assets was able to grant them in order to win and stabilized a religious clientele: high literacy, networks of literary exchange, and various textually oriented interpretive practices” (Stowers 2011). Lastly, the capacity of the urban space to function as a “heterarchical system” (Crumley 1995), where power can be ranked in a number of ways, shared, or checked. The more densely urban and heterogeneous is the context, the more heterarchical is the system of power distribution, that is, the more various the types of power and the ways of gaining authority over people, the more diverse the manners of ranking, un-ranking or re-ranking those powers, and the more extended the chances to get access to them. Trans-urban networks can be mobilized when power is locally counterpoised. As Allen Brent pointed out (Brent 2010), the events following the outburst of the “Novatianist crisis” in Rome (251 CE) – that is, in the midst of a highly fractionated theological metropolitan reality – show that spiritual leaders lacking of sufficient influence over the local population might try to gain international support via oversea sponsors. This was only made possible by the intellectualization of religious communication via the urban production and inter-urban circulation of doctrinally laden texts.

Harry O. Maier (Vancouver School of Theology), a fellow of the research group, presented on “Ritual and Urban Networking with Ignatius of Antioch“. The paper considered ritual as a means of the creation of networks of urban religion in second century Asia Minor. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written by the prisoner and martyr bishop journeying to Rome during the first half of the second century, express the desires of a religious leader to create and control city networks of affiliated assemblies of Jesus believers. Ignatius ritualizes his journey to Rome as a sacred urban procession and further ritualizes the audiences of his letters as participating with him in his journey toward an anticipated martyrdom. He uses ritual to create competition for urban space, which – with the help of modern urban studies — is best understood within the specular densely populated settings of the eastern Mediterranean urban face-block neighborhood. Ignatius is concerned that meetings only happen under the supervision or knowledge of particular elected officials of the Christ assemblies he endorses. By portraying these urban locations as places where correctly conceived ritual unfolds, Ignatius adds an orthodox valence to cityspaces that they arguably did not possess outside of his letters. Thus the urban and the written conspire to form a spatial and imagined network of urban spaces, complete with ritualized urban space-time configurations. As a point of comparison, the paper examined associations and their creations of networks and modalities of space and time to consider ways in which other groups were using ritual to engage in analogous neighbourhood practices and urban networking, thereby creating cityspaces of their own. By placing Ignatius within the context of such associations the paper argued that we are enabled to recognize emergent Christianity as an urban religion and to consider how belief and city were in a dynamic relation with one another in the creation of group definition, cooperation, competition, and rivalry.

Saint Ignatius of Antiouch, subject of Harry O. Maier’s paper (see here for details).

Arkadiy Avdokhin (Higher School or Economics (Moscow) delivered a paper on Inventing Prayer, Enforcing Orthodoxy: Athanasios of Alexandria’s Project of Bible-Based Devotion. The paper approached a set of Athanasios of Alexandria’s writings about prayer and hymn-singing as a project of inventing ritual orthopraxy in fourth-century urban and rural Christian communities, as well as in individual Devotion. The paper discussed Athanasios’ Festal Letters, epostolographic output (primarily the Letter to Markellinos), and the Life of Antony from the perspective of the bishop‘s concerns about the contemporaneous diversity of devotional and liturgical practices of praying and hymn-singing and his attempt to bring a unifying change. It argued that Athanasios had a coherent vision of the ideal Christian prayer and hymnody. For Athanasios, ‘orthodox’ Christians—lay and ascetics, educated devotees and common believers alike—should derive their practices of devotion and liturgy from the Bible—the Psalter and the Biblical odes—rather than other sources. Athanasios‘ programme of devotional and liturgical orthopraxy centred around the Biblical ideal is part of his broader project of bringing unity to the division-riddled church of Egypt. The bishop conceived of the Scripturally-cued shared patterns of praying and hymn-singing as one of the means to unify scattered Christian communities. Although not as self-consciously formulated as e.g. his polemic against the ‘Arians’ or Meletians, Athanasios pastoral programme of a uniform Biblical devotion surfaces across his writings with consistency. A further Suggestion was that Athanasios’ project of promoting standardized, Bible-based ritual practices of prayer and hymn-singing was an individually conceived regulatory programme that wasenforced through episcopal frameworks of power. This project was targeted against the diversity of modes of prayer and hymn-singing practiced across a variety of doctrinally, ecclesially, and socially different communities. The paper also explored the impact of the divide between urban (Alexandria-based) and rural (chōra-based) networks of parishes and ascetical communities in both promoting and subverting communication of episcopal regulations regarding prayer and liturgy.

The second panel began with Cristiana Facchini, from the University of Bologna and a fellow in Erfurt, and her paper “Utopias and urban imagination in the early modern period”. The paper argued that utopian literature has been generally placed against the backdrop of different Christian undercurrents, and consequently it has been treated as a genre that both speaks about politics and religion. Rooted in ancient Greek thought, this genre became particularly relevant in the early modern period, as one of the consequences of the discovery of new continents. Fuelled by disappointment or sarcasm about political and religious warfare and strife, the idea of utopia unleashed European imagination about ideally planned communities which were parallel to the concrete founding of new urban environments. The paper explored a set of interrelated questions, both from a theoretical and a historical perspective. On the one hand, it investigated what kind of religious environment utopian thought was likely to imagine, especially against the backdrop of increasing religious strife. On the other one, it analysed how utopian thought might have influenced urban projects that were enhanced in new environments, either as idealized utopian polities or new urban projects, mostly visible in some American areas. Finally, some theoretical reflections were formulated in reference to the striking relevance ‘utopian imagination’ played in urban thought, up to the point where it overlapped with dystopian delusion.

Finally, Martin Christ, a post-doctoral fellow of the Project, considered “Rituals of Death in Early Modern German Cities”. The paper considered the ways in which rituals connected to dying and death were invented, performed and perceived by a range of actors living and working in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The paper concentrated on important German towns and cities in the early modern period to assess how rituals of death changed in this tumultuous period of European history. The religious, political and cultural changes of the early modern period had a profound impact on the ways in which men and women died and were commemorated and remembered. The paper took these big changes as a starting point and explored what processes like the Reformation and Catholic/Counter Reformation, changing discourses around medicine and hygiene or the European expansions in the New World did to rituals of death. It conceived of dying and death as a process with many actors and spaces, all of which have to be considered. They included private spaces, like the bedchamber, but also churches or graveyards which shaped the look of a town. The paper illustrated how rituals of death were in a reciprocal relationship with urban spaces, affected by these spaces and influencing them in turn. In this way, the paper asked about the specific ways in which urbanity influenced dying, death and commemoration in a range of German cities and argued that understanding how someone died is a crucial aspect of early modernity.

Collectively, the anels showed that many features of past and present religions were the outcome of specific effects and uses of city-space and their social and cognitive bases rather than as inherent characteristics of a specific ‘religion’. Many religious phenomena, and especially major religious changes, can be better understood by viewing them in spatial terms, that is, as a result of a dialectic of “co-production” (Day) of city-space and urban life, on the one side, and religious representations and practices, on the other. Therefore, change is not conceptualized by presupposing religion and the city as two static entities, but rather implying a “continual process in which the urban and the religious reciprocally interact, mutually interlace, producing, defining, and transforming each other” (Lanz). Designating a process in which religion and the urban are involved, ‘urban religion’ is the formula that defines the state of a religion which is shaped by the interaction with the urban spatial environment and which can periodically crystallize into major changes whose assessment and naming is a responsibility of the scholar. Focusing on changing urban environments against the backdrop of long-term periodizations such as the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, and the European age of explorations (with the Reformation and the development of colonial empires), this panels reflected on forms of connectivity (cooperative or/and conflictual) and targeted religious dynamism through the lenses of religious intellectualization and ritual invention. These are two kinds of religious changes that appear recurrently in the cross-culturally entangled, world-wide history of religion and urbanism.

Erfurt-ness

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: https://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/MCRFileNodeServlet/dbt_derivate_00021865/Luther-Erfurt-Erbe.pdf

[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.

Religious Places in Motion

On 18 July 2019, the second edition of our city walk on “Religion and Urbanity” in Erfurt took place. (For a short repot on our first walk, see here). The warm and sunny morning prompted us to stay in the shade of Erfurt’s churches and wander in the shadows of religious authorities, premises and groups.

The theme of this new walk was “Transformation of Religious Spaces”. Our aim was to look at a selection of religious spaces and their non-linear history. Historical disruptions, spatial competition, social and religious conflicts, natural and man-made catastrophes, but also growth and beautification, evolution of religious and social practices, reappropriation, reuse and rehabilitation: These were some of the reasons for transformation affecting religious spaces in urban context. The theme highlighted the complexity of multi-layered trajectories for most of the religious spaces. Even seemingly well-established constructs were and are in motion.

The Hanseplatz in Erfurt ((c) Sara Keller)
The Hanseplatz in Erfurt (© Sara Keller)

Our walk started at the Hanseplatz (or place of the Hanseatic League), a large and green open space, suitable for a nice stroll and also containing a playground. However, this pleasant square had a more sinister function, as it served as a place for executions up until the eighteenth century. Executions were strictly regulated and performed by religious agents. In death, religion and law interacted in fascinating ways. Public executions were well attended public events with a religious framework, including the presence of clerics, reading of religious texts, reference to the destiny of the souls of the to-be-executed persons. All this justified the sentence and strengthened religious authority. The executioner was respected for the performance of his duty and sometimes had medical knowledge. But his trade was also considered as dishonourable. Remains of more than 40 executed persons were found during excavations for underground parking, where past notions of hell are now buried alongside the dead.

We then walked to the Barfüsserruine, remains of a church which are preserved as a ruin and now serve as a memorial to the bombing of the Second World War and the destruction it brought. A scared space was initially built there in the thirteenth century as the monastery church of the recently founded Franciscan Order. Its history is significant for the religious property and competition for influence of monasteries and confessions in the dense pre-modern urban canvas from the medieval period until the post-Reformation time. After the 1944 bombing that heavily damaged the church nave, the remains were secured, the ruin now serving as a performance space for cultural events. The church is still subject of discussions about a potential reconstruction of the roof and about the meaningfulness of evidence of bombing as a reminder of war.

The Barfüsserruine in Erfurt ((c) Sara Keller).
The Barfüsserruine in Erfurt (© Sara Keller).

Our walk continued to the Predigerkirche, a monument built as the monastic church of the Dominican monastery in the thirteenth century. Dominicans introduced a solution to the social and spiritual needs of the increasing city population, thus justifying the importance of having monastic premises within the city wall. In the course of the Reformation, Protestant sermons were held in the church, which is significant for the designation of religious places and parishes as Protestant or Catholic. This shift, as well as issues of property ownership and disputes between monasteries, are representative of the constant territorial competition of religious institutions. The Predigerkirche is also remembered as the church of the mystic Meister Eckhart who was prior of the monastery in the early fourteenth century.

From the Predigerkirche, we went to the Magdalenenkapelle, a thirteenth century chapel with a history connected strongly to death and burials. Initially, it was a cemetery chapel for poor people and foreigners. It was then used as a burial space for the Sankt Martin Hospice in the Fischmarkt. The chapel was eventually profaned and afterwards used as a theatre. The monument returned to its original funerary function in 2014 as it was rehabilitated as a columbarium, answering the increasing need of urn space. The Erfurt artist Evelyn Körber designed fifteen columns made from limestone from Solnhofen and containing urn spaces, which can be customised. The long waiting list for the urns of the Magdalenenkapelle indicates the trend towards cremation and the great demand for successful projects like the Magdalenenkapelle’s columbarium.

Our final station was on the Petersberg, where we had a glimpse of the Peterskirche, unfortunately closed at the moment and wrapped in a large restauration canvas. The church’s history is shaped by clerical and profane military functions. The church, dedicated to St. Peter und St Paul, was a roman basilica built in 1060 as the church of the Benedictine monastery. It was constructed on the top of a hill that presents evidence of pre-medieval settlements. The city of Erfurt developed on the foot of the hill in the early medieval period, while the monastery area was chosen for its dominant and strategic position. In the seventeenth century, a fort was built on the Petersberg and it was occupied in the 19th century by Napoleonic troops, then the Prussian army. In this context, the church was profaned, it lost its spires and was used to store military equipment. For the 2021 Bundesgartenschau, a national gardening exhibition, the church is being renovated, while colourful parterres will be added to the surrounding area.

Much more could be said and discussed about the turbulent history of religious places in Erfurt, so that during our talk we had to cut short some of our discussions. The visit of the old synagogue, initially planned as part of the walk, also had to be dropped because of time constraints. But this has led us to schedule a third city walk soon – a new edition, will contain fewer statiosn to leave enough time for discussions and be more interactive.

— Sara Keller

Sara 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.