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.

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

From 25 to 29 June the 17th annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions took place in the Estonian University town of Tartu. The overarching topic was “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions”, a broad theme which was interpreted in many different ways and across a wide range of times and locations. (See here for the programme).

Tartu itself is a city with a long and varied history. Indeed, the town iself illustrates aspects of the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity. Much of the town’s development was connected to the fact that the town was the seat of a bishopric. Similarly, the influence of the Teutonic Knights, an order which understood itself as primarily religious in nature, continued to influence the fortunes of the town for centuries. And even now, the ruins of Tartu Cathedral are one of the key factors in the urban toruist economy, besides being the site of many ghost stories, many of which participants heard during a “Ghost Tour”.

Tartu Cathedral Ruins (Source: Wikipedia)

The KFG was present with two series of panels, one on women’s agency and the second one (subject of the forthcoming second part of this conference report) on urban religion, intellectualization and the invention of ritual. The first panel series was organised by Asuman Lätzer-Lasar, post-doctoral fellow of the research group, and consisted of two linked panels on the theme of “Women’s Agency and Religious Networks”. The panels were co-organised with Julietta Alexandra Steinhauer-Hogg, lecturer at University College London and a former fellow at the Max Weber Centre, and Sabine Neumanm, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Marburg.

The panel explored the agency of women in and via religious networks, taking an interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach. Throughout the history of religions, women have initiated, shaped and maintained religious networks in their capacities as founders, priests, benefactors, dedicands, worshippers and more. Female agents were responsible for cult foundations, cult transfers and the creation of new religious organisations. Yet Research on female networks, agency and ‘religious creativity’ is limited, partly owing to the place of women on the margins of many societies. The panel aimed, on the one hand, to narrow the gap in knowledge with regard to female agency and the establishment, maintenance and decline of religious networks. On the other hand, it raised questions about current approaches to gender and religion. This perspective allowed speakers and the audience to see beyond the single category of gender by taking into account the various factors that shaped an individual’s (religious) experience, such as origin, social, and marital status.

Radwa Salem delivered a paper on women and rituals in classical Athens. The paper shed light on the role of women as active agents in shaping society and maintaining the “cultural System”. As “cultural Systems” are maintained by rituals, the significant role of women as patrons of culture can be identified by studying their role in the performance of rituals. Classical Athens provides a good case study as the role of women in creation, change and maintenance of death rituals is recognized in both the textual and material evidence. Most phases of the mortuary treatment were the responsibility of the Athenian women and so it is them who were directly associated with the performance of death rituals and the ones responsible for the continuity and survival of different aspects of culture from ancient times until the modern-day Greece. As the paper showed, the diverse society of Athens during the classical period provided a significant atmosphere of cultural interaction that clearly influenced female identity and the way women expressed that identity.

Sabine Neuman‘s presentation on “Women’s agency in cults for non-Greek deities in Classical and Hellenistic Athens” analysed the agency of women in religious cults for so called non-Greek deities in Athens during Classical and Hellenistic times. Previous studies stated that women played an essential part in ancient Greek religion because men provided priests for male deities and women for female deities. Ancient Greek religion is therefore regarded as a traditional sphere for the agency of women. The paper explored which roles women played in the introduction of so called non-Greek deities and new religious cults for i.e. Kybele, Isis, Bendis and Isodaites. Inscriptions and literary sources attest women, Athenians as well as migrant women, who introduced new deities, dedicated votive offerings and were active in cult associations for non-Greek goddesses. The paper drew particular attention to material culture, for example representations of priestesses. A closer look at these sources shed light on how Athenians and migrant women shaped the religious life in Classical and Hellenistic Athens.

Julietta Alexandra Steinhauer-Hogg‘s paper was entitled “Religious associations, women and agency”. It explored the social dynamics of religious associations in Hellenistic Greece with a focus on priestesses and female agents. Religious associations offered individuals the scope to create and shape a socio-religious space for themselves and their fellow worshippers. Societal norms and restrictions such as ethnic origin, gender and civic status often played a marginal role. Women, whether local or non-local, could therefore hold leading positions often associated with men, as presidents, priests, religious specialists and secretaries, as well as benefactors and simple members. However, owing to the restrictions inherent in the overwhelmingly epigraphic evidence, it is often difficult to decide to what extent the positions described in the texts meant that these women held actual agency. By comparing certain inscriptions referring to female agents in Asia Minor, the Aegean and Athens, the paper illustrated the potential for this line of research and the limitations faced when solely relying on epigraphy.

The Main Building of Tartu University, Venue of the EASR Annual Conference (Source: Wikipedia)

The second panel was opened by Anna Mech, who delivered a paper on “Women in religious life in Roman Dalmatia. Were they really silent?”. The paper attempted to reconstruct the religious life of women who lived in Dalmatia – one of the most ethnically diverse Roman province. The paper presented not only the choices that women made when engaging in religious life but also some important aspects of their private life. Epigraphic monuments were set up – among other reasons – to express the social position of the dedicant. Therefore, it is possible to track the dedicant’s ethnical origin, find their husbands and children or examine the individual intentions of their prayers. Through this Analysis, the paper argued, valuable insights can be reached into the beliefs of individuals and in what ways the “female religiosity” differed (if at all) from the dominant ancient male narrative.

The paper by Carmen González-Gutiérrez, associate of the KFG and COFUND fellow at the Max Weber Centre, moved the discussion to medieval Spain. She showed that European historiography has traditionally assumed that the Islamic urban landscape in the Middle Ages was predominantly a male arena, in which the presence and actions of women were relegated to the interior of the domestic spaces. However, new methodologies and perspectives pioneered in the history of gender, combined with the advances in research on Islamic cities – especially Al-Andalus – allow us to glimpse quite a different reality. The most recent analyses show that the division between the public and private spheres was not so strict, and that determined women could take an active part in providing cities with mosques and other religious facilities, as well as in encouraging specific religious practices. Through a combination of written and recent archaeological sources recovered for al-Andalus, the paper showed that the presence of women in streets and public spaces influenced their configuration; furthermore, the papers addressed the conscious dynamics through which the female patronage, mainly by founding mosques and other pious legacies, became an essential part of the normal functioning of the city and of women’ visibility.

The discussions after the papers showed how much potential the further exploration of women and their agency has. Taking an inter-disciplinary and wide-ranging view yielded some fascinating points of comparison, as well as showing points of divergence between different regions and times. Undoubtedly, women and their networks are not always immediately apparent and their presence in the sources has to be unearted through layers of evidence and, in some cases, also disentangled from a male-dominated historiographical narrative. But, as the two panels clearly showed, this is an essential undertaking if we want to gain a more accurate picture of the past.

Asuman Lätzer-Lasar to Deliver Paper on Religious Ancient Place Making

On Tuesday, 9 July 2019, KFG post-doctoral fellow and steering group member Asuman Lätzer-Lasar will present a paper as part of the colloquia held at the Max Weber Centre. The paper considers the concept of “place making” in antiquity and combines insights from archaeology, urban planning, history and religious studies to explore the ways in which religious space was shaped.

The choice of location of a sanctuary was mainly dependent on its sacred geomancy, recognized, for instance, through an augurium during the Roman period. However, in dense and crowded places such as a city, there were also other needs and requirements that had to be respected, such as urban topography, infrastructure and accessibility, as well as policy, economy, local legislation, or even traditions. Establishing a place for religious communication, be it a sanctuary, a grave or the erection of a dedication to a deity therefore had to be a negotiation between the religious communicator and the physical and non-physical pre-existing environment.

However, even in antiquity the establishment of places of religious communication in dense and diversely crowded cities cannot have been taken place as mere top-down processes decided only by elite, ruling actors without taking any significant and urban-related factors into account. Lätzer-Lasar argues that the decision-making process, when creating a place for religious communication, was an interplay of spaces, objects, actors, practices and imagination (, i.e. aspirations and semantics) that lead involuntarily to reciprocity.

The paper describes the term “placemaking”, which derives from the disciplines of urban planning and geography, in order to elucidate its advantages and disadvantages for the research of ancient cities and religions. The cocnept is developed into a specific form, “Religious Ancient Placemaking”. The paper is a first attempt to make the concept suitable for the discipline of archaeology and enrich it with examples from the ancient city of Rome – because it is an exceptional city that provides a plethora of material and written sources and therefore guarantees a qualitatively broad variety of phenomena – and then to apply the conceptual framework on a specific case study, which will be the Provincia Hispania.

The paper takes place from 10 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. on Tuesaday 09 July at the Max Weber Centre, Erfurt.