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


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

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against which some arguments have been raised, iconographic ones (the lack of any covering of the hair) and as yet unpublished claims about the inscriptions on the girdle being cast rather than engraved and the girdle being an inseparable part of the astonishing composite figure.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

Reconstruction Aaron, by Irene Rüpke

The Pledge of Allegiance

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

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

Judeneid, Stadtarchiv Erfurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Erfurt oath

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

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

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

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

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

The carrier of the giant gate roll

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

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

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

— Jörg Rüpke

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Demonstrated by Casteigt, Mieth, Rüpke 2016 (open access: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15700739-90000219). Thus far, no arguments to the contrary have been presented. The present text has been presented in German at a conference organized by the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt in August 2016.

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

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

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

[5] Plus Cohen 1999.

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

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

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

[9] Short Herz 2008, 14.

[10] See Bruchhold 2002.

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

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

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

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

[15] Althoff 2003.

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

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

[18] Magin 1999, 324.

[19] Isenmann 2012, 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hillmann 1930, 74.

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.


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.

Lived Urbanity: Religion and the City in Erfurt

Our core group experienced urbanity and religion in the lanes of Erfurt. Members of the KFG prepared short presentations at spots connected to Religion and Urbanity along a route through Erfurt. 

The walk on the 4th of June aimed to explore our theme “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” through the history of Erfurt. Starting from the Max-Weber-Kolleg, six stations in the city gave us the opportunity to discover city spaces and some of Erfurt’s iconic monuments through the perspective of the entangled relationship between city formation and religiosity.

A brief introduction to the city history reminded us that Erfurt had its golden age as ‘Messestadt’ (fair town) in the late medieval period: Its flourishing economy was based on the cultivation of the precious woad plant (isatis tinctoria), the major European blue dye of the time. (If you want to know more, see the temporary exhibition on the colour blue (‘Blau und Blaues. Farbbetrachtungen der besonderen Art‘) at the Museum für Thüringer Volkskunde.)  Following the increasing enthusiasm for Marian devotion (the Virgin Mary wore a blue mantle), blue, unpopular until then, was in high demand from the 12th and 13th centuries onwards. Erfurt’s fortunes rested on religion and the evolution of religious practices.

Our first station gave us the opportunity to discover the Augustinian monastery (Augustinerkloster), a well preserved architectural complex and an example of the long and dynamic religious life of the city. Erfurt not only witnessed the creation of multiple churches, chapters and convents, but it also fostered a rich theological and intellectual life. This eventually helped the foundation of the university in 1392 (our second station), and influenced the paths of great theologians, philosophers and reformers, such as Meister Eckhart and Martin Luther.


Erfurt’s Cathedral (Dom) and the Severikirche.


The Dom with its peculiar monumental platform and north side portal is an important landmark of the city. The Cathedral, alongside the church St. Severi next to it, (stations five and six on our walk) continue to dominate the city. One of the memorable chapters of Erfurt’s history was written by the Jewish community that actively contributed to the wealth of the place.

Well embedded in the core of the city fabric, the Jewish buildings testify by their presence and location to the entanglement of urban and religious life. They also bear the marks of terrible clashes that repeatedly resulted in the complete disappearance of the Jewish community. The visit of the mikwe (station three) showed us how water and religious practices were taken care of in the tense urban context. Another spot of Jewish life in Erfurt is the impressive Old Synagogue. Station four, at the ‘Kunsthalle’, originally known as the ‘Haus zum Roten Ochsen’ (‘house of the red bull’), provided an opportunity to discover lively and colourful depictions of planetary gods on a Renaissance façade freed from medieval religious codes.

The walk was an inspiring experience, evidenced by the fact that we did not lose any participants, despite the terrible heat of this Thursday noon. Since the city has many other treasures – open as well as concealed – that could be discovered in a two hour walk, we are intending to continue our exploration with another tour of other stations.  If you are interested in joining our next walk, feel free to get in touch! 

— Sara Keller