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” .


[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)


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)

Qudsiya Contractor on “Old Shanghai” and Hindu/Muslim Relations in Modern India

KFG Fellow Qudsiya Contractor‘s research explores how religion and religious identities impact the urban experience of the poor in Mumbai. Her project focuses on the Muslim poor in a Mumbai neighborhood and explores how socio-spatial segregation, a lack of basic amenities, economic deprivation, police surveillance and political marginalization play out in everyday life.

She has recently published two articles. One, entitled “Nostalgia for Shanghai’s Shikumen”, discusses efforts to demolish old housing, called Shikumen, and how nostalgia about these structures continues to be present in people’s minds. She writes that “a sentimental longing for the past lingers on in Shanghai”.

Her second article discusses “How Jaggi Vasudev has helped strengthen fears about Muslims”. In it, she and her co-author Suryakant Waghmore show Vasudev’s teachings are based in elite Hindu traditions and they illustrate how Muslims are constructed as new outcasts as a result. The authors show how “as a political category, Muslims invoke fear. They are suspected by many people of harbouring anti-national and anti-liberal sentiments.”

Both articles have much broader implications about memory and urban development, and religious coexistence and hierarchical power structures. They provide a fascianting opportunity to reflect on religion and urbanity in modern societies – enjoy reading!

Walking through the streets of Calicut (I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Susanne Rau

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


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

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

Modern scholarly edition:

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

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

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

Research literature:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reconstruction Aaron, by Irene Rüpke

The Pledge of Allegiance

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

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

Judeneid, Stadtarchiv Erfurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Erfurt oath

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

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

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

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

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

The carrier of the giant gate roll

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

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

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

— Jörg Rüpke

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Demonstrated by Casteigt, Mieth, Rüpke 2016 (open access: DOI: 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.

CfP: Religious Guides to Urbanity, Erfurt, 11-12 June 2020

International workshop organized by the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (funded by the German Research Foundation – FOR 2779)

We invite abstracts for a conference on ‘Religious guides to urbanity’. This workshop focuses on the regulation of urban life through orders, ordinances, instructions and other forms of written authoritative communication that are spurred by religious motivations, betray religious concerns, or target religious behaviors and misbehaviors. It takes a broad chronological and cross-cultural view in order to compare urban productions as diverse as anti-idolatrous regulations authored by late antique Christian and Jewish religious specialists, instructions like the Muslim hisba, council orders of early modern European towns (Polizeyordnungen), and other textualized strategies to promote and/or impose a ‘safe urban life’.

As suggested by the notion of ‘urban religion’, which considers the spatially informed dialectic of co-production of urban life and religious communication, the focus of the workshop is twofold: on the one hand, it addresses the regulation of religious life and the ways in which religious texts aim to shape the urban conditions of living, and on the other hand it looks at how urban spaces, actors, and ideals of urbanity generate more or less binding projects of religious normativity.

The workshop takes a source-based approach and seeks to take a close look at individual sources and their interpretation to enable meaningful comparisons across cultures past and present.

Abstracts should be 300 to 500 words in length. The deadline for submitting an abstract is 15 February 2020. We hope that the publication of the papers after the conference will be a cornerstone in the emerging field of urban religion.

Conference room and accommodation will be provided at the Augustinerkloster (Augustinerstraße 10) in the historical centre of Erfurt. Travel expenses will be refunded according to the Thüringer Reisekostengesetz (economy flight, 2nd class train ticket).

Abstracts and any queries can be submitted to:


Conveners: Martin Christ, Emiliano Urciuoli

At Markets and Fairs in Lyon

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

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

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

Saône, Lyon Cathedral and Notre Dame.

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

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

Markets and Fairs Have a Long Tradition in Lyon

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

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

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

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

Religious Fairs and Trade Fairs: Temporal Orderings

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

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

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

Goods from All Over the World

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

Spatial Orderings

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

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

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

Later Uses

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

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

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

Translated by Michael Thomas Taylor.

— Susanne Rau

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


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

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

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

Carmen González Gutiérrez in ARTE documentary

Carmen González Gutiérrez, a COFUND fellow associated with our project, recently contributed to a documentary by the French TV channel ARTE on Al-Andalus. The region was a medieval Muslim territory, which is now part of Spain. Carmen talked about the Great Mosque of Córdoba, now called Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, one of the most important sacred spaces in Spain. The mosque was a key feature of the medieval town and influenced the whole region for centuries. Indeed, as a space steeped in history and a major tourist attraction, it still shapes the city today. 

Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (Source: Wikipedia).

Martina Stercken to Deliver Paper on Salvific History and Urbanity

Martina Stercken, fellow of the KFG and professor of Medieval History at the University of Zurich, will deliver a paper in the KFG’s research colloquium on 28 May 2019. The paper is entitled “Embedded in salvific history. Mediating urban time and space in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period”. 

Urban studies have assumed the power of salvific history to be an important element
influencing the medieval notion of towns in Europe. Discourses and artifacts reflecting on the celestial Jerusalem have been examined; scholars have investigated how much this idea has influenced town planning; and performative ways of defining the urban space as a religious area and the urban community as a sacral community have been described. The paper aims for a deeper analysis of texts, images, and maps and their ways of mediating temporal and spatial dimensions of towns between the 13th and 16th centuries, so at a time when the urban landscape was being shaped in Europe. Analysing manifold combinations of maps and historiographical texts relating to Zurich, it will explore the means to create images of the town as a spatial and historical phenomenon embedded in salvific history. It will be argued that urbanization changed the notion of the town’s embeddedness in the history of salvation, and developed multifarious ways to connect representations of space with its historical significance.

The paper will start at 10 a.m. in the Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt. 

Notre-Dame of Paris: From Paradise to Inferno

‘Etiam periere ruinae’ (tr.: Even the ruins have perished). Old St Paul’s Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London. Engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1666.
(Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

15 April 2019. Our Lady of Paris burns. The Notre-Dame cathedral of the ‘Île de la cité’, the historical heart of Paris, turns into a huge blaze, exhausting the fire brigade, stunning the helpless Parisian crowd and shaking people all over the world. For a moment, everyone felt: France is burning.

This first conclusion may sound like an exaggeration, warranting a more detailed look at the significance of Notre-Dame of Paris. The monument certainly enjoys particular attention from the Parisians and the tourists – a fondness which is not a given in a secular state. Notre-Dame of Paris, with approximately 13 million visitors every year, competes with the Eiffel Tower for the highest ranking of the most visited monuments of France[i] Both come behind the unbeatable Disneyland, which attracted 14.8 million visitors in 2015[ii]. Yet it seems difficult to estimate fairly how much the French cherish the cathedral of the ‘Île de la cité’. Surveys suggest the deep attachment of the French to such regional sites.

What about the meaning of Notre-Dame in the history of France? In this regard, the most suitable representation would rather be Notre-Dame de Reims, where most of the kings of France were crowned or the Basilica of Saint-Denis near Paris, the royal burial place from the 10th to the 18th centuries. From an architectural and art historical perspective, the prominence of  Notre-Dame cathedral is anything but obvious: One rather remembers Saint-Denis, where Suger inaugurated the Gothic style in the 1140s; Chartres and Bourges, the classic Gothic cathedrals and big work sites of the late 12th and early 13th century, Chartres again, with its revolution of the colours; Reims, Amiens, Beauvais as big monuments[iii]; the Mont-Saint-Michel, an architectural achievement and a unique pilgrimage place since the 8th century. Notre-Dame of Paris with its long building history and controversial completion by architect Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century is rather remembered as an experimental space for the Neo-Gothic and the emerging disciplines of building archaeology and (today this seems questionable) heritage management. A rather doubtful example of the Gothic.

Despite these facts, and notwithstanding the ambivalent feeling towards Notre-Dame of Paris, it is clear that the recent disaster caused a great stir amongst the public, the media and the politicians. The 15th of April became an event the very same night when Parisians and the press helplessly witnessed the annihilation of the 13th century attic, known as the ‘forest’[iv].

The first reason for this strong emotional response certainly lies in the impact of the  spectacle of the devastating blaze. Europe had not seen a fire of this scale and cultural impact for about 75 years. It triggered deeply engrained memories of destruction, conflicts and suffering. Accidental and criminal fires that regularly devastated European medieval towns are, since the Renaissance, ‘rare and shocking events’[v]. Arsonists, when they were caught, were quickly and mercilessly punished: Jean Froissart reports for instance in his ‘Grandes Chroniques de France’ (late 14th century)[vi] that the arsonists of the Abbey Saint Lucien of Beauvaisis would “pay heavily”[vii] for their deed. The king of England ordered twenty persons to be hanged so ‘that others learn how to behave another time’[viii]. In densely built medieval cities, where wood was an important part of the everyday architecture, churches were damaged many times by large fires, though they were rarely the target and the origin of the fire. But the phenomenon of large city fires, mostly a result of military activity,[ix] drastically diminished during the Renaissance. The ‘Hausmanisation‘ and other pioneering urbanistic improvements of the late 19th century finished the move of the urban fire to the level of an archaic abnormality.

Remembering the Roman Emperor Nero who enjoyed the contemplation of burning Rome in 64 AD, the fire becomes a spectacular and apocalyptic sight, and the arsonist a demonic creature or a dangerous madman. “The arsonist is a man divided between his pleasure to initiate fire and the expression of his sadomasochism,”[x] wrote psychiatrist Michel Bénézech.

Such a situation was relegated to the tribulations of the dark days of our past, till Notre-Dame of Paris suddenly revived these memories which many believed forgotten. More than in terms of architectural importance, the significance of Notre-Dame is to be understood in the national imaginary developed since the 19th century. Initially a neighbourhood parish, Notre-Dame became a ‘lieu de célébrations nationales’, a place of national celebration, from the mid-19th century after Victor Hugo published ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ in 1831 and Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc intervened in its architectural substance between 1843 and 1864.[xi] The urbanistic work conducted by the Baron Haussmann on the ‘Île de la Cité’ between 1858 and 1868 cleared the space in front of the façade (the ‘Île de la cité’ lost two third of its population in the 19th century)[xii], thus creating a real staging of the monument. The building was no more celebrated for its religious function but started embodying the social history of the place. The ‘parvis’, or large open square with the new cathedral facade set an example for the urbanistic staging of other church-monuments of France. In the case of Notre-Dame, it became the central place of the ‘Tout-Paris’ (‘whole Paris’) and the square that crystallised the life, memories and struggles of the Parisians. One remembered that the place saw the execution of Jacques de Molay, last Master of the Knights Templars burned upon a scaffold in 1314; as well as the revolution struggles, the demolition of the cathedral sculptures and the coronation of Napoleon in 1807. Paris was born on the ‘Île de la cité’ and the ‘point 0’ embedded in the square of Notre-Dame reminds individuals since 1796 that all roads of France start from there. Thus, the ‘parvis’, from old French ‘parais’ for ‘paradise’, became, maybe more than Notre-Dame herself, the heart of France.

The development of published guides of Paris fostered this promotion by mentioning Notre-Dame as “the most beautiful monument of the gothic art of France” (‘Guide parisien’ of Adolphe Joanne published in 1863).[xiii] Professor of History and Cultural Anthropology Evelyne Cohen brightly demonstrates in her paper entitled “Visiter Notre-Dame de Paris” how the site became a symbol of the history of Paris and eventually of France in the course of the 19th and then the 20th century. More than a religious place or an architectural wonder, Notre-Dame of Paris and its ‘parvis’ had become a symbol of the heart, emotions and struggles of the Parisians and the French.

Today, after the fire, Notre-Dame is on its way to become a European symbol for cultural collaboration since the French president Emmanuel Macron promptly proposed to create a network of European experts for heritage and heritage conservation.[xiv] The global call by French leaders for architects to design a new spire could be the stepping-stone for Notre-Dame to become a cultural and popular representation across borders.[xv]

Cover image of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine on 16.04.2019, exceptionally released one day before its usual release date. Source: Website of Europe 1.

The spectacular fire of the 15th of April will remain in memory. The emotions triggered by the blaze and its high level of media attention already created a new ‘image d’épinal’ which confirms the visuals and staging of Notre-Dame. While the nation is in turmoil over the yellow vest movement and the national debate, the fire of Our Lady in the heart of Paris had a cathartic value.

With the reconstruction of the roof and the implementation of the gigantic ‘Île de la Cité’ project,[xvi] Notre-Dame of Paris now faces the immense challenge of becoming an icon of the 21th century.

— Sara Keller

[i] Parisians seem to prefer Notre-Dame, while the Eiffel Tower is the favourite elsewhere in France.

[ii] Sources: AtoutFrance (French Ministry of Culture) and ‘Les sites touristiques de France’, in: Mémento du Tourisme 2017, 7e partie pp.129-143. The Eiffel Tower sells 6.9 million tickets every year, but that does not take into consideration the large amount of visitors who visit the monument but do not climb the steps.

« Selon l’Observatoire de l’an 2000 et d’après un sondage effectué en mars-avril 1996, la tour Eiffel reste le premier monument européen visité, après leur monument national, par les Italiens, les Anglais, les Allemands, les Américains et les Japonais. Elle est considérée comme le premier monument symbolique de l’Europe, sauf par les Allemands qui choisissent la porte Brandebourg et par les Japonais qui choisissent le château de Versailles » (Cohen, Evelyne. 2002. ‘Visiter Notre-Dame de Paris’ In: Ethnologie française XXXII. 2002. p.506).

[iii] Timbert, Arnaud. 2018. Qu’est-ce que l’architecture gothique ? Septentrion Presses Universitaires.

[iv] The wooden framework of gothic churches is commonly known by French carpenters as the ‘Forêt’ (the forest).

[v] « À la fin du Moyen Âge, très loin d’être l’apanage des grandes compagnies ou des écorcheurs, pratiqué plus ou moins par l’ensemble des belligérants, y compris par les armées permanentes, ils restent un événement plutôt rare qui frappe encore les esprits mais s’inscrit dans une liste de désolations, qui en changent la portée » Raynaud, Christiane. 2007. ‘L’incendie des églises : un événement ?’ In: Faire l’événement au Moyen Âge, pp. 175-192. Accessed online on 03.05.2019 (paragraph 25): https://books.openedition.org/pup/5715?lang=de#ftn9

[vi] Chroniques of Jean Froissart mentioned in Raynaud 2007, paragraph 23.

[vii] ‘ceux qui ont fait cel outrage oultre sa deffence le comparroient chierement.’ Chroniques of Jean Froissart mentioned in Raynaud 2007, paragraph 23.

[viii] ‘affin que li aultre gardaissent une autre foix mieux son commandement’ Chroniques of Jean Froissart mentioned in Raynaud 2007, paragraph 23.

[ix] See Raynaud 2007.

[x] « L’incendiaire est un homme partagé entre son plaisir de mettre le feu et l’expression de son sadomasochisme. » Bénézech, Michel. 2010. ‘Le feu criminel’ In Libres cahiers pour la psychanalyse, n° 22, p .39.

[xi] Cohen 2002, 503.

[xii] Cohen 2002, 504.

[xiii] Cohen 2002, 504.

[xiv] «Notre-Dame: la France veut une coopération européenne pour sauver le patrimoine en péril » Article published in Le Monde on the 21st of April 2019. Accessed online on 21.04.2019:  https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2019/04/21/notre-dame-la-france-veut-une-cooperation-europeenne-pour-sauver-le-patrimoine-en-peril_5453099_3224.html

[xv] See the web article entitled ’12 serious proposals by architects for the reconstruction of the spire of Notre-Dame’ (« 12 propositions sérieuses d’architectes pour la reconstruction de la flèche de Notre-Dame » 03.05.2019). Accessed on 06.05.2019: https://creapills.com/architectes-proposition-reconstruire-fleche-notre-dame-20190503

[xvi] Bélaval, Philippe and Perrault, Dominique. 2016. Mission Île de la Cité le coeur du cœur. Unpublished report. Accessed online on 03.05.2019:  http://www.perraultarchitecture.com/download/MISSION%20CITE_CMN_DPA_RAPPORT_161216.pdf

Notre-Dame de Paris : Du Paradis à l’Inferno

‘Etiam periere ruinae’ (tr. : Même les ruines ont disparu). Incendie de l’ancienne cathédrale Saint Paul lors du grand incendie de Londres. Gravure de Wenceslaus Hollar, 1666. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

15 Avril 2019. Notre-Dame de Paris brûle. La cathédrale de l’Île de la cité, le cœur historique de Paris devient un immense brasier, exténuant les pompiers à pied d’œuvre, sidérant la foule parisienne et choquant le monde entier. Un instant, tout le monde pensa que la France brûlait.

Cette conclusion hâtive pourrait paraitre exagérée, ce qui mériterait de s’interroger sur la dimension et l’importance du monument. Notre-Dame de Paris jouit sans aucun doute de l’attention particulière des Parisiens et des touristes –une affection qui n’est pas évidente dans le contexte de laïcité française. Notre-Dame de Paris, avec approximativement 13 millions de visiteurs par an, dispute à la tour Eiffel la place du monument le plus visité de France[i] –mais reste dans tous les cas derrière l’imbattable Disneyland et ses 14.8 millions de visiteurs en 2015[ii]. Toutefois il semble difficile d’estimer combien les Français réellement chérissent la cathédrale de l’île de la cité : d’autres sondages suggèrent le profond attachement à divers sites régionaux.

Qu’en est-il de l’histoire ? Notre-Dame est-elle une cathédrale significative pour l’histoire de France ? Dans ce registre, on nommera plus volontiers Notre-Dame de Reims où eu lieu le sacre de la plupart des rois de France – ou encore la basilique Saint-Denis, nécropole des rois de France du 10e au 18e siècle. Dans une perspective architecturale, la proéminence de Notre-Dame de Paris est toute sauf évidente: on mentionnera plutôt Saint-Denis où l’abbé Suger inaugura le style gothique à partir des années 1140, Chartres et Bourges, les cathédrales classiques et grands chantiers de la fin du XIIe et début du XIIIe siècle, Chartres encore pour la révolution des couleurs ; Reims, Amiens, Beauvais, les grands monuments[iii]; le Mont-Saint-Michel, une prouesse architecturale et un lieu unique de pèlerinage depuis le VIIIe siècle. Avec sa longue histoire architecturale et son achèvement (contesté) par l’architecte Viollet-le-Duc au XIXe siècle, Notre-Dame de Paris évoque plutôt un haut lieu du néo-gothique et de l’émergence, dans la controverse, de disciplines liées à la gestion du patrimoine. Voilà donc plutôt un exemple douteux du gothique.

Malgré ces faits et en dépit du sentiment ambivalent des Français pour Notre-Dame de Paris, il est évident que le récent désastre architectural a causé un grand émoi parmi le public, les médias et les politiques. Le 15 avril devint un évènement la nuit même où la foule assistait, démunie, à la disparition de la forêt[iv] du XIIIe siècle.

La première raison de cette vive réaction émotionnelle est certainement liée à l’effrayant spectacle d’un incendie dévastateur. L’Europe n’avait pas vu un brasier de cette ampleur et de cet impact culturel depuis près de 75 ans. Cette vision a réveillé des mémoires profondément enfouies de destructions, de conflits et de souffrances. Les incendies accidentels ou criminels qui ont dévasté les cités d’Europe au Moyen-Âge étaient devenus, depuis la Renaissance, des évènements rares et choquants[v]. Les incendiaires, quand ils étaient identifiés, étaient punis rapidement et sans merci : Jean Froissart rapporte par exemple dans ses « Grandes Chroniques de France » (fin du XIVe siècle)[vi] que les incendiaires de l’abbaye de Saint Lucien en Beauvaisis « payeronent chèrement »[vii] leur acte. Le roi d’Angleterre fit immédiatement pendre vingt personnes ‘affin que li aultre gardaissent une autre foix mieux son commandement’[viii]. Dans les villes médiévales densément peuplées où le bois était un élément de construction majeur de l’architecture vernaculaire, il n’était pas rare que des églises prennent feu, bien qu’elles ne soient généralement pas l’objectif ni le foyer initial de l’incendie. Mais ce phénomène d’incendies urbains, souvent le résultat de l’activité militaire[ix], déclina fortement à partir de la renaissance. L’hausmanisation et les améliorations urbanisitiques novatrices de la fin du XIXe siècle finit de reléguer l’incendie urbain au rang d’anormalité archaïque.

A l’image de l’empereur romain Néron qui pris plaisir à voir Rome brûler en 64 ap. JC, le feu devint un spectacle apocalyptique et l’incendiaire une créature démoniaque ou un fou dangereux. « L’incendiaire est un homme partagé entre son plaisir de mettre le feu et l’expression de son sadomasochisme. »[x] commente le psychiatre Michel Bénézech.

Une telle situation était reléguée aux tribulations des jours sombres de notre histoire quand Notre-Dame de Paris raviva soudainement nos mémoires que l’on pensait oubliées. Plutôt que comme un fait d’importance architecturale, la signification de la cathédrale peut être comprise dans le cadre d’un imaginaire national développé au XIXe siècle. A l’origine une paroisse de quartier, Notre-Dame devint un « lieu de célébrations nationales » à partir du milieu du XIXe siècle après que Victor Hugo eût publié son célèbre « Notre-Dame de Paris » en 1831 et que Lassus et Viollet-le-Duc furent intervenus sur le bâti entre 1843 et 1864.[xi] Les travaux d’urbanisme conduits par le Baron Haussmann sur l’île de la Cité entre 1858 et 1868 dégagèrent l’espace devant la façade (l’île de la Cité perdit les deux tiers de ses habitants au cours du XIXe siècle)[xii], créant ainsi une formidable mise en scène du monument. Le parvis, avec la façade ouest de la cathédrale comme décor, devint un exemple de théâtralisation des parvis d’églises en France. Dans le cas de la capitale, le parvis devint un lieu dynamique pour le tout-Paris, une place qui cristallisait la vie, les mémoires et les luttes des parisiens. On se rappela alors que Jacques de Molay, dernier Maître de l’Ordre du Temple fut brûlé vif sur cette place en 1314, que le parvis vit la révolution française et la destruction des sculptures de la façade de la cathédrale, ou encore le couronnement de Napoléon en 1807. Paris elle-même est née sur l’île-de-la-Cité et le « Point 0 » est gravé sur la place, rappelant à chacun depuis 1796 que toutes les routes de France partent de ce point. Ainsi le parvis, du vieux français « parais » pour « paradis », devint, peut-être plus que Notre-Dame elle-même, le cœur de la France.

Le développement de guides touristiques de Paris contribua à cette promotion en mentionnant Notre-Dame comme « le plus beau monument de l’art gothique français » (« Guide parisien » d’Adolphe Joanne publié en 1863).[xiii] Evelyne Cohen, Professeure en Histoire et Anthropologie culturelles du XXe siècle, démontre brillamment dans son article intitulé « Visiter Notre-Dame de Paris » comment le site devint au cours des XIXe et XXe siècles un symbole de l’histoire de Paris, puis de celle de la France. Plus qu’un lieu de culte et une merveille architecturale, Notre-Dame de Paris et son parvis sont devenus le symbole du cœur, des émotions et des luttes des Parisiens et des Français.

Aujourd’hui, après l’incendie, Notre-Dame est sur le point de devenir un symbole de la collaboration culturelle, le président Emmanuel Macron ayant promptement suggéré de créer un réseau d’experts européens pour le patrimoine et sa conservation[xiv]. L’appel international par les dirigeants français aux architectes qui pourraient faire une proposition pour la reconstruction de la flèche peut devenir un marchepied vers une Notre-Dame, représentante culturelle et populaire au-delà des frontières[xv].

Page de couverture de Charlie Hebdo du 16.04.2019. Source: site web d’Europe 1.

L’incendie spectaculaire du 15 avril 2019 restera dans les mémoires. Les émotions suscitées par le feu et la forte attention médiatique a déjà créé une image d’Epinal qui confirme la vocation visuelle et théâtrale de Notre-Dame. Alors que la nation est tourmentée par la crise des gilets jaunes et le débat national, le brasier de Notre-Dame prit une valeur cathartique. Avec la reconstruction du toit et la concrétisation du projet de l’Île de la Cité [xvi], Notre-Dame de Paris relève le défi de devenir une icône du XXIe siècle.

— Sara Keller

[i] Les Parisiens semblent préférer Notre-Dame, tandis que la tour Eiffel remporte les suffrages ailleurs en France.

[ii] Sources: AtoutFrance (Ministère de la Culture) et « Les sites touristiques de France » In: Mémento du Tourisme 2017, 7e partie pp.129-143. La tour Eiffel vend 6.9 millions de tickets par an, mais ce chiffre ne prend pas en compte tous les visiteurs qui viennent voir la tour sans pour autant monter les escaliers.

« Selon l’Observatoire de l’an 2000 et d’après un sondage effectué en mars-avril 1996, la tour Eiffel reste le premier monument européen visité, après leur monument national, par les Italiens, les Anglais, les Allemands, les Américains et les Japonais. Elle est considérée comme le premier monument symbolique de l’Europe, sauf par les Allemands qui choisissent la porte Brandebourg et par les Japonais qui choisissent le château de Versailles » (Cohen, Evelyne. 2002. ‘Visiter Notre-Dame de Paris’ In: Ethnologie française XXXII. 2002. p.506).

[iii] Timbert, Arnaud. 2018. Qu’est-ce que l’architecture gothique ? Septentrion Presses Universitaires.

[iv] Ou charpente.

[v] « À la fin du Moyen Âge, très loin d’être l’apanage des grandes compagnies ou des écorcheurs, pratiqué plus ou moins par l’ensemble des belligérants, y compris par les armées permanentes, ils restent un événement plutôt rare qui frappe encore les esprits mais s’inscrit dans une liste de désolations, qui en changent la portée » Raynaud, Christiane. 2007. ‘L’incendie des églises : un événement ?’ In: Faire l’événement au Moyen Âge, pp. 175-192. Accès en ligne le 03.05.2019 (paragraphe 25) :


[vi] Chroniques de Jean Froissart mentionné dans Raynaud 2007, paragraphe 23.

[vii] ‘ceux qui ont fait cel outrage oultre sa deffence le comparroient chierement.’ Chroniques de Jean Froissart mentionné dans Raynaud 2007, paragraphe 23.

[viii] Chroniques de Jean Froissart mentionné dans Raynaud 2007, paragraphe 23.

[ix] Voir Raynaud 2007.

[x] « L’incendiaire est un homme partagé entre son plaisir de mettre le feu et l’expression de son sadomasochisme. » Bénézech, Michel. 2010. ‘Le feu criminel’ In Libres cahiers pour la psychanalyse, n° 22, p .39.

[xi] Cohen 2002, 503.

[xii] Cohen 2002, 504.

[xiii] Cohen 2002, 504.

[xiv] «  Notre-Dame : la France veut une coopération européenne pour sauver le patrimoine en péril » Article paru dans Le Monde le 21 Avril 2019. Accès en ligne le 21.04.2019 :


[xv] Voir l’article « 12 propositions sérieuses d’architectes pour la reconstruction de la flèche de Notre-Dame » 03.05.2019). Accès en ligne le 06.05.2019: https://creapills.com/architectes-proposition-reconstruire-fleche-notre-dame-20190503

[xvi] Bélaval, Philippe et Perrault, Dominique. 2016. « Mission Île de la Cité le coeur du cœur ». Unpublished report. Accès en ligne le 03.05.2019 :



Congratulations to Martin Christ on Winning Research Prize

On 27 April 2019, Martin Christ, core group member of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”, received the Hermann-Knothe Preis — Research Prize of Upper Lusatia (Hermann-Knothe-Preis – Wissenschaftspreis der Oberlausitz). Christ received the prize for his article “The Century of the Reformation in a Bohemian Small Town, Lauban and its Lutheran Preachers, c. 1520-1620” („Das Jahrhundert der Reformation in einer böhmischen Kleinstadt, Lauban und seine lutherischen Prediger ca.1520–1620“).

The prize is awarded by the Upper Lusatian Scholarly Society (Oberlausitzische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften), one of the oldest learned societies in Germany. It is named after the local historian Hermann Knothe and recognises exceptional research on Upper Lusatian history and culture. The prize was presented by the Mayor of Görlitz, Siegfried Deinege, and the vice-president of the society, Dr. Lars-Arne Dannenberg.  

The essay will be printed in the next issue of the New Lusatian Journal (Neues Lausitzisches Magazin) and focuses on the town of Lauban (today Lubań in Poland). This town was part of Bohemia in the early modern period and so was ruled by a Catholic king. However, the Lutheran Reformation made serious inroads in the region, leading to a constellation where a Catholic king ruled over a largely Lutheran area. The essay focuses on Lauban as one example of the complex introduction of Lutheranism in this region and shows how the Reformation changed urban institutions and influenced the daily lives of men and women. As Dr. Jens Bulisch stressed in the laudatory speech, this research is particularly important as the fact that the now-Polish Lauban was part of Upper Lusatia is frequently forgotten. 

For a German version of this report, see here

The mayor of Görlitz, Siegfried Deinege (left) and the vice-president of the Upper Lusatian Scholarly Society, Dr. Lars-Arne Dannenberg (right) (picture: Kai Wenzel).


Book Announcement: The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare

Pralay Kanungo, fellow of our Advanced Centre in the Humanities “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”, has just published a co-edited volume. The book is published by Oxford University Press and co-edited with Irfan Ahmad (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen). 

Kanungo, Ahmad (eds.), The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare (OUP, 2019).

The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare. A Long View of India’s 2014 Election explores how the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won the 2014 Parliamentary elections with such an unprecedented majority, and what that victory means for politics in general and Indian politics in particular. It opens up space for new theoretical and methodological reflections on electoral democracy, critically taking on such salient issues as development, terrorism, charisma, media, new mechanisms of mobilization, nationalism, rumour, religion, regionalism, polarisation, space, Muslim vote, and caste. This volume is distinct in its ability to focus squarely on the empirical acts of voting. It sociologically and historically examines the enduring as well as changing institutional, social, political, and cultural landscapes in which voting takes place. Unlike most other studies on elections in India, this book puts human subjectivity at the centre of election studies. The anthropological-sociological perspective the volume places before readers draws on political-social theory whereby the volume also examine the larger and changing contours of modernity, democracy and elections being its key faces. As such the volume situates the 2014 elections in relation to changing nature and forms of elections and democracy globally, in particular in conversation with those in the democratic nation-states in the West.

Besides co-editing the volume, Pralay Kanungo has also contributed the chapter   ‘Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Politics: The Baba Ramdev-BJP Partnership in the 2014 Elections’ (pp.119-142) and written the afterword (pp. 357-375). The book was officially launched at a celebratory roundtable in Delhi on 25 March 2019.

Official Book Launch of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare in Delhi on 25 March 2019.


Religion and Urbanity in Munich’s Town Museum

During a recent visit to Munich, I had the opportunity to visit the town museum. Tucked behind other buildings, the museum displays a range of historical artifcats, covering the town’s history from its foundation to modernity. The impressive collection aims to answer what is ‘typical for Munich’ (‘Typisch München!’), but also has a large range of musical instruments from around the world and a separate building dedicated to Munich during the NS regime. Throughout the museum, the mutual influence of the town and ist religions becomes visible. One of the most common stereotypes about people from Munich is, after all, that they are Catholic.   

The special exhibition ‘Migration moves the City’, to Name another example, smartly juxtaposes objects connected to migration with the artifacts in the permanent exhibition. One of the key factors in migration and the subsequent settlement in a new town is religion. At the same time the introduction of new kinds of beliefs and practices can lead to conflict, but also to syncretism and the definition of common ground.  

The case of Munich can raise even broader questions, connected to religion and urbanity, particularly when a town is described as such. The name Munich may be derived from monks who were present in the region and the coat of arms shows a monk. But whether Munich was already a town, city, or ‘urban’ at this stage is much harder to answer.

A plaque below the Munich coat of arms informs us that “The seemingly simple question since when Munich is a town is difficult to answer” (“Die eigentlich einfache Frage, seit wann München eine Stadt ist, läßt sich schwer beantworten.”) A contract which calls it a town is only known from 1294, but as early as 1207 there was legal business being conducted “in civitate Munichenin”, suggesting some kind of urban community. The building efforts in Munich in order to turn it into a clerical centre during a later period may also have contributed to the emergence of Munich as a town.  

Scholars whose work focuses on towns and cities have long grappled with the emergence of town and cities and there is no conclusive consensus about the use of these terms or the best way to categorise urban settlements. Tied up with discussions on the emergence of towns and cities is also the question of further classifications, thinking about “types of cities”, for example port cities, commercial centres or cities of migrants. This way of conceptualizing cities and towns has its merits, as it enables comparisons across cultures and times. It is possible, for example, to look at an Indian, Swedish and Asutralian port city alongside each other and in this way determine similarities and differences.

Munich in the Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedel’s Chronicle of the World, 1493). 

But just as it is difficult to define what a city is, so it is difficult to ascribe a certain identity to towns. The approach risks simplifying the complex nature of urbanity to a single descriptor, which obsures the view on other ways of thinking about a place and the complex ways in which different functions of a city reinforce, undermine or change one another. And there is also a risk of seeing too many similarities between different towns, at the risk of overlooking what makes them distinctive.  

If we return to Munich, we can also find another way of defining a town. Not by looking for certain terms or descriptions which are used in the historical sources, but by looking for signs and symbols. In Munich, a seal was already used in 1239. It shows a monk and is probably how the town came to ist name, based on the Latin forum apud Munichen

When a town starts being a town is never easy to answer, as it depends on the set of criteria we apply. So scholars always construct their own cities by defining what counts as a city, and what does not. In recent scholarhsip, there is a trend to use flexible criteria in order to be able to show how a town did not just come into being whenever it was described as such in written sources. Religion can play an important role when it comes to definitions of towns. In medieval and early modern sources, the presence of certain clerical structures may indicate the prestige and power of an urban settlement, while many of the foundation myths connected to towns also centred on religion. 

Munich’s St. Mary’s Square, c. 1642. 

The case of Munich also illustrates the linguistic challenges in defining what cities or towns are. In addition to “civitate”, further terms were used: burgus, castrum, oppidum as well as descriptions which suggest a sense of urbanity but do not use a specific term. Similar problems occur in modern languages. While the English language distinguishes between the term town and the (usually larger or more “urban”) city, the German language only has the term “Stadt” and uses different ways to describe the connotations of a “city”, for instance by using “Großstadt” (literally translated: “big town”). One central aspect of our Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies is to address these linguistic challenges and we are lucky to have experts working on countries as diverse as India, Poland and Spain, all with their own linguistic abilities and ways of expressing what a “town” is.

It is also possible to consider other factors, which might create an “urban environment”, for example rights to hold court for the surrounding countryside, the ability to elect councilors and mayors independently or economic factors, like the privilege to organize a market to sell salt, meat or other items. In some cases we get a sense of the urban if individuals reflect on a place, for instance when farmers coming from the countryside comment on the hustle and bustle during religious processions, which they could simply not imagine in their villages. In all these notions of towns and urbanity, religion played a crucial role.   

— Martin Christ

Article Announcement: A New Perspective on Urban Religion

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

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

— Jörg Rüpke

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

Article Announcement: Relocating Religious Change

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

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

Religion und Urbanität

Stadt und Religion muss man zusammendenken. Das passiert schon in sehr alten religiösen Texten. Das Verhältnis ist spannungsgeladen. Der „Turmbau zu Babel“ (Gen 11,1-9) ist Symbol für Stadt wie die Hybris der Stadtbewohner. Die Zusammenballung von Akteuren, ihre Koopera­tion, ihre Architektur würden sonst, so wird befürchtet, die Menschen zum Himmel gelangen lassen. In der jüdischen Bibel und in ihrer christlichen Interpretation ist die Stadt ein verdächtiger Ort, Ort der Sünde und der Gottlosigkeit. Gott lässt sich in der Wüste, in der Einsamkeit, am Sinai finden. Diese westasiatische und dann europäische Tradition findet ihre Entsprechung in Südasien: Buddha findet seine Erleuchtung unter einem Baum, außerhalb der Stadt. Es ist das Dorf, das das Idealbild sozialer Gemeinschaft und religiöser Arbeitsteilung bietet.

Der Turmbau zu Babel nach Lucas van Valckenborch (1535 – 1597)

Aber die Autoren dieser Texte finden wir in Städten und auch das Schreiben selbst, die Erfindung und Nutzung von Schrift bis hin zur Produktion umfangreicher Texte und damit „Schriftreligion“. Die Buchreligionen sind demnach zuvörderst städtische Phänomene. Städtisches Bewusstsein ist nicht zu lösen von Vorstellungen über das Gegenteil: Es ist Merkmal von Urbanität sich als anders, als unterschieden von einem Gegenteil zu denken, von Nicht-Stadt, von Land. Und zugleich kann dieses Gegenteil als Gegenbild, ja Wunschbild und Stadtkritik dienen. Will Rom, die vermutlich erste Millionenstadt der Geschichte, einen richtig frommen und unbestechlichen Herrscher, muss sie Cincinnatus vom Feld, vom Pflug wegreißen.

In der Stadt zu leben ist nämlich kein Zuckerschlecken. Von unten betrachtet kann das Stadtleben, bei allen Versprechen von Sicherheit und Auskommen, auch anders aussehen. Nicht Größenwahn wie beim Turmbau zu Babel, sondern Überleben, nicht Göttlichkeit wie in der biblischen Geschichte, sondern Menschlichkeit steht auf dem Spiel. Unser Thema – und der Blick der Akteure darauf – ist von der Ambivalenz der von Menschen gemachten Städte und der dort herrschenden Lebensweise geprägt. Die Stadt ist eben „Himmel und Hölle“ zugleich, wie es auf einer gegenwärtigen Plakatkampagne heißt, sie ist Ort von Innovationen, aber auch Ort sozialer und ökologischer Krisen. Religion ist dabei nicht nur Beobachter, sondern wichtiger Akteur.

Ich bin dabei überzeugt, dass die gegenwärtigen Probleme und Chancen planetarer Urbanisierung und religiösen Wandels nicht ohne einen Blick in die lange wechselseitige Geschichte reflektiert werden können. Erst die detaillierte Untersuchung mit großer historischer Tiefe und Ausblick in die Gegenwart zeigt, wie weit diese wechselseitige Formierung reichen kann, wie sehr Urbanität, städtische Lebensformen, durch religiöse Handlungsformen oder Sozialstrukturen geprägt wurden. Erst so zeigt sich, wie weit das, was wir heute als „Religion“ kennen, auch Ergebnis von Urbanität, vom Leben in Räumen, die als städtisch wahrgenommen wurden, bestimmt ist.

Aber was ist diese „Religion“. Will man Religion in der Stadt verstehen, bedarf es eines dafür passenden Begriffes. Religion ist dafür zunächst ein Sammelbegriff für religiöse Praktiken, Vorstellungen und Institutionen, die der Kommunikation mit über-menschlichen Adressaten, Verstorbenen, Geistern, Göttern, dienen. Indem diesen über-menschlichen Adressaten qua Kommunikation und deren Inhalten Existenz, Macht und Relevanz für die eigene, menschliche Situation zugeschrieben wird, wird religiöses Handeln auch zu einer Ressource für Macht wie Kritik, Homogenisierung wie Stabilisierung von Unterschieden unter Menschen.

Die bisherige Forschung zu „urban religion“ hat solche Religion unter der Perspektive untersucht, wie sie in den globalisierten Großstädten der Moderne sich verändert, ihren Ort findet und sich neu erfindet. Darüber muss man deutlich hinausgehen, nicht nur zeitlich und räumlich. Ganz grundsätzlich nämlich ist Religion selbst in doppelter Hinsicht Raum-relevant, sind religiöse Praktiken räumliche Praktiken: Zum einen eignen sie sich Raum an oder konstruieren ihn. Räume von Gebeten, Hymnen, Tänzen, Prozessionen und Aufführungen von Opfern oder Theaterstücken werden vorübergehend zu rituellen Räumen. Sie können aber längerfristig durch Einsatz von Medien – Fahnenstangen, Stelen, Tafeln, Mauern oder noch umfangreicherer Architektur sakralisiert werden, sei es zur Erinnerung und erneuten Nutzung auch zu religiösen Zwecken oder sogar exklusiv. So markieren sie Räume zu Zusammenkünften, die mit anderen Akteuren oder Zwecken, gerade wenn Raum knapp ist, auch konkurrieren können.

Hindutempel und Markt in Chennai, Indien

Aber religiöse Praktiken haben noch eine zweite Seite. Sie verweisen über den jeweiligen konkreten Raum und selbst eine Stadt hinaus: auf „trans-zendente“ Adressaten, auf deren räumliche Assoziationen zu anderen Orten oder Nicht-Orten: Himmel oder Unterwelten.

Es gibt hinreichend Phänomene solchen Handelns, die jeder Form städtischer Siedlung um Jahrzehntausende vorangehen, dass der Satz, Religion gehe der Urbanisierung, ob in Ostasien, Süd- und Westasien, Afrika oder des amerikanischen Doppelkontinents, voraus, sinnvoll erscheint. Als raum-konstituierende wie raum-überschreitende Praktik ist Religion für Urbanisierungsprozesse relevant geworden – vermutlich nicht immer, sondern in zufälligen, historischen Prozessen. Diesen Phänomenen müssen wir uns auch historisch stellen, müssen ihnen genauer nachgehen, wenn wir heutige „städtische Religion“ verstehen wollen. Wo bildeten religiöse Raummarkierungen Kristallisationspunkte für Urbanisierung? Wo vertieften sie Arbeitsteiligkeit? Wo stifteten sie Kohärenz in den zahllosen Austauschprozessen, die Städte ausmachen? Wo ermöglichten sie Differenzierung, die räumliche Enge und den Druck sozialer Interaktion erträglich machten und so Städte stabilisierten – oder im Gegenteil in Konflikten zerfallen ließen? Und natürlich kann Religion als raumabhängige Praxis davon nicht unberührt geblieben sein, muss durch städtische Faktoren, Herrschaft, Kulturtechniken, interne und externe Verflechtungen als urbanisierte Religion immer wieder verändert worden sein. Die Ausbildung institutionalisierter Differenz als voneinander institutionell getrennte „Religionen“ mag Ergebnis solcher Prozesse gewesen sein. Die Beschäftigung mit dem Thema in der Langen Nacht der Weltreligionen wie in weiterer Forschung zu Stadt und Religion wird noch manche Überraschung bereithalten, die unseren eigenen Blick auf Religionen und auf Städte verändern wird.

— Jörg Rüpke

Ich danke Susanne Rau für vielfältige Anregungen zu diesem Thema, der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft für die Förderung zur weiteren Erforschung (FOR 2779).