bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Religion and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 2 April, 2013

The second colloquium on the Mediterranean City took place a fortnight ago on 19th March 2013. You may remember that these events are organised under the aegis of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and that the first of these occurred in St Andrews last November. For the second, our venue was the British School at Rome, co-sponsor of the series, and the theme was Religion.

As our host, Christopher Smith, intimated in his opening words, we were continuing a conversation that had been started in St Andrews. The cast-list for this second day intentionally had some overlap with the first, while others were welcomed in our midst for the first time. What was notable was how some of the themes and concerns of the first day continued in the new setting. So, for instance, there has been a natural – and useful – inclination in these conversations to step back and to ask whether what is being discussed is specific to our subject matter. In both colloquia to date, we have considered whether what we are delineating is specifically Mediterranean or, as it was put on this occasion, would anything be different if we were discussing Paris. That caused a lively debate about how significant climate might be to social interaction – or, to put it another way, what differentiation we should pinpoint between the life of the Italian piazza and that of the northern market square. A similar anxiety about difference that run through our discussion is how ‘city-based’ is religion. As I hinted in my own brief introductory words for the day, there are good reasons to see religion as either blind to physical context or, if it is sensitive to location, setting challenges for any urban environment.  Think of the mystery of cultish sites, whether it be a glade, a grotto, a lake-side or a spring: the magic of most lies in their separation from the everyday, and often in their inaccessibility. Think, similarly, about that other type of difficulty of access: the sense of retreat from life and of other-worldly contemplation that marks many religions. None of these aspects need privilege an urban setting and may, indeed, set it challenges.

And, yet, as was clear from many of the talks, the city did have something to offer religions. Greg Woolf, providing the stimulating opening paper of the day, nicely encapsulated this for the Greek and Roman cities of the ancient world: cities might grow out of the sites of cults or they may pull religions into their ambit, providing a pluralist setting in which many gods could live side by side. The apparent lack of conflict or potentially violent competition in the polytheistic polis marked it off from the medieval cities which were discussed later in the colloquium, but what united all the discussions was a sense in which the city could act as a theatre for religious practice: it could provide both the stage and the audience, its streets and its buildings serving the purpose of vessels into which religious meaning could be poured to overflowing. So, in the processions through Byzantium described by Paul Magdalino or the festivals of Jerusalem evoked by Andrew Jotischky, religion gained from its urban location.

It gained but it also could lose. In Andrew’s fascinating depiction of Muslim observers at the Christian festivals of Easter in thirteenth-century Jerusalem, the European pilgrims might return home claiming that even the unbelievers could not but marvel at the miracles on display in the Holy Sepulchre, but was this what the Islamic onlookers took away from these events? At the very least, the purity of Christian worship had to seek an accommodation, a compromise or modus vivendi with the resident population. The tensions could be equally or more pressing in a city of a single religion, as Paul’s wide-ranging discussion of the confraternities of medieval Byzantium suggested. They were the organising committees not just for weekly acts of overt (some might say excessive) devotion but also for poetry, music, banqueting and drinking – where ‘overflowing’ could be literal as well as figurative. And, consequently, there could be a backlash, a sense that the pious had been subsumed to the merely pleasurable. Religion might be centre-stage but it did not have the theatre to itself.

Perhaps it might be said that to survive within the city, religion had to submit to the rhythms, the norms or the nomoi of the host location. This could be said to be implicit in the concept of civic religion which, as Frances Andrews reminded us in her subtle paper, was given its classic definition for medievalists by André Vauchez: ‘the appropriation of values of religious life by urban powers for the purposes of legitimation, celebration and public well-being’. The direction in which that definition takes us seems clear: the powers have the ability to appropriate, to bring religion into the ambit of their control in order to reinforce or to amplify that control. The city, in short, tames religion or civilises it. The city might also corrupt it, in a way more destructive of its essence than even the fringe activities of the Byzantine confraternities. Such corruption might come from the religious urban powers, as Lucy Sackville so vividly described in talking about the ruses used by Pierre Amiel, archbishop of Narbonne, to deploy heresy charges to his venal advantage. There could, then, be much individuals or authorities in the city could gain from the use of religion, but it may not have been of mutual benefit.

Yet, at the same time, that the urban powers felt the need to use the tools of the religious suggests that they felt it could provide something they otherwise lacked; they simply had to engage with the charisma of the holy – and did so from a position that, in at least some sense, was one of weakness. Indeed, what struck me increasingly through the day was how the people of the cities, both its leaders and its masses, had to negotiate the religious. This came across most strongly in those discussions of those moments when the dominant faith was contested or in question: not just, then, Andrew’s Jerusalem, but also Tony Lappin’s Cordoba, where one’s commitment to Christianity or Islam had necessarily to be fluid if survival was one’s aim, and to Gitte Lønstrup’s late antique Rome, where burials may suggest a tentative change of religion. These latter two papers gave rise to an interesting discussion of the question of how far one’s social standing affected one’s experience of religious change. More fundamentally, though, what seemed to me to connect the tales told in all three papers was the very human practice of hedging bets, of what, if this were later seventeenth-century England, would be called trimming. What I mean is not that one’s religious identity was so marginal it could be donned and doffed like an outer garment – quite the contrary: when dealing with religion, the stakes were so high that utter uncompromising commitment was difficult for all but the far-sighted or the fanatic. In the contexts of High Medieval Andalucia, say, a decision about religion might be a matter of life or death but, for some, at least, that must surely at times have felt of little import when placed alongside the matter of the afterlife. How could one be certain when the decisions might be so fatal not just to one’s body but to one’s soul? When standing before the gods, one does not want to choose too lightly. It would be supremely human to have a scintilla of doubt about the choices made and to want to keep open the possibility of a compromise settlement with the divine beings one had rejected. When, then, Muslims and Christians mingled at the holy places of Jerusalem, they may have both been showing their commitment to their one true God and simultaneously leaving the door ajar to salvation by another route.

I have avoided calling this syncretism because that is in danger of sounding too intellectual when what is often happening is a reaction to the enormity of religion by the little person. In front of the gods, though, all must feel small. It could legitimately be pointed out that the examples from Cordoba to Jerusalem were unusual in the level both of interchange and of potential tension. Yet, even within a city nearly uniform in its commitment to a single religion, hedging bets had its essential place. This was one of the insights I took away from Frances’s rich case study of the fourteenth-century preacher Venturino da Bergamo, who led his rally of penitents to Rome and called on the city authorities to turn over the money usually used for the Lenten festivals to him for religious use. His plea was rejected and he decided it was wise hurriedly to leave the city. What struck me from what we were told of the various reports of his journey to Rome (and then on to Avignon to answer for his deeds before the pope) was a sense of uncertainty from the onlookers. At the same time as they describe Venturino’s  flight from Rome they also hint that this may have invoked God’s wrath. Likewise, the inquisitorial process at Avignon with its question-and-answer format naturally assumed a starting-point of doubt that needed to be clarified. But, for many people, such clarification would have proved elusive. The City Fathers listening to Venturino might instinctively recoiled from his plea for them to do something so unpopular as to disinvest in a much-needed leavening of Lenten gloom but they would have had to have been coldly cynical not to wonder whether this troublesome priest was not a true prophet. You can imagine one of their number positing that in their deliberations and similarly imagine another responding with the question of whether he might be no prophet but, instead, a manifestation of the Anti-Christ himself. If they made the wrong judgement-call, there could be – so to speak – hell to pay. To appropriate religion, the urban powers had to leave themselves open to the potentially bracing experience of being preached at, but were then left with another quandrary: how could they be certain what was the right response?

In discussing the first workshop, I suggested that the city had, in its archetypal spaces which gave it such potency, also the seeds of its own destruction – the bridge and the piazza providing venues for unrest as much as for successful functioning. Religion, perhaps, provide the city with a similar conundrum. It ordered the city with its provision of time, both daily and annually, and with what we might call its structuring of internal distance: it is in the nature of a city and what sets it apart from a town is that it is multi-centred, and the various locations for devotions gave the city those multiple focal points. Of course, religion, by providing that variety and the cohabitation it demanded, also embedded potential tensions and conflicts within the city. It is not that, however, which I see as marking religion’s most basic challenge to the city’s fabric. In its ordering of the city, religion could provide not only a varied texture but also a greater depth: the orange grove of the mosque or the cloister of the convent providing a retreat to higher contemplation in the midst of the bustle of civic life. Deeper but also larger: through religion, the city, physically confined by its physical location, could expand its imagination and become the link between the here-and-now with the ever-after, the window affording vistas on worlds beyond. In a fundamental sense, religion allowed the city to overflow. It connected the stonework and the cobbles – the monumentality of the city, as discussed back in November – with something apparently more lasting and conceptually more concrete: the certainty of belief. Yet, the apprehension of that certainty was necessarily elusive and the negotiating of it in the humdrum circumstances of quotidian existence could never be anything other than a source of uncertainty.

Might, then, the founder of a city have been wise to ban religion (like Plato did poets from his ideal city) from their foundation? Machiavelli, for one, would have argued not, but then added that Christianity with its emphasis on introspection and humility was precisely the wrong religion to be of civic use. But is a city without religion even fully imaginable? I am reminded of the history of Britain’s new town, Milton Keynes, founded in the 1960s consciously without a church, only to find religion soon seeping into its fabric. Religion has acted, time and again, not so much as an opiate of the masses but as their stimulant or, even, aphrodisiac. It has proven so necessary for the structure of the city because it provides a grounding that has its justification far beyond the small parameter of the city’s walls. But it is a certainty that can only be partially comprehended and so is a source simultaneously of strength and of instability.

Let me end by providing you with a photo of the participants of the colloquium, gathered in the warmth of the cortile of the British School (a far cry from the relentless winter persisting in England), and hope that you will be able to be with us when we have the third and final colloquium on ‘connectivity’ in Oxford on 23rd November.

An afternoon in Rome: the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series

An afternoon in Rome: some of the participants at the Religion colloquium of the Mediterranean City series


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  1. […] City, a year minus a day after the first, which was held in St Andrews, on Space. We had had spring in the British School at Rome, where we discussed Religion, and now we – some stalwarts of all three, some who had been to one before, plus several new and […]

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