bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Connectivity and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2013

First, we shaped the city, then we constructed worship within it, and now we have given it connections. We have just had the third and final colloquium on the Mediterranean 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 welcome faces – re-grouped in Oxford, to talk about Connectivity.

I will admit that this was, of the three, the one I was most keen to organise, relating as it does most closely to my research. I was not disappointed by our speakers who all followed the rubric of short interventions to stimulate discussion – and how they did! The room bubbled with ideas, too many to reduce to one analysis. Perhaps that, indeed, might be appropriate in the context of discussing the well-connected city.

What provided the main themes of the day were the structures of connection and the lived experience of dealing with its impact on the city. We moved, as in the previous colloquia, across the expanse of the Middle Sea, stopping at Acre, Alexandria and Seville, with special attention to the Adriatic (Ragusa / Dubvronik and Venice). Our chronological range was, if anything, yet more expansive than in previous sessions, stretching from the ancient world through the High Middle Ages into the fifteenth century and beyond into the ‘early modern period’.

The papers allowed us to consider whether some cities were more capable of taking advantage of long-term change than others, a place having a magnetic pull created by its location and association with patterns of movement, be they economic, religious or political. Conversation also introduced the important theme of the link between technology and connectivity, allowing us to wonder whether the sea routes of the Mediterranean always had advantage over land travel. Even with those sea routes, an extended voyage would be expected to have several land-falls, reminding us that long-distance connectivity requires staging posts – one city being a gateway to another, until a Rome or a Jerusalem is reached. The human movement between the cities of Egypt was attractively described by Georg Christ as urban transhumance, with the shift of power between the settlements tempered by tradition and by this circular movement of people. We also noted in our final discussion that it may not be just the city that is well-connected: monasteries and non-urban pilgrimage sites held their attraction, their pull. That said, however, for some such sites, their very inaccessibility stimulated the challenge of reaching them, while for others, their proximity to a city made them satellites to the urban star, though perhaps at times they might shine brighter than their larger neighbour. Perhaps, indeed, there was something of this in the relationship between the Benedictine monastery of the isle of Locum with the city of Ragusa, the fascinating subject of Magdalena Skoblar’s talk to us.

Teeming though the day was with suggestive topics, my personal focus since the afternoon ended has been on the experience of these connections within the cityscape. The day began with a positively pyrotechnical display by Nicholas Purcell in which, along with many other insights, he reminded us how a city might want to act as a break on connectivity, desiring a purity which was suspicious of the presence of aliens. As Andrew Jotischky and others pointed out, the city’s layout may be structured so as to place alien communities in defined quarters, in a process of confinement that both visitor and host might find protective. Nicholas also threw in to general discussion the axiom that you cannot step into the same city twice. Quite how fluid the physical cityscape might be, and whether all lacked fixity equally were issues that remained hanging. We remembered the previous discussion at the first of these colloquia where the contrast between the stone-built and mud-brick was highlighted and where we mused on the legacy of monumentality. As in that earlier conversation, so in this, the man-made achievement was surely most often less determining of a city’s identity than its natural location – but, as the example of Seville (which, in its ancient guise of Hispalis, was eloquently introduced to us by Simon Keay) reminds us through the changing course of ‘its’ river, the Guadalquivir, even those certainties were mutable. To such gradual shifts, we should add also the impacts of natural disasters, be the earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, and those which could be the act of more than just God, like the ever-present threat of destructive, purging fire in the city.

Yet, if, as Nicholas was persuading us, cities are themselves persuasive strategies that have managed to convince of their own longevity, security and supposed fixity, the process of persuasion, it seems to me, is not only through the construction of memory but through strategies of forgetting. In other words, we do not set foot into the same city because, whatever else, each time we enter, the weight of history has provided another layer of skin to the urban body, but to comprehend the place, we necessarily peel back some of those layers to find a core which we believe – perhaps forlornly – to be familiar. I have recently commented in another context about how an all-remembering mind could surely not cope with all the horrors that live beside the positive energies of any community, and a city learns how to forget and how to direct attention. So, when we stand in the Piazza della Signoria, we wonder at Florentine order, we might even look at the ground and see the – very recent – plaque to the spot where Savonarola was burnt, but do we ever look up and think on the bodies of criminals that dangled from the Palazzo or think of the traitors thrown from its ramparts?

I am reminded of the justly celebrated passage in Michel de Certeau where he talks of how ‘we’ walk in the city, making it liveable for us in a manner far from the attempted totalising vision of those who plan and order a city. His analysis is designed for modern living, and there were no de-humanising boulevards cut across the urban environments we were discussing. There is still, though, a fundamental truth applicable to our discussions which is our tendency – as city-dwellers – to comprehend through the walked experience, defining from our own vantage-point, not with a panoptic scan. But such solipsistic living is perhaps not confined to us walkers but is the thought pattern of the city itself: through its declaration of memories and its careful silences, it intends to simplify itself, to become knowable and manageable. But connectivity, however much it is celebrated as part of its character, is a challenge to such simplification. With the welter of alien influences that it imposes on the host – however much attempt to control or confine them there might be – they are inimical to a settled definition or urban identity. It is as if the city continually strives and fails to avoid being other.

It seems to me that this theme provides – just as the previous two colloquia have done – a concept generative of the city’s identity but also destructive of it. The quintessential spaces of the city, like the piazza, are also sites of disorder; the alliance between the urban and the religious is, likewise, potentially destabilising at the same time as being creative. Similarly, if, as I suggested in my comments on the second workshop, religion deepens urban space, then connectivity broadens it, hinting at the wondrous variety of the world and simultaneously attempting to encapsulate, capture and control it within the hemmed-in limits of the city’s boundaries. The city, in other words, attempts, within its confines, to order this world and touch the next, all the time finding it nigh on impossible fully to order itself – or perhaps even to be itself.


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