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


Space and the Mediterranean City

Posted in Mediterranean History by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2012

It is so busy at the moment that my best chance of knowing where I am is to ask what day it is. So, if it is Saturday 24th November, it must be St Andrews, and the first of three colloquia on the Mediterranean City. The series is sponsored jointly by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature and the British School at Rome. The first event was hosted by Frances Andrews and the Institute of Mediaeval History at the University, who did a fine job in making the forty or so delegates feel welcome and ready to engage in discussion. For, that was the key point of the day: our attention was to concentrate on exchange of views rather than presentation, so had six short papers on our topic with ample space for questions, comment and debate (no fisticuffs occurred, the more pugilistic among you will be disappointed to hear). We also consciously wanted to make sure we did not confine ourselves to the north-western seaboard of the Middle Sea, which is too often taken as the entirety of Mediterranean experience, and we did not want to consider the ‘Middle Ages’ narrowly. So, for the topic for this first event, which was ‘Space’, we had papers which ranged from urbanism as ideology in the Roman empire to the dynamics of trecento and quattrocento Italian cities, via Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus.

We also arranged for two graduate students to act as rapporteurs for the day, providing not summaries but reports capturing the tenour and direction of discussion. They will be available on-line at the Society’s website very soon. What follows, then, is in no way an ‘official’ account of the day’s discussion or, indeed, an attempt to recapitulate all that was discussed. It is, rather, my own brief thoughts on a few of the issues that were at the forefront of our minds as we grappled with the topic of ‘space’ in the Mediterranean city.

One of the issues in play was how we ourselves conceptualise space – many of the talks concentrated on public buildings and high-profile, outsize ones at that. There seems to be an association in our minds between space and monumentality but that latter concept is itself so particularly culturally defined. As Hugh Kennedy pointed out in general discussion, the lasting nature of classical stone edifices was alien to some Islamic parts of the Mediterranean where mud brick was the main building material. It might also be fairly asked how far medieval cities were conscious of their own monumentality. In a culture where the cartographic imagination – by which I mean the ability to construct a mental image of a place through a bird’s-eye view – was largely absent, depictions of cities often present simply their most notable structures, as Paul Magdalino reminded us via an image of Constantinople from a manuscript of Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Liber insularum archipelagi. That two-dimensional presentation suggests how a walker would orientate themselves by the relationship between those buildings. A Colosseum or a Castel Sant’ Angelo could not but be at the forefront of a walker’s consciousness. Similarly, in depictions, a particular building often stood as a sort of synecdoche for the city, so that the Pantheon was often used in fourteenth and fifteenth century depictions as a shorthand for Rome, as (before the completion of Brunelleschi’s dome) the Baptistery was for Florence. The Baptistery, it should be remembered, was imagined to be like the Pantheon, a classical temple converted into a place of Christian worship. In such a case, its latterday function associated its present with its (supposed) past; in many others, though, the reuse of an ancient monument worked to efface its original meaning. Leaving aside the cases of pillaging and subsequent incorporation of spolia into new buildings, we can think instead of the fortunes of an amphitheatre like that of Arles in Provence.

The Arenes of Arles, as it appeared in 1686. The medieval towers remain but the interior and exterior have been ‘cleaned’ of habitations.

We can visit the empty oval shape of the Arènes in which bull fights are now staged, but only because of an early nineteenth-century clearing of its contents: the medieval space was both filled and encrusted with accretions of homes and shops, with the amphitheatre housing within it also churches, streets and squares. In making such a space useable how necessary was a process of forgetting its past? Was the place’s previous identity even as much as a ghost to its inheritors? In short, did it become liveable at the expense of losing its monumentality?

It might also be said that the monumental imposes itself upon its location, which while it does not seek to be in toto that space, it does want to assert itself as its defining element. Yet, surely more fundamental to the definition of most cities than any man-made edifice was their natural position. The Roman empire, in establishing its new towns (the subject of Louise Revell’s opening paper), may have been confident enough in its military prowess and its irrigational technology to eschew places with natural advantages but, for most earlier and later settlements, a defensible hill or a riverside location, for instance, was the most appropriate placing for a city. The advantages were often, of course, not solely practical: the sense of their being a divine presence in the springs or the glades of a location provided it with a charisma that made it suitable not just for one settlement but for repeated inhabitation. That charisma could die or, indeed, become anathema, if a location became feared, say, as a space owned by a former people’s dead; a locale, then, might be entirely abandoned but many were revived, slightly askew to their previous settlement, a process that makes the topographical history of a city often like a multiple and shifting palimpsest.

This point touches on a theme that was emphasised during the day’s proceedings: it is a theme that can be described in terms of distance, but in Trevor Dean’s characteristically suggestive paper it was also expressed as the variety of types of proximity possible within the city. He talked in terms of the relationship between individuals, as, that is, the different types of space that people would place between themselves depending on the actions they were sharing. Obviously, similar analysis could be applied to the physical structures of the city. The type of distance I have just discussed at the end of the previous paragraph is a mental or cultural one demanding a physical separation from what went earlier. At the same time, the right running of an urban community demands particular types of distance be imposed. This is particularly clear in the organisation of streets in cultures that precede Haussmann’s penchant for boulevards (to my mind, an inhuman imposition on cityscape). As Jo van Steenbergen described in relation to Cairo, there was a natural propensity for shops and stalls to encroach on the passable space, reducing a street to an alley. In other Islamic cities, as Hugh Kennedy mentioned, the sultan could decree that a thoroughfare should be no narrower than 20m. He also pointed out that the requirements of streets necessarily differed between cultures where traffic was mainly wagon-based and those were pack-animals like camels were the norm. The solutions found to the competing demands for passable and commercial space then could differ on the basis of what would actually pass through that space. Yet, what is perhaps most essential here is that tension: a city exists as an invitation to trade but an over-abundance of trade could undermine the ability to carry out that essential activity.

Nor is this the only tension at the heart of urban existence. It occurred to me listening to Patrick Lantschner’s paper comparing revolts in late medieval Verona, Bologna and Florence that elements which provide the very definition of a city and its success also breed its failure. As he reminded us in discussion, two focal points for revolt were the bridge and the piazza, locations essential to the urban identity. A city’s squares provide its most characteristic locales but they provide spaces that can also permit and perhaps encourage activities that undermine its fabric. Yet, this might be to complain about the very nature of the experience of a city. The discord that has often been said to be endemic in urban life made cities seem failed entities to some medieval and later observers, but we do not need to be Machiavelli to recognise that the inherent tensions and destructive tendencies could also be functions of the generative potential of a city’s necessarily plural identity.

From the outside, of course, cities can seem as places of excess and immorality, places from which laws were promulgated only themselves to be hives of the illicit. But one of the other issues that ran like a submerged stream through the discussion was how far it is possible to separate ‘outside’ and ‘inside’, even when a city is physically separated, as it so often was in Christendom (though not in Roman or Islamic culture), by its walls. I mused at the end whether city-living changed one’s concept of temporal space; I did so in order to hint at a problematic dynamic: the city was regulated by its human habits – the closing of its gates, the organisation of its market days – which might be seen to be an attempt to break out of the natural cycle of the seasons. Yet, for its market days, a city was dependent on outsiders, particularly on country-dwellers deigning to dirty their feet by stepping into the dusty square. The success of the city could not be created entirely within its walls but by its ability to pull in, like a magnet, the potential of its hinterland. That hinterland, though, might not be simply a contado of cultivated fields; regimes often took a mark of their own success to be their control of towns and, indeed, of subject cities. In other words, can we talk of one type of city or do we need to distinguish the metropolis and even the megalopolis from other forms or urban living? On the other hand, it is a more urgent task to attempt to reintegrate the urban environment with its immediate context, recognising that the city lived off – some might say was a parasite of – the countryside?

As you can see, the day fruitfully ended with more questions than premature answers. I very much look forward to continuing this conversation at the next of these workshops. And, so, if it is Tuesday 19th March, it will have to be the British School at Rome, where we will be discussing religion and the Mediterranean city.