Susanne Rau: »Religious groups profited from urban developments«

3.11.2021 | Professor Susanne Rau from the University of Erfurt researches the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity. AcademiaNet spoke with her about the ongoing interdependence of the two concepts as well as her most recent research around the rise and fall of European fairs.
Prof Susanne Rau
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Prof Susanne Rau

Professor Rau, religion and urbanity - quite an unusual combination as both concepts seem to be at opposite ends of our perceived reality.
From a historian’s point-of-view this is quite surprising because if we take cities like Shanghai, New York or even Berlin we won’t see many religious buildings or religious events unless we look for them. Then of course we’d discover small churches among big skyscrapers, shrines, religious events, and so on. So religious aspects are there, but they tend to be overlooked nowadays. In our research group "Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations", Jörg Rüpke and I wanted to look at how closely the development of cities all over the world was linked to religious developments, although we are focused on Asia and Europe. While not always at the center of urban development from the beginning onwards, religious groups, actors, institutions and religious practices usually played an important role for the further development of the cities and vice versa. This was the starting point.

What does urbanity mean in this context?
Urbanity is, if you will, a habitual way of life that emerges because of the size, density, diversity, mobility, instability, and transparency of a settlement or the people living there. In our research project, which is a collaboration with fellows from all over the world, we developed this further. We made it useful and applicable to our approach and to our studies.

In ancient times, people already reflected on city life or what it means to live in a city. Often, you will find that the countryside and rural societies cultivated urbanity as well. Urbanity is, thus, a certain behavior of being educated, having the possibility to go to theaters or cinemas, etc. Then, also, citizens have certain demands and needs that need to be met. They need to circulate, go to work, meet other citizens, have cultural institutions, hospitals etc. All of this influences the architecture and planning of cities - the people’s attitudes, demands and behaviors. Urbanity therefore also has a wider meaning, exceeding attitude, behavior, education and so on and expanding to the impact on buildings, urban space and on urbanism in the wider sense. Some of these results can be found in one of my essays on our publication website.

What role does religion play here and how are the two concepts interconnected?
This is one of the questions we ask fellows to analyse. With the funding from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) we are able to invite experts from all over the world to come to Erfurt and spend up to a year here to pursue a single research project. All of these projects look at South Asian, Mediterranean or European cities but with different aspects and that way we can look at what happens or happened in different regions and with different religions.

My colleague Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli looked at the »citification« of Jesus as a symbol for Christianity. In history there was a point when Christians came to cities and implemented themselves in institutions in cities. The same is true for Buddhism although it rather praises retreat and living in the countryside. But Buddhists needed exchange with cities because they had to finance themselves. So they engaged in trade and that made it necessary to live closer to the cities. On the outskirts for example.

Looking at the mainly Christo-centric cities in Europe there used to be a typical structure, influenced by religion: They had a church in the center, a market place and perhaps a town hall if they could afford it. Not a global model, but really a European one. If there were no major destructions through war or other, the church remained in the center and over time the city grew around it, formed parishes and other cities. Or the city didn’t grow concentrically but developed new areas, so-called „new towns“ and the old center shifted to the periphery. So there are differences in the visible relations with religion in cities and how it is spaced.

So apparently religion takes influence on the development of cities. But is this also true vice versa? Does urbanity have a part in shaping religion and religious groups?
Urbanity certainly does influence religion. Take the buildings: There are religious groups and religions in cities who were and are not allowed to build, for example, a synagogue because the city council decided so. Even today there still is a debate on if a mosque is allowed to be built in a German town. There are many formal hurdles: what height is allowed, shall symbols be allowed on the outside or shall it be easily recognisable.

One example of how urbanity influenced religion in the past is the Eruv in Judaism. On Sabbath, Jews are not allowed to work or carry things around. But if you lived in a merchant city you had to make some compromises and adaptions. So the Eruv was invented as an exception: a certain area, enclosed by pillars or already existing houses, where for example carrying things was allowed. This is quite an illustrative example of how societies or different religious groups adapt and change when living among other people.

There are many other examples. Just take scripturality, which emerged in towns. Without it some religious developments would not have been possible. Martin Luther for example would not have been as successful as he was if not for the printing presses. In the end it of course is a way of propaganda but in a positive sense because it means religious groups could spread their word back in the day. In the cities they profited from urban developments. So, religion formed urban spaces but urban spaces and institutions also formed religion and one would not have been able to exist without the other.

Seems that your research tells us a lot about our societies past and present. What about your latest research project around the history of European fairs?.
Many problems that we have in the 21st century rank around banking, finances and stock markets. Just think about the crash of the Lehman Brothers a bit over ten years ago. The state had to come in and rescue the banks by giving them money. But crises like this aren’t just a modern problem. Yet, neither the state nor economy or economic actors in the field have a solution for these major problems or have a recipe on how to react best in such situations. So it is important to research how earlier societies have dealt with such problems, how they organized their trade and economic systems. This is one of the main reasons why we look at earlier times and the upcoming and downfall of earlier fairs, markets and stock exchanges, their functioning and regulation. They had a much more important role back then as hubs of long distance trade than they do nowadays.

In the middle ages and the earlier times we had local markets but also fairs. The Champagne fairs, the Lyon fairs or the Besançon fairs would run a couple of times a year. Merchants would travel there, negotiate, exchange, fix prices for bigger quantities of objects in general and so on. Those objects would then be transported back or sold on to other regions.

Sounds quite successful. Yet, the Champagne fairs and the Besançon fairs went down. Why is that?
The Champagne fairs were probably the most important ones in the higher middle ages. They consisted of six individual fairs that took place in the Champagne region in Northern France. One took place after the other so that merchants could - at least in theory - visit every fair. At that time people came here from various parts of Europe and there exists quite a lot of good research on those fairs.

Why they went down? Well, that is difficult to answer. In history we can only form hypotheses. We can’t ask the people because they are all dead (chuckles). We can only find indirect answers to do with war, epidemics, and with the fact that more and more European states invested into their new colonies and the trade with those. Spain and Portugal in particular. After having conquered other parts of the world they got their products from there and had their own supply chains. In the end it also simply has to do with supply and demand: If the merchants stop coming to your fair what else can you do than closing it?

Thank you very much for the interesting interview, Professor Rau.
  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet /

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