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(vii) Performance and power in ancient and medieval cities

 Performance and Power in Ancient and Medieval Cities

Top: Michael Wolgemut/ Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, illustration of Roma, from Hartmann Schedel, Liber Chronicarum, 1493 (Cambridge University Library, Inc.0.A.7.2[888], ff 57v-58r) Image: Creative Commons) Bottom: Aerial view of Rome (April 2018), Image: Google (2018).


(vii) Performance and Power in Ancient and Medieval Cities

 Convenor: Dr Caroline Goodson

Cities of the ancient and medieval worlds were the canvasses upon which ideas of rulership and society were expressed. Classical and medieval societies of the Mediterranean and Western Eurasia valued cities as hallmarks of civilisation; cities were economic tools, administrative centres, and religious shrines. Fundamentally, they were also a means by which ancient and medieval rulers claimed and conveyed their authority to rule. The representation and practice of power in cities, often through ceremonies and processions, aided rulers in communicating ideas about authority and culture. Cities also served as places of memory, recording events of the past and enabling the reconfiguration of history in the production of new legacies. This Option explores the experience of cities in the Mediterranean and Europe from a comparative perspective and through a wide range of evidence, from archaeology and standing buildings to archival records from daily life, histories, and legends of cities. Starting in classical antiquity and ending in the later middle ages, students will explore different aspects of performance, celebration, and ceremony in cities of the premodern past and ask why and how rulership came to be so tightly related to urbanism in these places.

We will consider a number of case-studies, across a wide chronological and geographical range of cities, from classical Athens to later medieval Europe, examining city-states as political entities and looking at long-lived cities as well as newly founded ones. While reflecting on the individual circumstances of each case, we will also examine the experience of urban ceremony comparatively looking not only at classical and Roman cities and their heritage, but also the roles of urbanism in the Byzantine, Islamicate, and Northern European worlds. Our focus on performance and ceremony allows us to consider in detail the means by which events which took place in cities – a series of games, an anniversary celebration, or a tragic military defeat – took advantage of certain qualities of the urban fabric, such as the proximity of certain monuments, or the legacy of previous events in a given place. We will thus also consider ancient and medieval cities as places of memory as well as projections of the future.


Class Sessions


Class 1: Introduction

What is a city? What was a city, in the premodern period? Why should cities constitute a category in historical inquiry? We will chart how questions about ancient and medieval cities have changed over the past 50 years, and identify the strands of anthropological and sociological theory which have supported historical research on performance, ritual, and urban experience, eg. Turner on liminality, Lefebvre on the social production of space, Habermas on the public sphere. We will consider how theory and study of the modern city provides certain tools with which to analyse the ancient city, and will consider the other tools necessary to examine ancient and medieval cities.


Class 2: Athens: politics and ideals

This meeting examines the Panathenaia of classical Athens (a series of games, ceremonies and processions which took place every four years) alongside the Festival of the Dionysia and the public funerals of the war dead. The urban form of Athens, especially the Acropolis, provided spaces and places for these different celebrations and, in turn, commemorated the events materially. Through narratives and inscriptions, and by analysing the form of the city and its use, we will consider the relationships between urban populace, emerging ideas about the city-state, and the representation of cultural ideals and realities in these performances and the records of them. The projection of particular political forms intertwined with the urban form of Athens, as it developed over the fifth century BCE. The urban fabric thus preserves the memory of the festivals, and projects them into the future.


Class 3: Rome: politics and economies

In this session we will explore Rome as the political centre of the Roman empire and the relationships between events in the rest of the empire and celebrations in Rome by considering processions and performances. Through parades celebrating military triumphs and through the celebratory hosting of games, Romans projected ideas about empire, its emergent form, and the structure of its rule. The routes of parades and the locations of games and performances used major monuments of the city. The narratives recording these, and images and monuments which marked their routes, tied the processions to past events and celebrations. Our session will address a) triumphs, for the ways in which military celebrations abroad were presented and translated in Rome, b) public games in Rome held by and in honour of emperors and ruling elites communicated social order and imperial ideals, c) funerals for the creation of sites of memory through performance and monument.


Class 4: The City of God: early Christian cities

The structure of the early Christian church was organised around cities and adopted certain aspects of urban administration. Beyond the merely administrative, however, cities and ideas about cities, both positive and negative, animated late antique Christian culture, and bishops emerged as a new source of urban authority. We will consider a) Augustine’s City of God as a reflection on earthly and heavenly cities b) the processions led by bishops as a projection of new political orders, especially the stational liturgy of Rome.


Class 5: Islam and urban religion

Cities, whether ancient or newly founded, were central to the operation and expansion of the early Muslim empire. They facilitated payment of salaries for state employees and soldiers as well as the collection of taxes; often monumental religious buildings accompanied their foundation. The stories told about the foundations of new cities, the rituals which accompanied their foundation, and the means by which they were laid out formed central narratives in the early Islamic histories. Some of these stories echoed hadith, and thus related urban patrons to the model of the Prophet. Others stressed the auspicious events surrounding their foundation, or the collaboration of key figures.


Class 6: Ceremonial in medieval cities

Rituals of ceremony in the tenth and eleventh centuries were increasingly elaborate and highly formalised aspects of court life. This session looks comparatively at performance and ceremonial in Byzantine and Fatimid courts, the descriptions of the events and they ways in which history and ceremony were recorded in text. The urban topographies of Constantinople and Cairo were stage sets for representations of rulers, through which new rights to rule and legitimacy were attached to the buildings of predecessors and key religious monuments. Byzantine ceremonial developed ancient patterns and displayed contemporary rulership against venerable antecedents and dynastic predecessors. Fatimid ceremonial borrowed from Abbasid court practice to present the new rulers of Egypt on par with other Muslim dynasties; the new capital, Cairo, topographically related shrines and palaces of the new rulers.


Class 7: Citizens and Cities

This session considers the practice and performance of civic governance in later medieval cities, especially London and Bruges. Through carefully composed processions and participation in paraliturgical celebrations, secular rulers and religious bodies communicated structures of governance and social order; there was no clear distinction between civil and religious ceremonies and there was increasing self-consciousness of city companies and guilds. In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century London, a number of new texts were produced, recording in detail the practices of offices in London, including processions, ceremonies, costumes and paraphernalia. In Bruges, while texts recording certain processions were much later, the images and objects made for the city reflect the procession of the Holy Blood and its centrality to the workings of contemporary society.


Class 8: Preaching and prayer for the dead

This session will consider the development of new forms of Christian piety in the thirteenth and later centuries, in the communes of Italy. The preaching of mendicants and the presence of mendicants in Italian cities, later other cities of the world, stressed new and different aspects of personal piety. Changes in urban demography and disease prompted new strategies for incorporating tombs and burials into urban fabrics.