Protestant “pilgrimage” during Erfurt IAHR Conference

In late August I participated in the International Association of History of Religions (IAHR) world conference in Erfurt, Germany, along with some 1400 other experts of religion. These large conferences are mostly a place for networking and advertising (your research and work), as well as socializing with old colleagues, which you usually see once a year at best. The vast multitude of panels and keynotes could get exhausting if you try to manage to be everywhere and benefit scientifically from the offered presentations and speeches. Instead, the best way to enjoy it is to see what is interesting and new, and engage in relaxed small-talk with new and discussion with old aqcuaintances – and have some free-time as well to enjoy local culture. Many times you visit only once in the city where the conference is held, so why not educate oneself more on the history and complexities of your surroundings.

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Erfurt Krämerbrucke

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Erfurt Cathedral

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Luther statue

During the conference Wednesday was spared for conference tours and free time – unless you were an executive of the board or something like that. With four of my Finnish colleagues I embarked to a private car tour of Thuringia, visiting the cultural sights and nature of the area. Refreshed from the delight to roam the Autobahn, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting new, historical, places and experiencing their charm first-hand. Thuringia is the home of such historical figures as Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (although born in Frankfurt), and a historical scene for the birth of such things as Schmalkalden League and Weimar Republic.

The area is especially important for the history of Protestantism, since it is Thuringia, where Martin Luther was born, lived in monastery, and translated the New Testament, where Protestants formed their alliance against the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, and first (Lutheran) Protestant doctrines were agreed. So in a sense, we performed a Protestant Pilgrimage – although with little religious zeal and much more scientific curiosity.

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Augustine monastery in Erfurt

We left our accommodation apartment, next to the Augustine Monastery where Luther stayed, in the early morning to reach first the castle of Wartburg. Just outside Eisenach, the birth town of Bach, the castle stood high on the hill, surrounded by forest and other hills. The scene was perfect for a historical hideout. Warm sunny morning greeted us, and our senses took in the full experience. The narrow castle reminded of a small village, when you got inside it. Although we didn’t get any special spiritual kicks from visiting the place where Luther translated the Bible in 1521, it was interesting to put the visual landscape and scenery, face, to the story so familiar from history and many books. I could easily imagine myself visiting there for a retreat, although very much in different terms than what Luther had to. We also managed to escape the crowds, since we met the official conference tour climbing up as we left.

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After eating lunch in Eisenach and visiting Bach statue, we headed to Schmalkalden. It was there that the Schmalkalden League was founded (1531). The league first fought basically to protect and promote Protestant ideas and expand their freedom in the Empire, but later they fought to supersede the Emperor and/or replace the Empire with their own political entity. The league was finally defeated (1548), as part of fights and schisms that lasted over hudred years and ended (sort of) in Westphalia in 1648. The league was an important part of guaranteeing Lutheranism official status in the Empire and the right for princes to choose the religion of their domains, in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Furthermore, the small town was the cite of a meeting where the Schmalkald Articles were originally meant to publicize. Although they didn’t become the key articles of Protestant concords or confessions, they were important in forming a united doctrinal base for Lutheran Protestants, and are still used and included in the Lutheran Book of Concord. Luther summarized his doctrine in the Articles. The old town of Schmalkalden is an idyllic place in itself, and worth of visiting with or without these historical facts. Also, the Thuringian forest surrounding it is a wonderful green sight, which we witnessed as we drove through it to Weimar.

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Weimar, the cultural place in the turn of 18th and 19th centuries in Germany, was hot – at least that day when temperature rose high, beautiful in any day. The Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach Karl August ruled as duke from the age of nine months (1758), and later rose to become a kind of cultural patron of his era, inviting Goethe, Schiller, and other figures in his home town Weimar. His era was not all fun and play, for example due to a character named Napoleon, but despite of all other historical events, he managed to construct a cultural cradle of his days. The deaths of Karl August (1828) and Goethe (1832) marked a decline of one era, but the city witnessed later another historical deal, that of the founding of Weimar Republic, state of German Reich in 1919. The constitutional assembly reconstructed Germany after the First World War. Weimar as a city is different in architecture than the other Thuringia places we visited, namely due to its economical peak later. The old center houses are styled late 18th and 19th century architecture, with some earlier (16th c.) and more modern buildings in the midst. All in all, a place worth of visiting as well.

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Depending on if you like religious or philosophical history and late medieval or classical premodern era and architecture, you can choose the western (Eisenach and Schmalkalden) or eastern (Weimar) sights to concentrate on in your journey to Thuringia. Erfurt, in turn, offers both, as well as the GDR, East-Germany, kick and historical ruins (abandoned houses, named streets etc.). In the midst of academic hard work (sure), the cultural experiences of Thuringia left us satisfied. Our intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural desires were met fully during the week in the IAHR conference.

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