Courts and Cities*
Ports are the vehicles par excellence for transactions. Since time immemorial, ports have been gateways for the exchange of goods, people and ideas. These exchanges have determined the relevance certain areas have attained in world history by framing global contacts beyond the narrow urban walls of a certain town. Even though Late Medieval and Renaissance ports were situated within the Mediterranean basin, the European expansion overseas and the local competition moved the preeminence of European ports to the Atlantic axis, where Northwestern European cities took over most of the central economic, social, political and cultural role of large metropolises, remaining important nodal points for global interactions until today.
Artistic and literary production are not inherently urban processes in themselves but they have always flourished in an urban context and the processes of cultural production have played a major role in urban economies. Literary and artistic metropolises have also acted as nodal points in networks of cultural exchange, their creative dynamism drawing strength from and encouraging the movement of people and ideas. Focussing on the period 1450–1930, this essay considers how and why certain cities have emerged as literary and artistic metropolises and the factors that enabled such a cultural flowering to take place.
Serving as a site of memory of eastern European Judaism since its systematic extermination by the Nazi regime, the shtetl existed for centuries as a socio-economic phenomenon and a socio-cultural construct, out of which a literary and cultural topos grew in the second half of the 19th century. The complexity of this term, which emerged in multi-ethnic Poland in the second half of the 17th century, lies in the difficulty in differentiating between mental perception and reality. These cities and town with populations predominantly consisting of Yiddish-speaking Jews were never Jewish municipalities. Autonomous self-administration by means of the so-called "kahal" and membership of a dense Jewish network which over time even extended overseas should not be confused with political autonomy. However, in their daily lives the shtetl Jews had this double experience of living in an essentially Jewish world on the one hand, and of the relative acceptance of this situation by the surrounding population on the other hand. In this way, these provisioning islands, which were characterized by a high degree of interethnic contact, were mythologized as a bastion of Judaism – of the so-called "yidishkeyt" – in the context of their increasing disintegration.
In the medieval and early modern periods, courtly spaces were defined by the presence of the prince (Fürst) and his court. These spaces formed at different sites (castle, city, countryside) and they were characterized by ritualized actions. The spaces were related to each other and sometimes exhibited a high degree of internal differentiation, which resulted from the distance or proximity of the other participants in the action to the prince, who was the centre of this action. From about 1500 onward, there was a number of decisive innovations in the design of these spaces. Allegorizations (the influence of the ruler mythology of classical antiquity) and forms of multimedia staging were intended to place the focus on the body of the prince as the centre of the actions.