In the medieval city in Central Europe the public and public cultures were not only shaped by institutionalized competences, but by multimedia signs, signals, and their perception. The main topic of this project was the interference of acoustic spheres – as they are created by noise, music and bells sounds – and the constitution of spatial structure and significance (juridical, social, transcendental) in the middle ages.


Scholars have analyzed the importance of this symbolic communication, especially in terms of ritualized acts and behaviors (tournaments, liturgical plays, pageants) and visual representation (town gates, mayor houses, statues etc.). Besides those mainly visual and theatrical signs symbolic spaces are also created in means of acoustic, tactile, and olfactory signs and indicators, but this topic is up to now only treated in specialized research. Those media dynamically determined social and physical spaces. Very often they are created by performative acts, but their meaning and perception can, due to the beholder’s social position, considerably vary. Nevertheless city shaping, in terms of public topography and of architectural as well as urban structures, is intimately connected to those multimedia semantics.

First results

Research has been undertaken by the project’s responsible in the case of the imperial city of Frankfort. Here, the creation of a large public place, the Römer, at the end of the 14th century is related to the urban exclusion of the Jewish population at the same time. The ghetto as a heterotopic site of non-public communication will be created in the middle of the 15th century. The Römer however, framed by patrician houses with its heraldic icons served as the stage of a variety of rituals like passion plays or jousts in order to produce a dense communication network. Here, a highly uploaded branded architecture is employed in order to create a sort of communal corporate identity. The appropriation of this space constitutes an important political issue. At this time the main players are the members of the patrician oligarchy performing a decidedly Christian, and clearly anti-Jewish identity.

One of the most important signals however was bell sound. It did not only structure and qualify the temporal rhythm of the city in terms of secular and spiritual marks, but it legitimized this temporal order as a celestial one. In fact, bell sounds are compared to divine voices, linking, grace to their loud and harmonious acoustic signals, the celestial and the earthly sphere. As can be observed in Frankfort, the creation of a communal corporate identity in terms of public spaces and performative acts is doubled by the edification of a high tower for the main collegiate and parish church. Its main functions were to serve as a significant landmark and to house a series of loud ringing bells, administrated by the commune and the collegiate church. All these measures of city shaping are intimately related together. The acoustic space produced by the bell ringing is related to the town’s geographic extension, but it depends on the technical performance of the instruments as acoustic signals on the one hand and on the height of their suspension on the other. The bell tower had to be technically fit to house this ambitious peal of bells, but it should also visualize the outgoing sounds in architectural and decorative terms. Insofar it can be compared to a gigantic ostensory. These intermingling factors are not stable. As far as the technique of bell founding is concerned, some important improvements can be stated at the beginning of the 13th century, producing new acoustic qualities of bells gaining in loudness and musical sophistication.

This project’s aim was to demonstrate the evolution of those intermingling conditions of medieval city-shaping in terms of architectural, performative, and acoustic semantics. It is mainly focusing on a comparative study of some well documented exemplary cities like Frankfort (research completed), Nurnberg, Cologne, and Wurzburg. In this sense the project can be regarded as an enlargement of the Topoi research project (C-6-1) Raumnutzung und Raumbeanspruchung: Multivalenz des öffentlichen Raums.

Related Publication

Christian Freigang, “Cloches, sons et clochers. Sens visuels et acoustiques au Moyen Âge”, in: Pierre Martin and Eric Sparhubert (Eds.), Regards croisés sur le monument médiéval. Mélanges offerts à Claude Andrault-Schmitt, Turnhout: Brepols, 2018