A medieval city, its legends, and the making of ‘who we are’

As some of you might know, last year I spent five months in Aachen, Germany. My stay in Aachen was related to a Visiting Researcher position at the ILS. I have previously written about this research, which was an extension of my doctorate and aimed at investigating the Urban Comfort concept in an European and culturally-mixed context.

This topic of research requires a deep understanding of the dynamics of city life in the chosen case study. After many walks in the city by myself, at some stage I went for a city walk with a colleague who has been living in Aachen for over 20 years and who knows very well the city, its urban development processes and, of course, its legends.

The Aachener Dom (the Cathedral) is the city’s most famous landmark and a world heritage site. Its building initiated around 780AD, during Charlemagne (Karl der Große) era. As a medieval city, Aachen has many urban legends and stories, and perhaps the most famous is the one about the devil’s thumb, which can still be seen in the main door of the Aachener Dom. This legend says that the city officials did not have enough money to build the Cathedral, and after much struggle, they got an offer from the devil. The devil offered to finance the building at no interest or extra cost. The only condition was that the first soul to enter the building would be taken by him.

Aachener Dom’s main door
The Lion head with the devil’s thumb inside, in the main door of the Aachener Dom

Amongst all the excitement no one thought of asking if that had to be a human soul. When the Cathedral was finished, locals tried to trick the devil and before anyone entered the building, they took a wolf and threw it inside. The devil then took its soul soon realising that wasn’t the human soul he had implicitly demanded. Angry for being tricked the devil slammed the main door cracking its right lower corner and pressing his finger, which is still stuck in the door.

The wolf
The wolf’s soul

After touching the devils thumb at the door, we are then introduced to the wolf, which has a hole on its chest from where its soul was taken, and the soul itself, represented by a pine cone.

I lost track of how many times later I heard this story, surprisingly with not much variation. Despite the large number of publications about Aachen and its Dom, it is difficult to do it justice, as described on the AachenEmotion website:

Volumes have been written about Aachen cathedral, including essays, picture books and much more besides by specialists, scientists and photographers. But no words or pictures can do justice to the feeling you get, sitting quietly beneath that majestic dome. It simply has to be experienced…

Indeed, that experience is unique, but to me the question of experience was also in the making of the local culture. How does it all shape people and their communities? How do Aacheners see themselves? Do they feel part of this magic medieval fairy tale? How does that influence the meanings of ‘being an Aachener’? What are the things that make them face the below zero winter to be part of this city’s life? Aacheners are, for example, lovers of their yearly events – such as the Weihnachtsmarkt which has also been taking place since the medieval times. Since August when I started the research interviews most respondents asked if I was going to be there for Christmas, obviously, because I had to see the market. There are more things and nuances in our ‘making’, our experiences, our tastes than we might perceive at first glance. 

After all these stories and feelings that this little medieval town provokes, it became clear that Aacheners and their history are almost one single thing. This sense of belonging manifests in a very similar way as in New Zealand, where it is difficult to determine the limits between Canterburians and their landscape. Also as happens with New Zealanders and their landscapes, Aachen’s history is the locals’ daily lives, their pride and their main touristic attraction.

With all this in mind, I leave a question hanging here: As we shift to a generation of urbanists and planners focused on place, its meanings, its ‘activation’ through placemaking and so forth, how do we take these place uniqueness into our city design and planning? Are we actually doing it at all?

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