Christian Rohr

title.none: Nelson and Theuws, eds., Rituals of Power (Rohr)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.012 01.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christian Rohr, University of Salzburg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Theuws, Frans and Janet Nelson, eds. Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. vii, 503. $127.50. ISBN: 9-004-10902-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.12

Theuws, Frans and Janet Nelson, eds. Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. vii, 503. $127.50. ISBN: 9-004-10902-1.

Reviewed by:

Christian Rohr
University of Salzburg

The Transformation of the Roman World (TRW) project, sponsored by the European Science Foundation (ESF), is by far the largest and most ambitious attempt ever undertaken to examine the times between the fourth and the ninth centuries. After several years of Europe-wide research, in which some 150 scholars have been involved, archaeologists, historians, art historians, linguists and many other specialists are now able to provide a new picture of this time of transition. This picture is far away from one only dealing with the decline and fall of the Roman empire (Edward Gibbon). The TRW series intends to present these interdisciplinary approaches in 18 volumes; nearly half of them have already been published.

Volume eight concludes thirteen studies written by archaeologists, historians and philologists, all including helpful selective bibliographies. The importance of rituals for showing, representing and constructing a person's status and power has been pointed out in numbers of books and articles published in the last years. Yet representation and similar topics have become the main questions in medieval research, not only concerning the Early Middle Ages. It is an important advantage that this volume contains very different interdisciplinary approaches to rituals relating to death, life cycles, the symbolism and ideology of royal power, etc. A common subject is the creation of new identities, cultures, norms and values, and their expression in new rituals and ideas.

Frans Theuws ("Rituals in transforming societies", pp. 1-13) begins his introduction with a survey on the positions of research at the time when the TRW project was started: the centuries of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages still seen under the paradigm of the "disappearance of Roman civilization and the rise of barbarism or a Germanic society in contra-evolution". (1) Transformation (in the singular) of the Roman world was viewed from the perspective of the dominant culture, from the perspective of the powerful, be it Romans or men. Thus he suggests speaking of transformations (in the plural), also including non-dominant people and women, when studying rituals. The TRW project also had to reject the myth of homogeneous cultures: barbarian or Germanic culture opposing Roman culture, Christians opposing heathens, the literate vs. the illiterate, etc. It is remarkable that these traditional conceptions are still alive, especially in German and French archaeology. It seems to be still ignored that many written sources are literary works, textual representations of more or less subjective, more or less compelling constructions of perceived realities. Future approaches will therefore have to be multi-dimensional in character including the observable (social) practices as well as systems of ideas and representations. (2)

Theuws favors a concept of "discursive reflection" (Frederic Barth) that counteracts individual divergence, taking note of shared values, norms, and interests of partly "disordered societies". In addition to Barth's concept, Theuws stresses Braudel's distinction between histoire evenementielle, histoire de conjunctures and histoire de longue duree. He establishes a model in which the actors, either individually or in groups, have different cultural sources that are the subject of reflection, interpretation and cultural appropriation. The result of this process is the development of cultural forms that are new, or are perceived as such. (pp. 7-9)

Rituals, as one form of externalization of ideas amongst others (writing, speaking, making objects and pictures, making gestures, creating landscapes), in this sense, play a crucial role in creating and representing new cultural terms. Thus, rituals are not to be considered meaningless habitual acts repeated time and again. Rituals are actions and statements at the same time: they represent ideas and concepts but also play a role in transforming them. Hence rituals not only represent things, they also do things. (9)

The following contributions try to illustrate these concepts, with an emphasis on rituals and objects. They aim to break new ground for this type of analysis or to be critical of present interpretations of rituals and their material correlates. Lotte Hedeager ("Migration Period Europe: the transformation of a political mentality", pp.15- 57) departs from the thesis that ideology must be understood as a central element in every cultural system. If ideology is looked upon as a source of social power, control over ideas, beliefs and values is assumed to be a precondition for the consolidation of social and thus political legitimacy. The materialization of these ideas and values occurs through the performance of ritual and ceremonial acts, the development of objects with symbolic meanings, the construction and shared use of public monuments, the formation of oral traditions, the telling of tales and the production of the written word. Together they mould individual beliefs for collective social action. (17) Hedeager, then, analyzes some origin myths of the Early Middle Ages, with an emphasis on the Scandinavian origin myth. The coherence of epic poetry and historical reality constitutes a second crucial point in her study. She finishes with a historical view of Germanic artefacts and comes to the conclusion that (50-51): origin myths, royal genealogies, mythical tales and legends, together with the symbolic language of animal style, ought to be perceived as the ideological articulation of a new Germanic warrior-elite and the prerequisite for the emergence of Germanic royalty. Whilst the myths were the warrior-elites' political ideology and a type of legitimisation performed on special occasions, the iconography of animal style functioned in an overt context, depicting a Nordic symbolic universe and a shared Germanic identity among the elite. In this way myths and iconography complemented each other. Pablo Diaz and M. R. Valverde ("The theoretical strength and practical weakness of the Visigothic monarchy of Toledo", pp. 59-93) examine the contradiction between Visigothic royal propaganda and real practice. The Visigothic kingdom was based on a strong ideology that had not lost touch with the ideology and ruling practices of the Late Empire. But although the Visigoths were committed to kingship as their form of government from an early date, it was only from the late sixth century on that a monarchy now bent on consolidating an autonomous power structure began to create a political symbology of its own. Visigothic royalty and identity were, indeed, connected so directly that, despite repeated attacks against individual Visigothic sovereigns, the grandees of the kingdom never disputed monarchy itself. They may have intended to replace the existing monarch by another of their own choice, but they never wanted to replace the system, probably because this was the only one known and accepted in this historical period. With the acquisition of pomp and ceremonial taken from Byzantium the Visigothic monarchs stressed their own sovereignty over an independent territory, but at home they were not strong enough to crush the nobility.

Stefano Gasparri's contribution ("Kingship rituals and ideology in Lombard Italy", pp. 95-114) makes it possible to compare Visigothic and Lombard ideologies. Gasparri starts with an analysis of the Lombard election ceremony in the 'assembly of the lances'. The lance seems to have been the principal symbol of kingship among Lombards, a Herrschaftszeichen characteristic of a people of horsemen, for it is a typical rider's weapon. But, as Gasparri admits, the roots of early medieval rituals of power are often much more complex. (100) According to Karl Hauck, Lombard kingship can be defined as 'wodanic': thus, some Lombard kings were said to be 'from the lineage of the Gungingi' (gungnir is the name of Odin's lance in Old Norse literature). There seems to be a clear link between Odin's lance and Lombard kingship: whoever possessed Odin's royal lance was king. (102) During the seventh century, Roman influences became increasingly dominant: Catholic kings and queens founded churches and monasteries. The cult of the saints had become enmeshed in the Lombards' warrior traditions and rites of victory. During the last decades of the Lombard kingdom's existence, old barbarian rituals had not been wholly replaced by Roman and Catholic ones. The lance, although a pagan symbol, also remained the true symbol of Lombard kingship. We have no evidence of the ceremony by which Charlemagne assumed the Lombard kingship in 774. But ultimately, when his son Pepin was consecrated and crowned king of the Lombards in 781 by a papal rite in Rome, the anointing replaced the handing over of the lance.

The next two chapters by Javier Arce ("Imperial funerals in the later Roman empire: change and continuity", pp. 115-129) and Janet L. Nelson ("Carolingian royal funerals", pp. 131- 184) should be read together, both concerning funeral ceremonies. Imperial funerals in antique Rome followed a precise, fixed ritual, consisting of a spectacular ceremony which culminated in a funeral-pyre. This episode was the prerequisite to the declaration by the Senate of the consecratio, the decree which officially proclaimed that the dead emperor was now considered another of the divi. Constantine's funeral in 337, described in Eusebius's Vita Constantini, can be seen as an important turning point: Constantine was not bodily carried towards the gods, but received in heaven by God. Nevertheless, as the legends of Constantine's coins show, also this emperor was declared divus by the Senate. Citing Jordanes' account of Attila's funeral which contains many parallels to the funerals of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Constantius II and some others, Arce comes to the conclusion that the funerals of Roman emperors may have constituted a model for western kings in the Early Middle Ages.

Janet Nelson focusses her interest on the funerals of the Carolingian kings from Pepin I up to Charles the Bald and Louis the German. In conclusion she doubts the 'check-list' of Carolingian funerals put together by Alain Dierkens: thus she asks if there were really no sophistical ritual, no dynastic necropole church and no insignia, but low profile tombs and a summary preparation of the corpse. She also pleads for playing down the contrast between the funerary practice of the Carolingians and that of Byzantium.

Mayke de Jong ("Transformations of penance", pp. 185-224) moves away from the idea of royal rituals towards the idea of the ritual of penance. According to the 'Standard Narrative', a 'canonical' or 'public' penance was originally a dramatic ritual of purification performed within small Christian communities. For the duration of their penance the outcasts became part of a clearly recognizable ordo paenitent(i)um. A penance of this sort could only be imposed by the bishop and could only be performed once in a lifetime, at best delayed until death was near.

De Jong vehemently rejects this opinion and points out that the account of 'original' public penance depends on De institutione laicali by Jonas of Orleans (d. 840) in combination with Jerome, Ambrose and some other Late Antique sources. She shows that the elusive ordo paenitent(i)um occurs for the first time in the so- called Old Gelasian sacramentary (Vat. Reg. lat. 316, mid eighth century) that was originally composed in Francia in the second half of the seventh century or in the early eighth century. Thus the earliest ordo paenitent(i)um cannot be considered to be ancient and Roman any longer (pp. 194 and 220). Penance itself has to be seen from various angles when analyzing fifth-century conciliar decrees from Gaul, Avitus of Vienne (d. 518) or Caesarius of Arles (d. 542). According to them a deathbed penance, for example, was only the second best, and people were supposed to be aware of the risks they took.

On the other hand she denies that the Vita Columbani, written by Jonas of Bobbio around 640, can be read as testimony of a 'Columbanian' penitential revolution promoting a monastic 'private' penance. De Jong sums up that "instead of concentrating on the decline of an episcopal public penance and the spread of a monastic 'private' alternative, it would be worth investigating the extent to which monastic communities throughout the seventh and eighth centuries were instrumental in transmitting traditions of and knowledge about episcopal rituals of public penance." (219)

Christina La Rocca and Luigi Provero ("The dead and their gifts. The will of Eberhard, count of Friuli, and his wife Gisela, daughter of Louis the Pious (863-864)", pp. 225-280) point out that the time between the end of the Roman empire in the West and the renaissance of Roman law in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries may have been a time without testaments according to Roman law but that there have survived several documentary forms of last wills also from the Early Middle Ages. The last will of the highly aristocratic couple Eberhard and Gisela constitutes a good example that such sources may not only be read as traditions of land and movables. Their aim was to shape the characteristics and political ambitions of the new family for the future. The decisions concerning the two lay and the two ecclesiastical sons and the daughters allowed them to attempt to 'predestine' the family. The care the couple took is particularly clear in their distribution of precious objects--the material evidence of public prestige and private virtues. These objects were heirlooms: they legitimized the future owners' social power while buttressing the concept of a dynastic patrimony that had to be passed from one generation to the next. (273) The written document formally descended from Roman models and practices of will-making, but the purposes and functions in a mid-ninth-century context were new.

Regine Le Jan ("Frankish giving of arms and rituals of power: continuity and change in the Carolingian period", pp. 281-309) first examines the importance of handing over the weapons of manhood for a warrior culture representing a ritual of investiture. The deposition of weapons in graves could also represent a new kind of investiture with power, this time in the hereafter. A similar dispossession was entailed by the entry into a monastery. This ceremony was often connected with placing the weapons on the altar. Le Jan sums up that the circulation of arms had always had tremendous symbolic significance; the sword and the sword- belt had become the symbols of a militia saecularis. (305)

Jos Bazelmans ("Beyond power. Ceremonial exchanges in Beowulf", pp. 311-375) tries to take up the discussion of Gefolgschaft on the basis of an anthropological analysis of the exchange of gifts in the Old English poem Beowulf. According to the famous study by Marcel Mauss (Essai sur le don, 1923) Gefolgschaft should not only be defined from e politico-economic perspective (Walter Schlesinger) but should also be interpreted in ritual-cosmological terms. (313) One result of his extensive study is that relationships within the socio-political arena cannot be understood separately from the relationships that transcend them in value, that is the relationships between people and supernatural entities. (pp. 368-369)

Heinrich Haerke ("The circulation of weapons in Anglo-Saxon society", pp. 377-399) continues the way begun by Regine Le Jan and Jan Bazelmans and scrutinizes the mechanisms by which weapons could regularly and repeatedly change their owners, thus establishing and maintaining cycles of giving, receiving and deposition. These mechanisms and procedures operated within a framework of social relations and rituals. They were: (1) the gift from lord to retainer (and between peers); (2) the gift from retainer to lord (including the heriot); (3) the heirloom; (4) the ritual deposition in graves and rivers. Haerke's study is based on Anglo-Saxon written texts such as Beowulf, the laws of king Cnut (issued between AD 1020 and 1023) and the will of Athelstan (dating from AD 1013 to 1015), but also on archaeological evidence. Weapons could circulate in society for a considerable time and sometimes had to be replaced by new ones.

At the end Haerke raises several interesting questions (pp. 395-396): can we, or do we need to, identify an underlying idea or principle which links all these mechanisms? If weapons, according to the testimony of graves and wills, only belonged to the male sphere, what, if anything, was circulating in the female sphere? How did that circulation of goods work in Late Roman times? Is the emphasis of weapons as gifts a post-Roman phenomenon, a consequence of social changes? And finally, did Christianity transform that circulation yet again, or was it affected and transformed itself by established patterns of gift-giving?

Frans Theuws's and Monica Alkemade's contribution ("A kind of mirror for men: sword depositions in Late Antique northern Gaul", pp. 401-476) is mainly an archaeological one. It is a first attempt to formulate ideas on the basis of a dataset, which may preserve the first modern archaeological synthesis of sword-finds from Late Antique and Early Medieval northern Gaul. In this way this study makes the preceding ones complete by providing archaeological evidence of ritual burials. Maybe an editorial intervention would have been useful: some remarks concerning the ritual of sword depositions are repeated several times, emerging nearly verbatim in the chapters by Le Jan, Bazelmans, Haerke and Theuws/Alkemade. But on the other hand these four contributions constitute a multi- dimensional whole, viewed from historical, philological, sociological and archaeological perspectives.

Janet L. Nelson ("Rituals of Power: by way of conclusion", pp. 477-486) again points out the importance of interdisciplinary and multi-dimensional approaches. Based on M. Mann's definition of societies as "constituted of multiple overlapping and intersecting [sociospacial] networks of power" she sums up that in all contributions the cultural construction of status and class would have been examined by identifying "the materials from which such constructs are made, and the historical processes behind such bricolage" (Claude Levi-Strauss). (478) Nelson herself admits that this book still contains some important lacunae (485): gender is, for example, an underplayed theme, but not totally absent, the coherence of power and place is another. Unfortunately the middle and central European regions are completely missing, so one additional contribution would have been very useful. On the other hand, all authors have concentrated on their own specialties, and this fact, indeed, constitutes a tremendous advantage.

The only slight criticism may concern the numerous printing errors. A more accurate correction of the proofs was necessary, e. g. read longue instead of longe (7, l. 2), process instead of proces (8, l. 2), values instead of vasues (17, l. 23), ceremonial instead of cemermonial (17, l. 24), Ostrogothic instead of OIstrogothic (98, l. 29), pollution instead of ollution (421, n. 44), perhaps instead of pergaps (481, l. 8), century instead of cnetury (481, l. 10), etc. Nevertheless we may eagerly expect the forthcoming volumes of the TRW series.