09.09.01, Rivard, Blessing the World

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Kathleen Kamerick

The Medieval Review 09.09.01

Rivard, Derek A.. Blessing the World: Ritual and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 332. ISBN: 978-0-8132-1545-7.

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Kamerick
University of Iowa

In the High Middle Ages special blessings were elaborated for an astonishing array of people, places, objects and events. Blessings sought divine protection for travelers, created sacred spaces in a profane world, aimed to heal the sick and purify what had been polluted. Knights and pilgrims, houses and gardens and cemeteries, fishing nets and wells, all received benedictions as a means to infuse the quotidian world with sacred power. Blessing the World analyzes the texts of dozens of these blessings in order to explore how medieval Christians conceived of God, the cosmos, and their own place within sacred history. This textual focus is the book's strength, and the author provides English translations of blessings from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, including the original Latin in footnotes, thereby making available to readers a rich source of these materials.

Rivard argues that despite their clerical authorship, blessings reflected and were shaped by their audiences so should be regarded as a source for understanding "medieval popular piety" and its connections to the medieval church's liturgy and ritual (7). These texts also trace the "process of negotiation" between medieval Christians and the divine that Rivard sees as a defining characteristic of popular piety, with humans propitiating the sacred to transfer an "efficacious quality" to a being, place, or object in return for veneration (7).

Magic's relation to ritual blessings forms an important sub-theme throughout the book, often elaborated in the footnotes. Rivard sees in blessings the "influence of magical thinking" as they, like incantations, were means to tap into sacred power for the service of human needs (11). He notes, for example, the similarity between certain magic texts and a 1451 blessing of water that recalls how water was turned into wine at Cana. Like many charms, this blessing "reminds" an element of its nature and its duty to serve humankind. Christian blessings for curing were likewise similar to magical practices that made use of relics and holy texts. Rivard's examples help to pinpoint why the theological distinction between blessing and charm was never clear to, or accepted by, many laypeople, despite the clergy's ongoing and fierce opposition to such magic throughout the Middle Ages.

Chapter One traces "The History and Theology of Christian Blessing," beginning with its origins in ancient Israel where only a few men had the authority to call for blessings from Yahweh on the community, and briefly discussing blessings in the New Testament and the early Christian era before turning to the Middle Ages. Early medieval sacramentaries contained a variety of blessings--for houses, trees, against disease, for peace--and by the eighth century the Frankish-Gelasian sacramentary included nonsacramental blessings with a "significant apotropaic element" that Rivard speculates arose from a substitution of "Christian magic" for the protections offered by old Germanic religions (32-3). Blessings from these sacramentaries moved into the pontificals and benedictionals of the tenth to thirteenth centuries on which Rivard draws most heavily, although both earlier and later blessings are included at points, and the predominantly Franco-Roman texts are supplemented by Insular and Iberian sources. The thirteenth-century pontifical of William Durandus, Bishop of Mende, receives attention as an influential work intended for use throughout the Christian world which preserved many blessings that other pontificals discarded. Citing evidence from Gregory of Tours and later historical sources, Rivard argues that laypeople felt a strong need for blessings, regarding them as means to control their world through tapping into divine power. Even when theologians established the special origins and status of the seven sacraments, causing benedictions to fall to the ranks of sacramentals, they remained immensely popular.

Chapter Two, "Sacred Places and Sacred Space," analyzes a representative selection of rituals related to agriculture, homes, work places, and worship and burial locations. The heart of this chapter, and the subsequent ones, lies in Rivard's careful analysis of each benediction's language, scriptural references, implicit theology, and directions to the participants. These blessings intended to create sacred spaces where human beings might experience both "visible and hidden reality" (45); in fact, the very act of blessing opened the path connecting the "numinous and visible" worlds (66). Four elements are common to blessings of space, and appear repeatedly in other benedictions as well: a view of God as a multifaceted and adaptable divinity who takes on diverse roles--cultivator, household defender, and many others; an emphasis on the belief that the bodies, animals, and all of the natural world are deeply connected to sacred power; an intense concern over pollution of sacred space by violence or other means; and an understanding of the human community's relation to God as contractual.

The last point forms the foundation for understanding the medieval laity's notion of the sacred: they solicited God's help through blessings because of their anxiety that his benevolence could not be counted on. Scriptural citations embedded in blessings remind God of his past good deeds and also link the ritual to past events and people in sacred history. So, for instance, one benediction first recalls that God helped Moses to rid Egypt of locusts, then entreats him to destroy "locusts and other noxious animals" threatening the harvests (70-1). In return for divine aid the ritual participants offer gratitude, praise and worship to God; the ritual blessing thus creates balance, with each side giving and receiving from the other.

Chapter Three, "Sacred Persons: Blessing the Laity," examines benedictions for the seemingly mixed bag of pilgrims, crusaders, and knights as groups distinguished by high medieval rituals, as well as healing blessings for people afflicted by illness and women in childbirth. Rivard bypasses baptism, marriage and death rituals, focusing instead on nonsacramental blessings as those that can allow us to "understand what medieval piety sought from God" (135). These blessings share a search for protection from physical danger, and many invoke specific saints as God's agents. Rivard defines the "fundamental nature" of the pilgrim blessings through anthropological concepts; the blessing initiates the segregation of the pilgrims from their immediate society and their formation of communitas , for example, and leads them into a liminal state between the sacred and profane worlds (136). Yet historical forces also shaped these rites. The texts reveal an increasing emphasis on pilgrimage as a penitential journey undertaken for moral reformation, and new rites evolved for blessing the accessories of the spiritual traveler--clothes, staff, and wallet--marking the special status of the pilgrim.

Blessings for warriors and their swords, armor, and battle standards also changed over time, responding to the clergy's efforts to spiritualize the knightly profession in the High Middle Ages, as well as the laity's desire "to experience holiness" (175). The rituals aimed to create pious fighters, providing a "consecrated position" for them as defenders of Christianity (161). So, for example, one rite for blessing a sword links the knight to sacred history by comparing him to Old Testament heroes like David and Judith; another lays out the knight's duty to use the sword both to protect churches and all servants of God and to strike fear into the wicked.

The most numerous of the blessings seeking physical protection were likely those for healing, which often point to the demonic origins of illness and were those most akin to magical formulas. Such rituals addressed a wide range of conditions, from fevers and eye ailments to female sterility, male impotence, and pregnancy. God's roles, ever changeable, here shift to physician and midwife. As Rivard notes, these blessings invoke specific saints for healing, and often call on the heavenly bodies and the elements, even the "hinges of the world" to prevent or banish physical torment (193). While the created universe was a potential source of corruption, it could also be a "font of holy power" (215).

Chapter Four surveys extraliturgical blessings of objects and events important to the laity, including items linked to the dangerous sea like ships and nets, things related to everyday consumption that were vulnerable to pollution such as wells and dishes, and most interestingly, ordeals and trials. Blessing rituals for ordeals and judicial duels invoked God as the ultimate judge who would reveal truth through such materials as iron, frigid or hot water, and even bread and cheese. The latter worked by asking God to prohibit the food from remaining in a thief's mouth, making him instead "vomit it forth" (266). Rivard argues that clerical authors legitimized ordeals by inserting into benedictions references to scriptural precedents for God's interventions on behalf of the righteous, and he asserts that this "pressures" God to repeat his past behavior (249), a reading that seems to attribute to blessings a more coercive power than is suggested by the notion of a contract between believers and divinity.

The Conclusion emphasizes that blessings necessarily changed over time as they reflected the beliefs, fears, and needs of the laity. Rivard argues that the laity's more "personalized religion" in the High Middle Ages led to rituals increasingly concerned with individual spirituality, and which affirmed the potential goodness of the natural world and social realities like marriage (278). Yet he acknowledges that the clergy's role in producing these blessings cannot be ignored. Whose views, then, do the blessings represent? Earlier chapters present the clergy as actively using blessings to shape the laity's relations to the Christian Church. Yet Rivard makes a strong case for reading many, if not all, the blessings as keys to medieval laypeople's views of the supernatural and their spiritual aspirations. In doing so, he provides solid evidence for their attempts to secure an unpredictable God's power to charge, transform, and give meaning to their visible and material world.

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Author Biography

Kathleen Kamerick

University of Iowa