11.09.23, Hamilton, A Sacred City

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Maureen C. Miller

The Medieval Review 11.09.23

Hamilton, Louis I.. A Sacred City: Consecrating Churches and Reforming Society in Eleventh-Century Italy. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 272. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8026-5.

Reviewed by:
Maureen C. Miller
University of California, Berkeley

This study of church dedications in late eleventh- and early twelfth- century Italy considers them in relation to ecclesiastical reform and the emergence of the communes. Although bishops had been dedicating churches for centuries, Hamilton documents a new interest in recording and commenting upon these rituals in the second half of the eleventh century and an attempt by popes to use such occasions to promote reform and their own authority. This is an important finding, and the author makes some interesting, if often speculative, connections between the performance of this liturgy and the religious and political changes transforming northern and central Italy in this period. Although flawed in several aspects of its execution and argumentation, the monograph offers a positive model for medieval liturgical studies.

In chapter one Hamilton gives some limited historical background to dedications and then describes the rite for consecrating a church as it is recorded in Ordo XL of the late tenth-century Romano-Germanic Pontifical. Evoking the rich symbolic and sensory possibilities of the ritual, the author underscores its eschatological emphases (the church as the heavenly Jerusalem), its references to peace, and its assertion of priestly authority. Before and after this description, Hamilton acknowledges variation in the liturgy in the different manuscripts consulted, and the further epistemological problem that the existence of a manuscript in a locale is no guarantee that the rite was performed as recorded. He closes this chapter by narrating the changes in the ritual believed to have been initiated by Gregorian reformers and consolidated in the pontifical of the twelfth century. Three tables are appended. The first compares five versions of the rite in manuscripts from southern Italy. The second gives an alphabetical list of the antiphons included in the rite in the five manuscripts compared in table one. The third compares versions of the rite in two central Italian manuscripts to two of the versions from table one (the Roman pontifical of Desiderius and Ordo XL from the Romano-Germanic Pontifical).

Chapter two focuses on the crowd attending and participating in church dedications. Building on R. I. Moore's insight into the role that crowds played in the peace councils and reform struggles, Hamilton argues that the consecration of a new church was "among the religious and communal activities that fostered the development of the commune" (61). He first sets out evidence from fourteen dedications over the period 980-1116 that the throngs attending these liturgies could include a broad social spectrum, from the highest elites to the poor. What might the liturgy have meant to these participants? For the clergy attending and officiating, the dedication of a church had moral and allegorical meanings: church building was a religious duty, on the one hand, and the placement of relics within a structure prompted Peter Damian to see the mystery of the incarnation symbolized in the rite. Hamilton suggests that the spectacular liturgy was a moving aesthetic experience and, citing one healing at a dedication, that the gathered crowd may have expected miraculous occurrences. As to the formation of communal identity, the evidence Hamilton presents that the consecration of a new church became significant in collective memory is persuasive for religious communities, such as monasteries, but extremely weak for cities. The presence of individuals, such as boni homines, who may have been involved in civic governance and the addition of the date of the dedication as a feast in cathedral liturgical calendars does not convince this reviewer that the liturgy of church dedication "created, almost inadvertently, a kind of formation of the participant that lent itself to communal civic- mindedness" (78). This is just one example of a tendency throughout the book to over-interpret very limited evidence.

Chapters three through five explore clerical commentaries on the liturgy by the reformers Peter Damian, Anselm of Lucca, and Bruno of Segni. In a close analysis of Damian's sermon 72 on the dedication liturgy, Hamilton argues that this reform-era exegesis of the rite went considerably beyond the widely-disseminated Carolingian commentary Quid significant duodecim candelae even while it assumed a similar form. Rather than understanding the liturgy primarily in its moral sense as a lesson in the soul's progress toward God, Damian emphasized the mystical meaning of the consecrated church as signifying the conversion of the entire world and an ecclesiological meaning in which all members of "the true Church" were anointed as priests and kings. Hamilton sees a critique of contemporary elites in Damian's association of the exalted and the haughty with the walls of Jericho that crumble as the preachers of the holy church convert the world and in his emphasis on charity as the mortar the holds together the "living stones" of the church. At the same time, Damian underscored the importance of the priestly office in restoring the spiritual temple and realizing the true Christian community.

Chapter four argues persuasively that Anselm of Lucca's Collectio canonum invented a papal right to dedicate all churches, an assertion consonant with other Gregorian-era claims of expansive authority on behalf of the Holy See. The author also perceptively observes (129-30) that Anselm's articulation of several conditions that would be grounds for the re-consecration of a church potentially created many new opportunities for popes to exercise their newly defined "right." The second half of the chapter analyzes several specific cases of papal dedications of churches as assertions of papal authority, particularly effective being the author's narration of Urban II's journey to Clermont in 1094-6 and the number of churches dedicated on this papal itinerary. The fifth chapter considers Pascal II's dedications, arguing that their strategic performance amounts to a sort of "liturgical diplomacy." Hamilton also suggests a plausible re-dating of Bruno of Segni's De laudibus (from Grgoire's 1107-1111 to before 1100) and then offers a close reading of the work as a commentary on church dedication that strongly underscored apostolic authority. He then goes on to argue that the silence within Bruno's later De sacramentis regarding the papacy and petrine prerogatives is most consonant with a date after 1112 when the reformer's relationship with Pascal had cooled considerably.

As in this argument ex silentio and the attempt to link dedications to the formation of the commune, the author at several points moves from very slight evidence to rather robust conclusions. This is particularly true in his claims for the effect of the experience of the liturgy on individuals. While it is evident that the rite interested exegetes and theologians, and it is reasonable to suggest that the performance of the liturgy may have moved those who participated in it, to claim "that people were shaped by the rite" (6) is to go beyond what the sources warrant. Hamilton follows this particular assertion with things like "they hoped for cures or the miraculous," but many medieval people had these hopes without experiencing a dedication liturgy, and they may have "commemorated important events on the feast of the dedication" to economize on celebrations whether they had ever witnessed the liturgy or not.

Conceptual slippage is also a problem. While the author is more careful in close discussions within chapters, he tends to mix together incidents in concluding remarks and to make inflated or misleading claims. His treatment of violence is the best illustration. In two key examples--Bari, where there was real violence, and Modena, where there was a dispute--conflict occurred because of actions related to relics and violence did not take place during the dedication liturgy. This is clear in the author's narration of these events in chapters four and five. In the conclusion, however, Hamilton joins to such evidence disparate attacks on sacred spaces, such as the destruction of a chapel or altar, and then concludes that the violence of these "responses to the dedication" reflects the power of the rite (229), which he also characterized as "explosive" (228). We have three things here: evidence of powerful responses to ways of handling relics; violence directed at spaces and objects believed (at least by some) to be sacred; and a ritual that employed relics and claimed to create sacred space. Conflating them is not helpful, even if it makes the liturgy appear more significant, because it obscures other ways of understanding it. Both the examples of Bari and Modena, for example, offer opportunities to consider the performance of the liturgy as an attempt to heal the effects of violence and conflict rather than as an event generating or occasioning it.

More positively, the author fruitfully calls attention to how issues at stake in the rites for making bishops, such as consecration and control over property, were also at play in other liturgies, such as church dedications. This suggests the value of bringing the insights of ritual studies to our understanding of medieval liturgy. And this is the chief accomplishment of Hamilton's book. His approach is a sort of social and cultural history of a particular liturgy. Whereas the history of liturgy as written by liturgists tends to be tightly focused on changes in prayer forms and codicological developments without any reference to lived experience, Hamilton's history of the dedication rite seeks to understand why the liturgy surfaces into all kinds of texts--not only liturgical books, but also chronicles, Biblical exegesis, sermons, and tracts. Why was it suddenly worth mentioning and discussing? He uses these sources to explore how the liturgy may have been experienced in its social setting, understood in a particular cultural moment, and used in religious and political struggles. This is an approach that one can only hope others will undertake with other liturgies.

In fair warning to the reader excited by that methodological endorsement, it must be said that Hamilton's attempt to achieve an appreciation of liturgy in its historical context is dogged by poor writing. While the series in which the volume is published purports to address "the non-specialist reader," the author's historical overview of the dedication rite is too truncated to serve as adequate introduction to the textual evidence for the liturgy and his references to liturgical texts and manuscripts will confound anyone who has not already studied the subject. Beyond issues of audience, unclear referents abound, repetitious passages do too, and terms are oddly or imprecisely used. While some of these are simply annoying ("investment" instead of "investiture"), others obscure meaning. This is particularly the case in the author's use of "allegory" in trying to distinguish Damian's interpretation of the rite from that of the Carolingian tract Quid significant duodecim candelae. The latter was definitely allegorical too, so to write that "the exegesis of the rite of dedication shifted from its moral to its allegorical meaning" (91) does not capture or well communicate what really distinguishes the two commentaries. The reader has to struggle frequently to understand the author's point. But for those interested in medieval liturgy and eleventh-century reform, the effort expended will be rewarded with very interesting material and some stimulating observations on it.

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Author Biography

Maureen C. Miller

University of California, Berkeley