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13.06.11, Jaritz, ed. Ritual, Images, and Daily Life

13.06.11, Jaritz, ed. Ritual, Images, and Daily Life

The field of medieval ritual studies is inhabited by two distinct academic tribes. Among British historians, particularly perhaps in the country's more conservative institutions, "theory" is treated almost like a recreational drug. The cooler sort of historians will sometimes make use of it to widen their horizons, or at least admit in private to having experimented with it once in their wild youths, although far too many seem not to have inhaled. In their conference papers and academic publications, however, there will almost never be any explicit references to sociological and epistemological theory, much less any employment of these disciplines' technical vocabularies. On parts of the Continent and in North America, however, medievalists seem happy to engage with theoretical works in an unabashed manner that can seem almost perverse or unserious to those who have been socialised in the understated British way of doing interdisciplinary work. The differences in language between these tribes frequently result in misunderstandings as well as anger and conflict, as seen (among other places) here in the annals of The Medieval Review. This is a great shame for--as Staale Sinding-Larsen reminds us in a wonderful phrase in his concluding remarks--"factual case histories inform and inspire theory just as much as theory can provide guidance concerning them" (236, italics his).

The present volume, on the whole, belongs to the more explicitly theoretical branch of medieval ritual studies. The contributions centre on questions about objects of art, paintings, statues, buildings, and their roles in ritualised practices. The third theme highlighted in the title "daily life" seems less prominent, but is perhaps meant to signal the contributors' commendable interest in everyday ritualised behaviour as much as in grand ceremonial occasions. Thus while the anthology has a coherent, analytical core it also ranges widely in terms of the subject matter discussed by the individual contributors.

At one end stands Svetlana I. Luchitskaya's interesting essay on "Pictorial Sources, Coronation Ritual, and Daily Life in the Kingdom of Jerusalem." We do not hear much about daily life but the idea of integrating pictorial sources alongside the more commonly investigated legal and narrative sources for ceremonial occasions is very promising. One might wish she had had more space to unfold her analysis of the wealth of material she presents. Most of the essays, however, are focused on the later medieval and early modern periods. Pamela King uses Lacan and the 1984 Band Aid campaign to offer new perspectives on the English mystery plays. Commendably, King engages at the end of her paper with the argument that "this analytical approach to the imagined staging of medieval drama could be charged with being simply a detour to the obvious observation that scriptural plays are full of characters who act as audience surrogates." She answers such doubting Thomases by explaining that "the important difference is... that gaze theory offers a way of analysing how these plays may work at a fundamental perceptual level that precedes the cognitive" (203).

The article by Joan A. Holladay is perhaps the best example of what can be achieved through the anthology's triple focus on rituals, images and the everyday. It investigates the sculptures of the kings of France erected by Philip IV in his Grand Salle. Holladay discusses expertly the ways in which the hall and its statues may have been read variously at royal banquets, when serving as an antechamber for parliament or, finally, by the merchants doing business in the hall. The statues demonstrated the long line of Catholic predecessors of which Philip IV could boast, as well as reminding waiting parliamentarians of the antiquity of royal authority and merchants and their customers of the king's role as guarantor of the peace that allowed trade to flourish. Here ritual, art and everyday life can truly be felt to flow together.

To this reviewer, the essays were most convincing and useful when the theoretically-informed analysis progressed by way of exploring "native" medieval understandings of rituals and images. The exploration of medieval theories of ritual is of course most associated now with Philippe Buc's important intervention in ritual studies and it is disappointing that his work is only mentioned briefly in a footnote in Luchitskaya's article. Nevertheless, medieval ideas about images and ritual are addressed in several of the articles. The anthology opens with a long essay by Staale Sinding-Larsen on the "methodological distinction between system and system elaboration" exploring the Sistine Chapel and comparing it to other "pictorial programs" (4) such as in the Upper Church of San Francesco in Assisi. The essay is heavily influenced by theory but it is also concerned with showing how thoroughly the art of the Sistine Chapel was informed by contemporary Catholic doctrine. Inigo Bocken explores how the work of Jan van Eyck was informed by the devotio moderna and the idea that the believer/viewer must seek to "become the image of God himself" (95). Finbarr Barry Flood's paper, "From Icon to Coin: Potlatch, Piety, and Idolatry in Medieval Islam," is a highly illuminating study of the way in which Indian religious artefacts were exchanged within the Muslim world and sometimes melted down into coins to be distributed to the poor in Mecca. Flood not only draws on anthropological theories about the 'potlatch', the winning of symbolic capital through the destruction of valuables, but also situates the melting of idols in Islamic religious thinking: namely the belief that gold and silver was created to make commerce possible and that its use in useless objects of art was a sin.

Medievalists who do not suffer from allergic reactions to discussions of Lacan and a liberal use of jargon will find much in this anthology that is interesting and thought-provoking.