16.10.10, Jezierski, et al., eds., Rituals, Performatives, and Political Order in Northern Europe, c. 650–1350

Main Article Content

Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld

The Medieval Review 16.10.10

Jezierski, Wojtek, Lars Hermanson, Hans Jacob Orning, and Thomas Småberg, eds. Rituals, Performatives, and Political Order in Northern Europe, c. 650–1350 . Ritus et Artes, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xiv, 366. ISBN: 978-2-503-55472-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld
Tilburg University, The Netherlands

It is a fortunate undertaking that ten historians and archaeologists from universities in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, and Scotland have joined forces in bringing the study of medieval political and social rituals to the world of medieval Scandinavia, spanning the Roman Iron Age to the late Middle Ages. At the same time, they are reviving and rejuvenating this fruitful field of research, which seems to have experienced its heyday around the turn of the last millennium. This volume brings together eight long articles (between 25 and 35 pages each) as well as a comprehensive introduction by one of the editors and two more general, theoretical studies by the godfathers of the study of ritual, the American Geoffrey Koziol and the German Gerd Althoff.

The articles steer away from the debate over whether or not structuralist or functionalist approaches of medieval rituals yield the most relevant interpretations. To counter some of the criticism expressed by Philippe Buc in his controversial yet inspiring book The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton and Oxford 2001), the authors do not assume that rituals were a purely rational, formalist affair but investigate how rituals served as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves.

The explicit aim of the volume is to show the importance of ritual and performance in creating and maintaining political order. The authors all provide a close reading of historical or archaeological sources, using the conceptual tools as laid out in the introduction and focussing on political meetings and feasts. In doing so, they make a successful attempt at applying comparative European perspectives to Nordic society.

Nordic political culture, so Lars Hermanson in his excellent introduction (1-40), is characterized by face-to-face relationships in which rituals were used as "rational techniques" (2) which were not simply representative or to express or symbolize power, but were performative: they were meant to negotiate and regulate power-relationships. Rituals and performances were used as instruments in the process of power construction rather than power stability. This "performative approach' entails that rituals are seen as 'an integrated and natural part of medieval politics" (3). Hermanson further elaborates on the key concepts performative power, variability, and transformation, underlining the dynamic approach advocated here.

The volume then proceeds by setting out in two contributions the theoretical and methodological framework. First, Koziol, (43-61), distinguishes between "performance," which as a broad term resists precise definition, and "performative" which he reserves for performances being part of "a specific set of social and political strategies" (48) or which can be seen as "an accomplishing," as "a type of speech act" (49). He applies this to the use of a specific charter, used as a "key 'prop' in the performances' choreography" (45), namely the pseudo-diploma allegedly issued by the "renegade king" Boso, former brother-in-law to Charles the Bald, for Saint-Philibert of Tournus in 879. By interpreting its performativity, he shows how the charter's issuance "performed" an agreement between opposing parties in the power struggle after the death of Charles's son Louis the Stammerer.

As the leading advocate of ritual studies, Althoff here (63-75) again highlights his well-known opinion about "the importance of ritualized behaviour for the maintenance of order" being "paramount" (65). He elaborates on the rituals' intrinsic ambiguity, which might make them look "weak" in our eyes. Yet, their strength "seems to have been their ability to facilitate and speed up general solutions and decisions" (75).

Part II of this volume, on "Ritual Spatialization in Early Medieval Scandinavia," deals with public gatherings in pre-Christian Scandinavian society and contains two articles. Alexandra Sanmark provides a detailed analysis of the rituals enacted at the assembly sites of Anundshög and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, using both archaeological evidence and written sources (chronicles, sagas, provincial laws, and charters) from the Roman Iron Age to the late Middle Ages (79-112). These assemblies served both a legal and a religious purpose. The spaces analysed served as thing sites, burial places, and elite monuments. The assembly rituals discussed "can be considered to be performative and to lead to the production of sacred space and collective memory', first of all as a 'bodily phenomenon, transmitted through sensory experiences" (111).

Sacred space is also at the heart of Olof Sundqvists's contribution (113-135) which delves into the protectors or custodians of sacred spaces, who used their custody to gain legitimacy and power in pre-Christian Norway and Iceland between c. 800 and 1000. He analyses written sources, including skaldic poems and genealogies, and shows how pagan chieftains or "kings" in Viking Age Norway and Iceland were "regarded as both...religious and political leader[s]" (135). They were the ones to consecrate cultic sites, to define ritual restrictions, and to supervise these. As a good custodian the political leader could show his good relationship to the mythical world. Later, after the introduction of Christianity, the bishop would take over these ritual roles to some degree as they were the ones who consecrated the new sacred sites, the churches.

Under the nice heading "Feasts, Fists, and Festivals," the remaining seven articles in Part III deal with the often contradictory and ambivalent aspects of conviviality and violence inherent in medieval hospitality and celebration. In his well-structured contribution, Wojtek Jezierski performs a close reading of Helmold of Bosau's twelfth-century accounts of Slavic hospitality, which he labels as "hostipitality," borrowing a concept from Derrida (139-173). As hospitality is a major theme in the Chronica Slavorum by Helmold and Arnold of Lübeck, Jezierski investigates episodes highlighting meals and festivities. He hypothesizes that the authors' exposure to "hospitality in a hostile territory equipped them with a particular intellectual sensitivity" (142). He comes to several models of hospitality, which he refers to by using both movie titles (such as Naked Lunch and La Grande Bouffe) and the categories ethnic, strategic, and metaphorical hospitality. He sees "ambivalence...less (as) a part of ritual behaviour, and more simply (as) an element of its perception" (169). He concludes that the both consensual and contentious instances of rituals of hospitality and common meals in the Chronica Slavorum were deliberately used to establish a hegemonic position (171).

Feasts as rituals of power and integration are the focus of the contribution by Hans Jacob Orning (175-207). Another example of striking a good balance between a conceptual and an empirical approach, this article positions the feast as "the most important socio-political arena in a society with hardly any formal institutions" (176). The main primary sources here are the two kings' sagas written by Icelanders during the first years of King Håkon's reign (1217-1263), which ended a phase of prolonged civil wars. Both sagas present a characteristic "image of the political culture in Old Norse society prior to the emergence of more effective central powers" (179). Orning states that harmonious feasts "were probably the rule rather than the exception" (179). A drinking party was so powerful because of its "sheer duration" and because the "consumption of a common beverage joined the participants in a common cause" (182-183). Involving vows, toasts, commemorations, and gift-giving, feasts promoted loyalty and bonding. Despite the civilizing and often depreciative terms with which later authors viewed "pagan" feasting this continued to be of socio-political importance after the introduction of Christianity well into modern times.

Another feast is central to the contribution by Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, namely the wedding at Flugumýri (Iceland) in 1252, at which an important alliance was struck between local chieftains and which served as an important prelude to the pacification of the Icelanders by the Norwegians (209-235). After a detailed account of the wedding and the negotiations leading up to it, Sigurðsson goes into the invitation procedure and choice of the venue, the seating order, the drinking and entertainment, and the farewell gifts, showing how the wedding was a "staged political manifestation" (233). It was not "a hazardous game but...an effective way of maintaining and strengthening ties between friends and of creating peace" (235).

Next, Kim Esmark too adopts a "performance-oriented approach" to ritual, geared toward the "problems of process, strategy, contention, variability, ambiguity, (and) struggles over interpretation" (237-267, here 237). While reading Saxo's Gesta Danorum he investigates "how political actors in the political struggles of twelfth-century Denmark used and perceived ritualized behaviour and symbolic communication," and "how Saxo...employed accounts of such behaviour in his narrative" (239). He observes that "[f]ar from being idle expressions of consensus and order, ritualization practices were usually played out in contexts of conflict and antagonism" (266). Saxo portrayed a political culture thriving on "bad faith," something actors, audiences and observers, and authors narrating ritual events were not only aware of but also manipulated to their own advantage. Yet, an idea or ideal of "just rituals" existed and indeed was necessary for any officializing effect, just as the "political use of gifts presupposed a...notion of pure, disinterested gift-giving" (266).

We return to feasts in Lars Kjær's article, which focuses on "the ways in which the more powerful kings of twelfth to fourteenth-century Scandinavia, but especially Denmark" (269) employed the traditional feasting and communal drinking and particularly the writing about feasting in the communication of royal power (269-294). In doing so, he takes on board Buc's warning that historians in studying their sources should pay more attention to the textuality and the ways in which medieval authors constructed their narratives. Kjær then analyses the descriptions of feasts celebrated by successive Danish kings, including "feasts that went wrong," involving violence and murder. By situating events of betrayal in the context of feasts, the "locus of consensus par excellence" (so Buc, 293), the authors were able to portray the betrayed protagonists as filling "the role of Christ' and their opponents 'as followers of...Judas" (293-294). Their stories 'shone holy light on the king' and his loyal retainers, and so provided "an authoritative model' to read the royal feast 'as a sacred community gathered around a quasi-holy benefactor" (294).

Thomas Småberg discusses the role of feasts as a means to construct and legitimize, but also to challenge power within the contentious politics of early fourteenth-century Norway and Sweden (295-320). Feasts during weddings, coronations, court meetings are here placed within courtly culture and courtly literature. Småberg's main source is Erik's Chronicle, whose protagonist is Duke Erik Magnusson, son-in-law to King Håkon Magnusson (1299-1319) and Queen Eufemia. Here too, the narrative, being written in formalized language, in itself was a legitimizing tool and "almost a performative act in itself" (319). The chronicle portrays Erik "on multiple occasions as courtly mannered, beautiful, and generous' and uses the feasts he organized 'for image construction relating to courtly ideals and power" (320).

Guilds as "one of the oldest, most cohesive, and most universal of the various forms of medieval community" (so Susan Reynolds, 321) were obviously a favourite venue for communal rituals and lavish feasting. Håkon Haugland investigates the political dimension of the annually held gatherings, called the gildedrikk in late medieval Scandinavia (321-357). He analyses the different elements of the gildedrikk in preserved guild statutes from thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century Norway and Denmark and discusses their wider political context. They key ritual element was "togetherness," first of all during collective prayers and Mass. The gildedrikk, as other feasts, served "to create, maintain, and strengthen the social bonds of ritual kinship and peace between the members" and to establish "an arena from which hostility was banned" (355). As such, the gildedrikk ritual had a political dimension on the local or regional level and "contributed to peace keeping and conflict resolution in society at large" (356).

This is a volume of well-edited and highly integrated studies exploring new dimensions of and perspectives on rituals as instruments of creating and maintaining political and social order. In general, the authors' choice of concepts works extremely well to investigate the honour-based societies of the Nordic countries, with their predominantly horizontally organized political structures, lacking effective central powers. In contrast to the Western European "Frankish" model, in which power relations almost always entailed a clear hierarchic model, with a king anointed by bishops, crowned by the Pope, or otherwise legitimized as the sole ruler by the Church, the pre- and early-Christian Scandinavian world offers a different picture. As such, it makes us aware that the "top-down" approach adopted in most historiography on medieval Western Europe should be problematized even more. Also, the neat balance most authors are able to strike between a conceptual and an empirical approach is to be applauded. It is a pity that in such a coherent volume as this, the editors did not opt for a joint bibliography, which might have provided the reader with a state-of-the-art introduction into the theme. Also, some maps would have helped the reader unfamiliar with the Nordic world.

In sum, the volume is exemplary and to be recommended to anyone interested in ritual studies, the scholarly impact of the performative turn, and in Nordic and medieval political history in general.

Article Details