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22.09.03 Aurell, Medieval Self-Coronations

22.09.03 Aurell, Medieval Self-Coronations


Jaume Aurell is well known for undertaking difficult scholarly issues, documenting them if not exhaustively at least very extensively, and then offering a final, truly definitive, response to the issue. He did that with Authoring the Past (University of Chicago Press, 2012), and now he does it again with this book,Medieval Self-Coronations. Aurell asks and relentlessly responds to a constellation of questions, but there are two in particular that I would like to underscore: the first one is about the nature of the discontinuous collaboration between the Christian Church (with a few exceptions) and royal power; the second question is about the variety of forms of accession to royal power, and the place self-coronations occupy in such variety. Responding to those two questions implies examining what is the nature of ritual in itself, and also how to displace the vantage point from which we tend to look at political and legal aspects of medieval Christendom. In particular, Aurell demonstrates very convincingly that self-coronations are not necessarily the kind of transgressive ritual that some very specific ones (including Carolingian rituals, or the self-coronations of Roger of Sicily and Frederick Hohenstaufen) represented in their specific moments of inscription or in their historical occurrences, and that only a decentralized, longue-durée, contextual, and theoretically sophisticated look at rituals of royal access can explain with detail the complexities of coronation and--correlatively--self-coronation. The center of the argument is also the change of focus of Christian Europe from France, Germany, or even England, to Iberia, and the examination of the self-coronations of Alfonso XI of Castile, Peter IV the Ceremonious of Aragon, and Charles III of Navarre.

Medieval Self-Coronations is not only a thesis or an argument, it is also a spectacular deployment and showcase of deep research. Aurell has reviewed all the available bibliography in an uncanny array of languages, and has not left any stone unturned. It is a book that demonstrates years of labor and a willingness to ask a question and reply to it in a definitive manner. This is particularly compelling if one considers that “medieval” in the title, refers, indeed to the central interests of the researcher, but by no means to the very longue durée of the project, which covers a period ranging from Ancient Egypt to the coronation of the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

The book, however, does not work under the logic of accumulation, despite the awesome scholarly task that can be measured in the generosity with which the author cites and comments on the scholars with whom he is in dialogue, and the abundance and precision of notes that frequently continue the discussion initiated in the body of the text. This prodigious familiarity with an extended field of research across a vraiement-très-longue-durée-quand-même is not intimidating, but rather inspiring: a generous thinker, Aurell presents with detail how he has created his own ideas, and to what extent the scholars with whom he thinks along are providing him with data, vocabularies, conceptual maps, questions, and epistemological and heuristic issues. Aurell manages to include the anthropology of the ritual (its moving parts as well as the very political theology of ritual in itself), the emotional response to ritual performance, the complexity of the vocabularies from texts, and movements from iconographic material, the creation of new truths in the process of completing the ritual, and the relationship of the ritual and its manifestations with the context. All those elements, carefully crafted in Aurell’s book, are the result of this generous, long reading. The readers of this book will find themselves in a labyrinth that would have no issue unless one would have trusted Aurell. He is a trustworthy guide and creator.

By far, the most interesting part of the book is of a theoretical and methodological character, and, for this reviewer, this is what makes this contribution fundamental not only for those who work on royal accessions, but also for those who may not have that particular interest and yet find themselves perplexed on how to establish a fruitful dialogue with contemporary disciplines (including, above all, anthropology) while finessing historiographical problems. The latter includes analyzing the possible disconnection between the events and the moment of inscription of the documents that convey those events--which include written, iconographical, and other material sources. Aurell enters in direct conversation with Philippe Buc’s Dangereux Rituel and the constellation of articles around this book. In order to consider the anthropology of royal accessions, the latter needs to be observed as part of a context that the ritual itself transforms, rather than reflects, with symbols and dramatic effects that both create an emotional response at an oretic level, and a new regime of truth, at analethurgical level, by means of its performative value--as rituals are actions that rely on their effects on society and politics.

The book is divided into twelve chapters that deal with the role of the ritual of self-coronation and affine rituals within the rituals of royal accession that include, among other movements and ceremonies, coronation itself. Because the main question is whether self-coronations are or aren’t in line with royal accession rituals, and whether they are or aren’t transgressive in any way. And if they are, indeed, transgressive, what kinds of transgression they represent? Because it is not the same to perform independence--and independence from what?--and to perform what Aurell qualifies as opprobrium, especially when speaking about Roger II of Sicily and the Hierosolimitan ceremony of self-coronation by Frederick II. But in this latter case, the self-coronation, whether it brought opprobrium or not, was, as Aurell mentions, a performance of “calculated provocation” (216). The book strives to understand those emotional reactions (independence, opprobrium, provocation, even pride) and how they create specific regimes of truth that matter in the economy of political power and jurisdictional activity of the kings involved in those rituals.

To answer those questions, these twelve chapters explain in detail not just the rituals he has chosen in history, as I said, from Ancient Egypt to the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before the Iranian revolution of 1979, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how those rituals engage political and theological (and even politico-theological) forces that establish specific balances of power between sacred representatives (clerics) and political dignitaries (kings, in the case). The performance (the ritual itself) and the performativity (what it actually does), is a central difference that Aurell makes in his book, and both engage with the central question of who are the intended and actual audiences of those rituals, from the stadiums to the temples, from the hieroglyphs to the book manuscripts, from the book manuscripts to the images in churches (like la Martorana in Palermo), from documents to seals, coins, sculptures: as Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak put it in her groundbreaking work on documents and material culture as sites of mediality, this performance/performativity could be understood as the intimate interconnection between imago and ego. To what extent what Aurell calls “process of liturgification” (145) in some specific (and favored by European, western historiography) rituals marks forever the political-theological character of the ritual of access to the crown? What are the manifestations of this liturgification in other religious and cultural spaces, both previous to the Carolingian world (for instance, the Byzantine long history of rituals), as well as after the Carolingian world has in a certain way put its trace in how historiography conceives politics in the Middle Ages? I would like to call the attention of the reader not to explain what the book contains--which absolutely no review can properly convey--but rather what is the theoretical and historiographical challenge that this book represents and solves. I see this book as both a contribution (the definitive one, perhaps) to the question of self-coronation, as well as a contribution to the field of theory of history.

Chapters 9 to 11, which are ordered under the third part of the book, called “Convention”, and that cover pages 221 to 301 are, in my view (and also in Aurell’s) the apotheosis of his contribution. Those chapters cover three Iberian kings. The self-coronation of Alfonso XI of Castile, for which he also explains the origins of the elements constituting the ritual and their historical and politico-theological characteristics. In the case of Alfonso XI, I find missing elements, including the importance of the Mocedades de Rodrigo text on self-investiture, and, of course, the role of other political actors--those involved in the minority of Alfonso XI--to politically consolidate this, if not transgressive, clearly non conventional ceremony. Chapter 9 covers the self-coronation of Peter IV of Aragon, not by chance called el ceremoniós, or the ceremonious one. The final chapter--before the conclusion--covers the self-coronation of Charles III of Navarre in relation with the legal particularities of the kingdom of Navarre, that also have a very longue durée, as Navarre has been historically torn between Spain and France. In these three chapters, and the conclusion, Aurell’s voice sounds more powerful. In the previous chapters, Aurell, as I said, summons up decades of research to be in conversation with those who produced it and their work, because he is painstakingly building his own conceptual map, and making sure it is based on the most solid of foundations. But these three chapters are a monument of how strong those foundations are, and to what extent now, with elegance and clarity of ideas, can he present his arguments that re-center Iberia--or, at least, a Christian part of much more complex Iberia--as an apt vantage point to analyze political-theologies in the Christian West. And this is commendable: Christian Iberian self-coronations of the fourteenth century demonstrate their own construction of their ritual, liturgy, emotional performance, and alethurgical potentiality, while, at the same time, deviate from those in order to create new conventions that are not seen as transgressions per se, but rather as specific theses of jurisdictional power (and I am including here the notion of jurisdiction, which Aurell does not).

I would ask a question to the author, to Jaume Aurell: why so many thousands of years, so many cultures, so many languages, and yet--somehow--not ask the question of how Muslim potentates or kings accessed to royal power in the 12th-14th centuries in and around al-Andalus? The Catalan Atlas is filled with crowned Muslim kings, and they are probably an orientalist fantasy, but--how do we know that? How did, for instance, Saladin access to the Egyptian sultanate in 1174, or to any other of his dignities? How did Andalusi dignitaries of all sorts accessed power? How did the Nasrid kings of Granada accessed or were proclaimed to the sultanate in the first half of the 14th century? For instance, Yusuf I, whose minority resembles so much that of some of the late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century Castilian kings, and the role of his mother to the role played by María de Molina (also absent from this book, along with Don Juan Manuel); is there anything we need to know and that can be found there? Did any of those entered in contact with this truly longue durée of royal accession? I think that in order to re-center Iberia and address the question of the self-coronation throughout history and cultures one needs at least to say something about this, or, maybe, explicitly explain why this is outside the purview of such a wonderful book. In the same vein Aurell studied Egyptians and Sassanids, he should have at least posited the question of royal accession and political theologies in the Muslim Iberian and North-African world coetaneous to the one the author is analyzing.

But this was perhaps a question for a different book, maybe one in which Jaume Aurell suggests, once again, new approaches to an oft-treated matter in need of profound evaluation. This book is an excellent one, and its place in the world is not just necessary for those interested in royal access to power, but also to the anthropological and theoretical aspects of how medieval sources deal with ritual, with the creation of emotional atmospheres, and how they build a regime of truth.