Seminary III (Alfred, medieval ritual and stuff)

King Alfred, from a manuscript at the British Library
After the sudden flood of commentary and networking that ensued from the last of these posts I almost hesitate to report on this week’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the IHR, especially since it was ninth-century not tenth-century. But, let’s face it, only almost.

This week it was Dr David Pratt, of Cambridge, speaking about (and very effectively summarising) his new book on Alfred’s political thought. It was very interesting, and he developed a very strong case for Alfred’s personal direction of the cultural renewal in ninth-century England as a practical exercise intended to bring economic and therefore fiscal recovery through sound and pious administration. Alex Burghart justly raised the possibility that the king was rather a vehicle for his various churchmen to funnel their own ideas for the realm through, but as Dr Pratt pointed out, the massively multicultural group behind Alfred’s works seems to have spoken with a dialectically West Saxon voice, which is at least suggestive even if the matter can’t be resolved.

Gerd Althoff’s Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter

All the same, that wasn’t the bit that really interested me. Because I work on charters, mostly, which as I’ve said elsewhere we have to accept involve a certain amount of ceremonial in their use, I am unwillingly involved in this lengthy debate over how much social ritual usages confined actual social practice that Gerd Althoff, Philippe Buc and now Geoffrey Koziol have been having for the last decade or more.1 Pratt was arguing strongly in the paper that Alfred’s use of the written word was performative, that he read texts out at court and thus made physical the process of the royal giving of wisdom and Scripture, and that by sending books in which his thoughts and interpretations had been added to such texts, disseminated this performance across the kingdoms under his rule. Someone then asked whether ‘ritual’ wasn’t a better word than ‘theatrical’, which was the word he had used, and Pratt wisely said that there was little or no private space in that political environment: everything has an audience. Eating, sleeping, yawning, giving justice but also clipping one’s nails or whatever, is all done on a public stage, so everything is performed. Only some of this qualifies as ritual, and Pratt argued that an awful lot of it, especially as played out by Alfred, was more or less original and spontaneous.

Now this is the escape route from Buc and Althoff. Not everything can be ritual (even in Louis XIV’s court, for heavens’ sake, although I do remember with some misgivings Notker’s account of the working of the court of Charlemagne through the ranks for the sittings at dinner)2, so when we admit that some of it isn’t, we may have a chance of rolling back that which has been taken to be ritualistic and preset until the people whom we study, whom we know had their own ways of doing things (even before the supposed Discovery of the Individual, another one of the myths that dissolve when you add the years with three digits to it), get their initiative back and so we can start to talk once more about why they did what they did and what it achieved.

1. The key works being G. Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter. Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997); P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton 2001); & G. Koziol, “The Dangers of Polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388. Broadly, Althoff argues that medieval politics have to be understood as rituals that needed to be properly played out according to `the rules of the game’, so that the participants’ options were limited. Buc argues that this may well be the case but that our sources are part of those rituals and generated by participants so that we can’t really know, well, anything very much. Koziol mainly just argues :-) And, for what it’s worth, I argue (and am not the first: I think I got it from Matthew Innes) that rules were, if not made to be broken, at least broken or ignored when it seemed useful or warranted by the `players’, or, in other words, like Harrison Ford in Star Wars, these actors could write their own parts even when someone else decided on the play.

2. Hans E. Haefele (ed.), Notkeri Balbuli Gesta Karoli Magni Imperatoris, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) Nova Series Tomus XII (Berlin 1959), online through the portal of the Digital Monumenta Germaniae Historica, cap. 11.

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3 responses to “Seminary III (Alfred, medieval ritual and stuff)

  1. *burns with envy* This is another of those times when I really hadn’t let a big chunk of my career slip away.

  2. Though I see I’m reading this post rather late (!) I find it very pertinent. Especially given your musings on Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, which I have also just been reading.

    I’m working on some C13 bureaucratic letters at the moment, and finding lots of evidence for them *not* being nuts ‘n’ bolts communicative instruments, but something much more complicated involving ‘performance’ (in both the mundane and theatrical senses) and rhetoric (in the sense of being carefully worded to achieve an end, rather than – necessarily – the sense of the Trivium). But (for now anyway) I can’t come out and declare them vehicles for or products of ritual focus, like Bedos-Rezak’s charters, so your point here that “not everything can be ritual” is a juicy one for me to be going on with.

    Hmmm. Clearly I have some more thinking to do around these issues… And at this rate I may have to acknowledge, if not cite, this blog in my next thesis… Thanks Jonathan!

  3. Well, I suppose that one certainly could see bureaucratic process as ritual, even now, and the whole ceremony of the accounting at the Exchequer described in the Dialogus de Scacarrio (if I’ve spelt that right) would be a really good example. I suppose there’s mileage for some scholar somewhere to draw that out and insist how efficiency was not the primary concern next to performance that displayed the operations of the office as being sufficient, specialist and slightly mysterious, implication being you need these salaried specialists to run your kingdom properly… I think performance might be a more powerful concept than ritual there, but I can conceive of an analysis where the ritual itself is the construction and may have effects other than what the performance was originally designed for… All the same, this isn’t work I’d personally want to do. There is that difference, though, between what some performance, or rhetoric (rhetoric is a performance, discuss, etc.) is designed to achieve and the function it comes to actually have, especially if it runs for a long time. The Changing of the Guard at royal palaces nowadays for example: originally designed to show off the quality and discipline of those protecting the sovereign, now though almost unchanged primarily communicating “we are old enough and have been in power long enough to have silly-looking rituals hallowed by decades, nay, centuries, of practice”…

    As for citation, I’ll be quite amused to received my first citation in print, be it for this or my actual published work, but I do wonder if I’ll necessarily know until someone brings it up against me…

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