Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England

After some weeks of having to miss it, I made a special effort to get to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 2nd March because my occasional collaborator and general knowledge machine Levi Roach was speaking, with the title “Stating the Obvious? Ritual, Assemblies and the Anglo-Saxon State, 871-978″. The general outlines of this have already been described, excellently as always, by Magistra et Mater so if you haven’t seen that yet, go and look – I’ll wait, it’s fine – and then we’ll haggle over some details. If you don’t want to read that for some perverse reason, well, in very brief form this was an attempt to apply the substantial German (and US) scholarship on ritual as a feature of early medieval German kingship and statecraft to Anglo-Saxon England. This has been done before, as Magistra points out, but Levi took us on a slightly different voyage through the evidence for substantially choreographed assemblies, especially coronations, with ritualised elements like receptions of attendees, dinners to which certain people only were invited,1, handing over of regalia and of course the use of unction with holy oil like a priest and general near-deification of the king. It doesn’t even have to be the king: that Bishop Æthelwold mentioned last post is also on record in his Vita, also mentioned there, as settling disputes between noblemen after they commend themselves unto him for a settlement, doing something very like homage to the holy man by way of submission to his judgement. Chris Lewis, whose questions are always interesting, asked if we might not want to think of such rituals even unfolding at household level (an example might be carrying the bride over the threshold, or showing the sheets I suppose, I don’t know when either of those are first recorded but they are such rituals), though of course we hardly have the sources to tackle such questions.

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

King Edgar in supplication before Christ in majesty, from the dedication charter of the New Minster, Winchester; from Wikimedia Commons

It is very hard to deny that the sources we do have, including narratives, liturgical material like the coronation ordines and artworks, all seem to offer pictures of choreographed court and sub-court processes loaded with symbolism, at least.2 But there are three questions it seems fair to ask. One of these is the basic one we should always ask, in the words of journalism: “why is this [so-and-so] lying to me?” Is Byrhtferth of Ramsey confirming that Edgar’s coronation went more or less to the plan of the Second English Ordo or does it just seem that way because that text was most of what he knew about what should have happened? The texts frequently show lots and lots of public emotion, crying and joyful choruses, which obviously serve to show popular consensus; but does that mean there was some, that the sources knew there should have been some or, more subtly, that the people knew there should be some and dutifully provided it. (And if you think this unlikely, consider how many people who don’t otherwise pray say ‘Amen’ at the end of graces before formal dinners or similar religious public moments. They know what’s supposed to go in that space and don’t want to mess things up.)

Levi kind of answered such questions by taking that last distinction and using it to tilt at the second set of them, these being the concerns raised by Philippe Buc (among others) about whether our sources for these rituals may be the only place that those rituals existed, as an idealised version of the working of society. Levi felt that the variety of sources that seem to show the basic point, that organised expression of symbolisms was important, minimised the likelihood of this danger, but also reminded us that texts also act in society. If there’s a coronation ordo then odds are good that the next ceremony may well look a lot like that. If people hear stories of submitting to the judgement of a powerful bishop they may think of that the next time they find themselves in an intractable dispute. The line between story and instruction here is quite hard to draw. In any case, and perhaps most crushingly for the Buc argument, the authors of the sources were themselves clearly convinced that organised demonstrative behaviour was important and effective, so unless they’d all fooled themselves but no-one else, this dialectic does have to have met the real world and come back somewhere along its course! This sort of extra step with the thinking is why we need people like Levi.

King Harold II depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, enthroned next to Archbishop Stigand

King Harold II depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, enthroned next to Archbishop Stigand who crowned him, irregularly as the Normans later claimed

The third set of questions I wanted to ask, and did in one case though I didn’t quite make it clear enough, was about the audience’s participation in these rituals. Levi asked who the audience was—which not everyone would have—and concluded that it was of course principally the élite, though reminded us also of the servants and menials who were also present, but that to me raised further questions about who could `read’ the symbolism involved in the ceremony, and who might be explaining why that particular verse was appropriate or why it was that sword so-and-so wore and so forth or whether the laymen were just all in the dark about meanings while the bishops and clergy all nodded sagely across the church. Also, as I always do when someone brings norms into play to explain social behaviour I wanted to ask whether people can’t break them. There is certainly room to see competing norms operating in some cases but there’s also got to be room for people actually being contrary. Non-compliance is also a form of demonstrative behaviour, I realise this—the recent student `demonstrations’ would have made this quite clear if I didn’t—but it is a deliberate inversion of the norm that does not necessarily imply acceptance of its framework.

The questions Levi himself wanted to answer was, firstly did the Anglo-Saxon state use such means of expressing its authority, to which the answer was clearly `yes’ I thought, and then why, given that the Anglo-Saxon state is supposed to have been very strong and yet the use of such tactics by the Ottonian rulers of Germany is supposed to have helped make up for a weak state apparatus. This may be contradictory: as Chris Lewis again said, for one thing, you have to have a fair old administrative apparatus to be able to hold and feed an assembly of any size. Levi however brought a range of anthropologists and social theorists into play to look at what a developed state might get from such things. Magistra has covered this better than I intend to, other than saying that as well as using clear and relevant chunks of Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bordieu, he also invoked both Durkheim and Weber, whom I’ve seen people claim can’t both be used by the same scholar; again, Levi is clearly unusually able with clever thinkery (and also willing to explain it). But, as his conclusions stated, in an attempt perhaps to avoid what used to be a stock post-seminar question at this gathering asked in the pub by a certain figure I shan’t identify,3 while it might be `stating the obvious’ to say that the late Anglo-Saxon kings had rituals at their courts, what taking these kinds of tools to it do is demonstrate (ahem) that we need them in order to properly work out what’s going on behind the rituals and what the nature of the late Anglo-Saxon `state’ might be.4 For Levi, it was more constructed in horizontal bonding built by such rituals and moments of reciprocity with the rulers, and consequently less in vertical relationships of authority and obedience, than we have necessarily made clear, and whatever else its workings may be, obvious they weren’t.5


1. For example, Levi told us that Byrhtferth of Ramsey, in his Vita Sancti Oswaldi, tells us that at King Edgar’s coronation in 973 the queen ate separately, with the abbots, while the lords and bishops ate with the king, which might be some interesting evidence for clerics being reckoned as a kind of third gender—or just people it would be safe to leave your queen with—but is also almost all we know about women in this context. The Vita is printed in Byrtferth of Ramsey, The Lives of St Oswald and St Egwine, ed. & transl. Michael Lapidge, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 2008).

2. For work on the narratives, you could as Magistra suggests see Julia Barrow, “Demonstrative Behaviour and Political Communication in Later Anglo-Saxon England” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 36 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 127-150, or indeed Levi’s own work (see n. 5 below). On the ordines the key work is by Janet Nelson, namely “Ritual and Reality in the Early Medieval Ordines” in D. Baker (ed.), The Materials, Sources and Methods of Ecclesiastical History, Studies in Church History Vol. 11 (Oxford 1975), pp. 41-51, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986), pp. 329-339; Nelson, “The Earliest Surviving Royal Ordo: some liturgical and historical aspects” in Peter Linehan & Brian Tierney (edd.), Authority and Power: studies on mediaeval law and government presented to Walter Ullmann (Cambridge 1980), pp. 29-48, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual, pp. 341-360; Nelson, “The Rites of the Conqueror” in R. Allen Brown (ed.), Proceedings of the Battle Conference IV (Woodbridge 1982), pp. 117-132 & 210-221, repr. in Nelson, Politics and Ritual, pp. 375-401, and Nelson, “The Second English Ordo” in eadem, Politics and Ritual, pp. 361-374, and that volume also reprints most of her work about coronation ordines generally rather then specifically English ones. On the artwork, and particularly the bit of it above, see now Catherine E. Karkov, “The Frontispiece to the New Minster Charter and the King’s Two Bodies” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English, 959–975 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 224-241.

3. The question was of the form “So ****ing what?”, and not asked of the speaker. This doesn’t happen any more, I feel I should point out; the pub crowd at that seminar either dissipated a long time ago or now manage to gather without my being aware, which given my heightened senses for such things seems unlikely.

4. There is of course some argument about the word `state’ is even safe to use and here, as with most matters to do with words and their meanings, the best take for my money is by Susan Reynolds, “There were states in medieval Europe: a response to Rees Davies” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 550-555, which some kind but possibly illegal soul has put online here, for now.

5. If this leaves you hungry for more, Levi kindly draws my attention to related work of his in the form of an article called “Hosting the king: hospitality and the royal iter in tenth-century England” in Lars Kjær & A. J. Watson (edd.), Feasts and Gifts of Food in Medieval Europe: Ritualised Constructions of Hierarchy, Identity and Community, Journal of Medieval History Vol. 37 no. 1 (Amsterdam 2011), pp. 34-46, DOI:10.1016/j.jmedhist.2010.12.002, the conclusions of which, he tells me, lead to some of the same places. Nice work, anyway, JMH is one of those journals I’ve never been able to get into…

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5 responses to “Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England

  1. Can’t let this pass ‘uncommented’ – although I suspect it will take me a week to sift through all the little gems in here and figure out my response. Suffice to say, nice one Levi, and thanks Jon. See you at the ‘Zoo! :)

  2. Yes – note the careful avoidance of specifying when said week might occur…

  3. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 8 « Contagions

  4. Pingback: Seminar XCIX: hearing the king’s voice in charters « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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