Seminary XLV, Interdisciplinary Conversation II: Douglas in the jungle

Dame Mary Douglas, pictured in March 2006 shortly before her death

Dame Mary Douglas, pictured in March 2006 shortly before her death

On 16 March a rather unusual sort of seminar took place in University College London, as the concluding episode for this term in a series that I’m sorry I haven’t been able to go to more of, the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar. This time the disciplines intersecting were history and anthropology, because David d’Avray and Eamon Duffy were presenting in tandem to the title, “Mary Douglas among the Medievalists”. Because I have at least a leisure interest in how these two humanities meet, I made sure I made it along.

Both of the presenters had known Dame Mary Douglas, of whom I had but dimly heard, so I went mainly to find out more about this Anthropological Name and what she might have to tell me. I think I wound up learning more about myself than about the subject, which was, well, unusual. This was in part because the assumption, and fair enough, seemed to be that people coming to a seminar about Mary Douglas already knew about her work. The format was therefore that Professor Duffy spoke first about his memories of her and what he had got from reading her work, and then Professor d’Avray did likewise. If you have encountered these people you may guess that their style differed considerably. Professor Duffy told us of his upbringing in very-Catholic Ireland and his increasing involvement in theology at a time when, in a mirror of the other social revolutions of the sixties, and in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Catholic thought was going through a considerable change, roughly from organised piety to personal piety, but as a result away also from heavy emphasis on community attendance and ritual and tradition. This, as Professor Duffy described very eloquently, left him less and less emotionally satisified with what he was certain was theologically correct, and it was only when he read Douglas’s Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo that he realised what it was that he was missing, the ritualised structure of tradition and guidance that what Douglas called `high-grid’ societies erect to defend their own functions and identities. This, of course, had considerable implications for how he looked at the medieval religion he was increasingly interested in. So from reading, and eventually exchanging texts and ideas with, Douglas, he got a much clearer idea of how to express what religion in the Middle Ages (late Middle Ages, for Professor Duffy) might have meant to its participants and what function it performed in medieval society’s reproduction.

The Sistine Chapel altar in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, c. 1590

The Sistine Chapel altar in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, c. 1590

Professor d’Avray’s portion of the paper was less personal and less flowing (or, he might have said, gushing). It had, he told us, taken him a long time to find anything in Douglas’s work that he could really appreciate, which he put down partly to him being a follower of Weber and she of Durckheim and it being nigh-on impossible for these two schools of thought to converse. (He also observed, repeatedly, that despite those two being contemporary and occupied with very similar problems they never cited or referred to each other.) It was, he said, only now that he was teaching the fifth-century papacy and doing things like arguing with Jack Goody about the purpose of codifying rules of Christian marriage that the high-grid idea was suddenly serving a purpose in making all the ritual and rules by which that period of Christian development can seem so characterised explicable, as a kind of self-asserted structure of importance set up by a fragile social organisation to make itself more sturdy and regulated.

Reflecting on this I can’t help but feel that there must have been a lot more to Douglas’s work than this one idea of high-grid societies tending towards high symbolism, however much we can see medieval analogies for that. This was the one that the two commentators had got furthest with, and they were both agreed that Purity and Danger had been the book that clicked for them, but it’s hardly all she wrote. I consulted my anthropologist of resort on this and she reckoned that Douglas’s work is now something that first-year undergraduates get set, because it’s big on ideas and enthrallment but the actual discipline of study and the modern approaches to evidence and how anthropologists get it have moved on some way. There had however been a question (part of a spontaneous five-minute-plus response by Kate Cooper which the seminar organiser had to cut off), which I might now throw to the readership, about whether it necessarily matters, when you’re raiding other disciplines for ideas, if they’re current or not, as long as they help you think. I think it matters if they have been classed as wrong (as, for example, the nineteenth-century stuff about national characteristics, which is easy to think with but really no actual help understanding) but if it’s just old that need not necessarily be a bar if it’s new somewhere else. After all, I was just delighting in how old a certain critical idea was, wasn’t I?

And indeed that idea came up again. Professor Duffy finished by wondering if historians could ever escape their background and formation, and whether indeed one should struggle to do so or write unashamedly involved and personal history by way of playing to one’s own ability to understand and express. Professor d’Avray was less inclined to regard this as worrisome because, as he pointed out, our formations don’t prevent us changing our minds, and people with similar formations can come to very opposite views. (This was driven home to me by a very hostile comment about Irish Catholicism from the floor, a comment so hostile that Professor Duffy sought the commentator out immediately afterwards, and the first question he asked, understandably, was “Did you grow up in Ireland?”, expecting therefore that this involvement, though opposite to his own, could only come from long immersion.) The fact that Professor Duffy and Douglas had almost precisely opposite Christian formations, he as a deep-culture Irish Catholic, and she as a cucumber-sandwiches-and-tea Anglican, and both came to appreciate both sides’s qualities, positive or negative, in much the same way, also suggests as much.

James Joyce in Trieste, 1915. (Photograph by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was scandalized by Joyce’s guitar playing.)

James Joyce in Trieste, 1915. (Photograph by Ottacaro Weiss, a friend who was "scandalized" by Joyce’s guitar playing.)

Because there had been little enough about anthropology in this seminar and lots about personal formation and religion, I was left wondering how I could better explain myself in these lights. Maybe I shouldn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it did strike me that I have more or less avoided working on religious expression: I work on an area where there’s almost no sources for it except religious donations, which can be read in an almost entirely worldly way, but why did I choose that? and so on. It cannot be entirely coincidental that my own religious impression, which was fairly insipid Church of England at school undermined by atheism at home, was very easy to shake off without necessitating either some substitute mysticism or an embittered hatred of indoctrination. It’s not that I don’t think religion was important in the Middle Ages, it self-evidently was and I quite enjoy knowing more about Christianity than many practising Christians, but I don’t feel it necessary to include the spiritual in much of what I do. Perhaps I should. On the other hand, when I do think of the term `God-fearing’ I ineluctably also think of one of Professor Duffy’s examples, the Hell sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which I studied at school. I still cordially loathe Joyce but that bit has guts and won’t leave my head, and to exemplify what deep-seated religion could mean to a mind it has often served me as `a thing to think with‘. It seems therefore that perhaps I would not be immune to the effects of reading some of Dame Mary’s explanations of what that was actually about…

19 responses to “Seminary XLV, Interdisciplinary Conversation II: Douglas in the jungle

  1. Very interesting post (again). Some quick points:

    Like you, I don’t see why we shouldn’t use work considered dated in another discipline. I once asked a lit-crit friend of mine about a certain strand of theory and got the answer, ‘Oh, that’s very ’70s.’ I remember thinking, ‘So what?’ I’m very utilitarian about such things – if it helps me think, I’ll use it (subject to your wrongness caveat).

    As for Duffy’s point about being unashamedly involved, I think his work is a good example of why that’s a bad idea. His is a very (I’d say ludicrously) romantic vision of pre-Reformation English Christianity. What do you gain from placing your point of view so strongly front and centre, anyway? It just kills debate by turning history into a series of personal testimonies.

    Finally, don’t be so sure you know more about Christianity than practising Christians just because you’re a medievalist. Even Catholicism has moved on (arguably, moved backwards) in the last millennium. ;-)

  2. I haven’t read Duffy’s work, so I couldn’t comment there, but I can imagine how what you say might arise. The greater distance I have on my material may help with this, I mean, few enough of the places I write about are still anything like they would have been in my period because of that dang Romanesque affair replacing all the buildings…

    As to the last, yes, I know, I’ve, er, been close to some Catholics. For my generalisation to work I just have to pick the right/wrong sort of Christians…

  3. T'anta Wawa

    I don’t necessarily buy the idea that if you’re a Durkheim fan you can’t converse with someone who’s more Weberian in their approach. That seems overly tribalistic to me, given that we’re all grown-ups and should be able to respect the theoretical antecedents of people we disagree with, especially on such well-trodden ground.

    The discussion of personal background as an influence on work is also an interesting mirror of one that is ongoing in anthropology and has been for a long time, but that’s what happens when your primary means of collecting ‘data’ is your person, and how you react to things/how people react to you.

    • Professor d’Avray appeared to feel that someone who found Weber useful wouldn’t find Durckheim useful and vice versa, and that this extended to the writers themselves; I don’t really use either (I know Weber’s concept of the state doesn’t help in the Middle Ages, though) so I couldn’t say how true that is. The debate on the possibility of objectivity in history is an old one, as I was just pointing out, but your colleagues may have had more need to reckon with it than us with the involuntary detachment of a thousand years or so…

  4. An interesting post, Jon (as always). I do, however, think you ought be cautious about saying that you don’t feel the need to include the “spiritual” in what you do. I don’t either. But “spiritual” is an entirely different animal from “religious,” isn’t it? You can’t deal with your charters without dealing with religion in some way, can you? I mean, the donors and recipients (and everyone else involved) were “religious”, at least in our modern sense of that word.

    Also, FWIW, Theo’s point about putting the personal front-and-center is well-taken but there are times when I wish people would be more honest — both with us and with themselves — about how their background is shaping their analysis. I can think of some crusade historians…

    • T'anta Wawa

      There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4 this morning about the distinction between religion and spirituality. If you’re in the UK, you can listen to it here.

    • Matt, I don’t mean that I intentionally exclude the spiritual from what I do but just that when I look back, I haven’t really bothered with it much. Oddly, I did pay more attention to it when being taught by one particular crusade historian, but mainly wound up concluding that there was no way to tell below the level of, for example, Raymond IV of Toulouse, how seriously religion was driving these people, as opposed to social climbing, relationships with patrons and so on. I mean, you know I think this because it’s on record right here. And the same goes for donors to the Church: there’s so much social stuff in play and only variations on formulae give you any clue as to what unusual factors may be there this time, and then you still have to choose between the scribe and the donor as the source of the oddity. The trouble is that we have a legal framework in use for socially important transactions that exist with a devotional framework and it’s like a hidden mechanism that runs where we can’t see it… Some of the charters are between laypeople, all the same, so although they sometimes frame themselves as gifts of alms anyway, that’s not religious per se. Of course the actors are religious people, and some of them spiritual we presume, but is there any effect we might expect that to have on their land transactions with one another?

      • but can you say that, just because a charter is between 2 “laypersons,” it’s not religious? isn’t the giving of alms to participate in religion in some way?

        • Well, now we’re into the question of how far the selection of this form is driven by the motives of the transaction. Some would say that, especially since these documents are so often called scripturae, that resorting to writing at all is to involve the Church and the idea of divinely-witnessed record, and that otherwise one would just do it verbally (and I have at least one example where a donation by charter and “donatio simplex” are contrasted). At the other end of the spectrum, if at the end of the day the result is to transfer property from one person to another, what difference does it make how they record it? Especially given that the form of record is not in itself ecclesiastical, even if mediated by the Church, but late Roman… And to support that one, the two transactions referred to in my previous example are between the same people, a count and his countess. So where would you say that stood? And what about sales? I think I personally favour the argument that the form is open to all, that it is used for many purposes, and that sometimes the deviations from form are expressive enough that we can use them to suggest motivations, but I wouldn’t like to guess where the balance of those for which we can’t do that should be weighed…

    • I think the discussion would be easier if we each knew what our sense of the word ‘religious’ was, or for that matter ‘spirituality’. And how does ‘piety’ fit into this? (I haven’t had a chance to listen to the Radio 4 discussion yet, although it is available outside the UK until the 16th.)

      Personally, hands-down the best discussion of these issues I’ve read for the Middle Ages is John Arnold’s Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe. The advantage of talking about people as ‘believing’ rather than ‘religious’ is that it forces you to specify what you think they believe in.

      • Ooh, I’d managed to miss that somehow. I’m in the market for almost anything John writes. I might reserve further comment till I’ve at least caught a glimpse of that. However, on-the-spot reaction: I think `religious’ pertains to `religion’, which I see as the institutionalisation of spirituality, even if practised on an entirely personal basis. And `piety’ would be a committed practise of `religion’ in a greater or lesser degree. `Spirituality’ I would have to hand-wave more over, but might hazard a definition like `the sphere of human consciousness defined as beyond or outwith the physical’. Would that make my positions any clearer in their sense or lack of it?

  5. An interesting post, on what sounds like an interesting seminar.

    I, like both you and Theo, would strongly agree that a theory need not be contemporary for it to be useful. I think a further caveat, implicit in what both you said, is also important: that the theory helps you (re)think and consider things, but does not drive your analysis. If you make your own approach as an historian rely heavily on the premises in such anthropological work, then it is essential that the work is up-to-date, and even then I personally would be wary, given the different nature of the disciplines and the evidence available to us as historians. Relying too heavily on athropology means that your own historical analysis is only valid as long as such theories are in vogue.

    To my mind a classic example of the dangers and benefits of using ideas from anthropology is the whole ritual debate opened up by Buc. He goes too far in dispensing with all work which ever drew upon functionalist anthropology, at times more or less explicitly suggesting that such work was simply wrong. Yet, if you carefully re-reads thew work of, say, Jinty Nelson or Gerd Althoff, you find that anthropological approaches play a very secondary role to their working with the sources themselves, and is mostly used carefully. On the other hand, Buc is correct to critcise some of Althoff’s functionalism (elements of which, to be fair, he has been willing to back away from subsequently). The assumptions that ritual and literacy are polar opposites, or that ritual played a simply functional role in replacing state structures, are dangerous. Yet you can still gain much from Althoff (as I certainly feel I have), simply knowing not to take all such generalisations at face value.

  6. I think there are a couple of ways that medievalists have thought with Mary Douglas, one more productive than others. One is that a lot of early medievalists have taken stuff from Purity and Danger to look at early medieval concepts of pollution. Douglas remains the obvious person to use for this, because, as far as I know, there have been very few other recent anthropologists who have tried to produce cross-cultural/structural ideas about pollution. If you cite an article about the Lele tribe in the twentieth century in an article on seventh century Merovingians, then an obvious retort is that they’re not the same kind of society. But if you cite Douglas, whose work on pollution draws on the Lele, but also on Old Testament ideas and many other cultures, you’re on more solid theoretical ground.
    The big problem that remains, however, is whether it’s appropriate to use Douglas’ ideas for the early medieval period. I once devoted an IHR seminar paper to arguing that the way Purity and Danger had often been used didn’t really work (in particular, that you couldn’t use it when you had only fragments of a pollution system to examine), but that there were different ways you could use her ideas more successfully on the question of early medieval sexual regulations.
    What I haven’t done is look at much of Douglas’ later work, but there’s a useful article I’ve found: James V. Spickard, ‘A revised functionalism in the sociology of religion: Mary Douglas’ recent work’ Religion 21 (1991), 141-164. (This is on Science Direct if you have access). He’s pointing out how much the specifics of her views changed over the years (I’d known about how her views on Judaism and pollution had changed by the time of ‘Leviticus as literature’, but not much about other changes) and how her more recent work might be usable in the study of religion (which immediately intrigued me). She seems to be creating models of religion which take seriously both religious ideas and social structures and sees how they reinforce each other and I think that’s relatively unusual. With some exceptions (such as work on religious giving) a lot of work on medieval religion is still either assuming that religious ideas exist in a social vacuum or that religious ideas can be reduced to a matter of material interests/false consciousness. Spickard’s outline of Douglas’ functionalism suggests that it can be used in lots of interesting ways, particularly to think about sexual regultion. (I may blog about this later).
    I don’t know enough about the sociology of religion to know if there are other people working on the topic who have comparable insights, but I think these two areas explain why Douglas has been used and will probably continue to be used.

    • Thankyou, Magistra, that’s really interesting and useful; I’m sorry I missed that paper. I shall try and follow up the Spickard reference. I hope I can persuade T’anta Wawa to come back on this one as I’d be very interested to get you two discussing this from opposite sides.

  7. fourcultures

    Thanks for your very interesting comments. You’ll find more about applications of Mary Douglas’s ‘grid-group cultural theory’ at Fourcultures. It’s encouraging to discover medievalists discussing Douglas’s work. To respond to your question I don’t think it’s very useful to ignore theories that aren’t contemporary. The longer I live the more frustrated I get with fashion in academic discourse. What seems to happen is people end the process of investigation and discovery just because it seems fashionable to move on. For a long time we haven’t been supposed to be functionalists or structuralists, because… well, mainly because it’s like wearing flares in 1987. You just weren’t supposed to do it. Then for a while you could say anything you wanted as long as it was about deconstruction. But not any longer. So I think there’s a case to be made for slowing down a bit and avoiding jumping on the latest band-wagon. Unfortunately, the academic system isn’t about to support that.
    I think there’s a strong link between Douglas’s grid-group conception and the ‘wheel of fortune’ motif so evident in the Middle Ages. The four cultural biases described by Douglas seem to map very nicely onto the four turns of the wheel – I shall rule, I rule, I have ruled, I have done with ruling. No one has written about this at all yet…

  8. Interesting: I shall have to make time to have a proper look round your blog. I also like the wheel of fortune parallel, though what one could get out of it except, perhaps, an idea of where Douglas got her metaphor from, I’m not immediately sure. I think genuine problems have been found with what functionalism, at least, leads one, not so much to think but to ignore, but we all have to look at something and really I’d like multiple theoretical approaches all to look at the same problems sometimes, in the hope that by adding more blind men we might finally be able to identify some elephants in the room.

  9. Pingback: Seminar XCII: ritualised kingship in later Anglo-Saxon England « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Daniel Hadas

    The statement that Mary Douglas was raised ” as a cucumber-sandwiches-and-tea Anglican” is not correct. She was raised and remained throughout her life a practising Roman Catholic (see her DNB entry). While I’m far from an expert, I think it’s safe to say this had significant influence on her work.

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