Has the role of rituals in medieval politics been exaggerated?

Term Paper, 2006

9 Pages, Grade: 1,5


The problems arising from both the term “politics” and the term “ritual” is that they are essentially modern concepts, at least in the sense in which we use them today.[1] Consequently, anything said about the involvement and use of ritual in the realm of politics, a word here used in a broad sense of meaning, should be read with extreme caution. Politics, on a provisional definition for the purpose of this essay, is therefore to be understood as the means and mechanism through which decisions concerning the community are taken, exercised, and communicated.

A ritual, on the other hand, is harder to define, and all attempts to do so would not pass unchallenged.[2] For the purpose of this essay it will be understood as an often recurring proceeding, with symbolic meaning attached to its outer appearance. Borrowing from linguistics, but without engaging in that discipline’s debate between structuralists and followers of Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar, the notion of Ferdinand de Saussure’s sign theory may help: a ritual itself will in this essay be understood as a sign, the realization of which is a signifier (signifiant), and the meaning of which is the signified (signifié).[3]

In other words, ritual here is understood as following similar patterns as language. Letters are of no use to an illiterate, as the shapes of letters mean nothing to him, nor does a ritual for someone unfamiliar with any given society’s customs and values. The meaning (signified) has a dialectic connection with its realized counterpart, the performance of ritual (or, in Saussure’s field, speech). The ritual itself is thus an abstract concept standing above both as the sign, which is, in turn, hollow if unperformed and to the historian only of use once put into practice and filled with meaning. To round the picture off though, it should be stated here that the analogy is a model and that there are strict limits to it, as will be explained in the conclusion. The word will be used as signifying a concept; a concept which is being contested, and which therefore stands in italics.[4]

After this interdisciplinary introduction with the help of linguistics, this essay will try and outline the use of ritual in politics through various sources and secondary materials, sketching rather than answering the question of whether the concept of ritual has been exaggerated in its appliance to medieval politics.

It has been put forward, and been contested, that medieval politics and politics in general works according to rules, which are not necessarily spelt out anywhere, but may be based on some silent and underlying understanding on how the game is to be played.[5] Based on this assumption, rituals may be understood as part of this game, as rational instruments at hand among a wide range of others, and used when most appropriate. The problem with this understanding is that it is hard to distil these assumed rules from the sources. They are – and were – very much subject to interpretation. If, then, a ritual were interpreted by its performer’s opponent, he would naturally not take kindly to it, and hence interpret it in an unfavourable manner.[6]

Rituals can fail. In 1141, getting ready for the very battle in which he was captured by Robert of Gloucester’s soldiers, king Stephen heard mass:

King Stephen, meanwhile, seething in a great sea of troubles, had heard mass with all ceremony. But then, following custom, he offered a candle fit for a king and was putting it into Bishop Alexander’s hands, it broke into pieces. This was a warning to the king that he would be crushed. In the bishop’s presence, too, the pyx above the altar, which contained the Lord’s Body, fell, its chain having snapped off. This was a sign of the king’s downfall.[7]

A mass is assumingly a straightforward ritual, if such a thing exists. With this particular source, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, the ritual of the mass may easily be deconstructed. Henry wrote the Historia Anglorum at the command of the bishop in question in the passage above, Alexander of Lincoln,[8] who had just three years before been imprisoned by king Stephen.[9] The failed ritual of handing a candle to Alexander should not be taken at face value. Returning to the sign -concept of the introduction, the signified is the literary warning that first, Alexander’s imprisonment was perhaps forgiven but not forgotten, and second, that Stephen was about to fail and be taken captive himself. The second warning, the pyx falling from the altar, is more severe, as Henry himself says it was a “sign for the king’s downfall,” signifying more than just failure or capture in battle.


[1] P. Buc, Rituel Politique et imaginaire au haut Moyen Âge, in : Revue Historique 106 (4) (2002), 844.

[2] Cf. G. Althoff, Die Veränderbarkeit von Ritualen im Mittelalter, in: G. Althoff, Formen und Funktionen öffentlicher Kommunikation im Mittelalter, Vorträge und Forschungen LI, Stuttgart 2001, 158.

[3] Els Wouters, Sign, in: Frank Brisard et al. (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics, Amsterdam 1997, online access through University of Heidelberg, http://www.benjamins.nl.ubproxy.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/online/hop/, accessed 3/12/2005.

[4] P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual. Between early medieval texts and social scientific theory, Princeton & Oxford 2001, 2.

[5] P. Buc, referring to G. Althoff, Text and Ritual in Ninth-Century Political Culture, in: Medieval Concepts of the Past, Cambridge 2002, 125 n.

[6] P. Buc, Text and Ritual, 126, as well as P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual, 8.

[7] Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, 78.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Henry does not mention any reasons for the arrest; William of Malmesbury however calls Alexander of Lincoln “a very powerful bishop” and mentions a dispute between him and king Stephen over castles in Newark and Sleaford, cf. William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella, 25 + 27n.

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Has the role of rituals in medieval politics been exaggerated?
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (History Department)
Politics and Political Culture in Norman and Angevin England
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Nicholas Williams (Author), 2006, Has the role of rituals in medieval politics been exaggerated?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/127225


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