Saturday, February 13, 2010

Muir: Ritual in Early Modern Europe

Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

This book grew on me as I read it. In the first part, on rites of passage and the ritual conception of time,
I found myself less impressed with Muir's analysis and more distracted by errors and disagreements. For instance, he credits Constantine with moving Christian worship to Sunday and makes the odd observation that the "Three Kings" were known as "Magi" in the Middle Ages (as if they weren't known as such today for the simple reason that this is what they're called in the New Testament).

The second part, which is mainly concerned with ritual as related to the body in Carnival and the development of manners, is stronger. I found much that is fascinating about both topics, though I sometimes found myself wondering what the participants in Early Modern Carnival and charivari would think if they knew that some day books would be devoted to airy speculations about the "social function" of their public inebriation.

The third part, which studies the Reformation as a controversy over ritual (rather than primarily over doctrine) is especially good, and, here, unlike the first part, I was impressed with the subtlety of Muir's understanding of Catholic ritual, and his insights into the evolution of the understanding of ritual and (ritual) process by which the Reformation overturned the Catholic ritual system.

The conclusion, which looks ahead to the continuation of the story in the Enlightenment and French Revolution, was also quite good and left me wanting a sequel. However, Muir ends the book with what seemed to me to be a giant non sequitur, saying that ritual revolution occurred because of a shift of attention from the emotive power of rituals to questions about their meaning. The statement is, to me, simply baffling. The Middle Ages (and all of Christian history for that matter) are full of controversy over the meaning of rituals, and, assuming that it's even possible to consider emotive power apart from meaning, it is hard to see how it could be considered the driving force in the pre-modern development of the ritual system.

Perhaps what has really changed is the meaning of "meaning". In the modern understanding, "meaning" can only have reference to utility or to emotional impact. To pull in Charles Taylor, it is taken for granted that meaning is contained entirely within minds and that the only minds that exist are human minds. Thus, something can only be meaningful (objectively) if it is ordered toward human purposes or (subjectively) if it affects a human being emotionally.

Pre-modern ritual is driven primarily by neither of these concerns, because it's presuppositions are completely different. If the universe is created by God, and, more precisely, created and governed by his Logos, then meaning does not just reside only in human minds but can reside in each thing and moment in history, which has its place in the divine order. Far from being focused on "emotive power", pre-modern ritual is concerned with the exemplification of this order, and finds its meaning therein. Consequently, we will only get so far when we limit ourselves to examining it as serving some social purpose or psychologizing it as filling some emotional need.

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