Book Review

Rituals, Performatives, and Political Order in Northern Europe, c. 650–1350, edited by Wojtek Jezierski, Lars Hermanson, Hans Jacob Orning, and Thomas Småberg

Matt Firth (reviewer) – Parergon 34.1 (2017)

The twelve substantive essays in this volume represent a shift in the study of ritual in medieval northern Western Europe from a focus on performed religious ritual, to a focus on ritual as a structural function of medieval societies and their governance. In his comprehensive introduction, Lars Hermanson makes this aim explicit: the collection is intended to recast Scandinavian ritual studies as a field focused upon the mechanics of political and social order. His stated hope is that this shift toward secular power will facilitate ongoing comparative analysis with similar work undertaken in recent years in Western European ritual studies. To this end, Hermanson outlines a fundamental shift of underlying theoretical purpose that has occurred more broadly in ritual studies over the past decade: from ritual as a representative veneer of pre-existing power structures, to ritual as performed acts upon which such power structures were based. Though this distinction is not explicitly stated elsewhere in the volume, this premise underlies all the analyses contained therein: rituals were partners to power, rather than merely superficialities with which power was clothed.

The book is divided into three parts. Parts i and ii each comprise only two contributions, while Part iii contains seven. Part i is foundational to the following chapters. Essays by Geoffrey Koziol and Gerd Althoff provide theoretical grounding both in the development of ritual studies and in current methodologies in the study of ritual as performed politics. Yet this is unlikely the primary reason for their segregation from the other contributions: while Koziol and Althoff are both authoritative within ritual studies, neither specializes in the religion and politics of the Scandinavian world. As such, both chapters focus exclusively on Western and Central Europe, standing in contrast to the Scandinavian focus of almost every other contribution. Koziol uses a Frankish ‘pseudo-diploma’ as the nexus for a linguistic analysis of the terms ‘performance’ and ‘performative’, a performance being a ritual representation of action, a performative act being a catalyst of consequential change. In his turn, Althoff focuses upon the implications of ritual behaviour for the maintenance of social order in the medieval world. Althoff sees ritual and legislation working hand-in-hand, the former regulating the generalities of societal norms, the latter regulating the details of social order.

Part ii, ‘Ritual Spatialization in Early Medieval Scandinavia’, offers analyses of the ritual spaces of Scandinavian public gatherings. This section is temporally wide-ranging, though its two chapters, by Alexandra Sanmark and Olof Sundqvist, focus most particularly on the pre-Christian period of c. 800–1000. Sanmark grounds her analysis in Sweden, looking to the thing assemblies as occasions in which legal and religious interests entwined, and thereby extended to the landscapes in which they occurred. She posits that the rituals of the assemblies inscribed ritual function upon the cultural memory of the places of such public gatherings. Sundqvist’s approach, at once complementary to, and contrasting with that of Sanmark, looks to the intertwined legal and religious roles of Scandinavian chieftains, and how their custodianship of ritual space inscribed upon them political and cultic authority.

The contributions to Part iii provide a narrower focus to the performance of ritual as political function, and each of the seven chapters takes a unique approach to the study of ritual in Scandinavian society. Several essays are of particular note. Wojtek Jezierski provides the only other contribution with a non-Scandinavian focus, undertaking an analysis of how festive hospitality is portrayed in Helmold of Bosau’s Chronica Slavorum. Similarly focusing upon tropes of ritual within a single chronicle, Kim Esmark analyses the performative function of political ritual, and the role of the actors therein, found in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. Håkon Haugland provides a close reading of late medieval Scandinavian guild statutes, examining the role of the rituals of guild gatherings in establishing a sense of camaraderie and exclusivity among their members, and the resultant political influence of such organizations. The remaining chapters within Part iii focus particularly upon the ritual nature of feasting within various socio-political contexts of the wider Scandinavian world.

Taken as whole, this is a well-structured volume that breaks new ground in both ritual studies and Scandinavian studies. It is to be commended for its efforts to facilitate pan-European comparative analyses of ritual in medieval governance.