Buc and the creation of ritual

I have finally got round to reading Philippe Buc’s The Dangers of Ritual, which got a lot of early medievalists upset a couple of years ago. (There is a stinging review by Geoffrey Koziol, one of Buc’s targets, in Early Medieval Europe 11 (4) and it’s pretty much justified). Buc paints an unrealistic picture of naïve historians, taking on trust Durkheim’s functionalist views that religion’s purpose is to foster social cohesion. (As Koziol points out, Buc very much identifies ritual with religion, which is problematic in itself). He then traces the sociology of religion/ritual back to theological origins of the Reformation. Buc sums it up (p 194): ‘The idea that ritual has an inherent ability to constitute, maintain, and disrupt order depends genetically on a specific conceptualization of the relationship between “religion” and “society” – a configuration in which the two are essentially coherent.’

My particular take on this has been modified by having helped create a ritual, taken in the wide sense of a set of regularly repeated actions that have a symbolic significance beyond their practical use. L has a routine for getting up, but the procedure for bathing her and getting her to bed has developed fairly rapidly into a ritual. If the ‘wrong’ one of us tries to get her undressed or we suggested she cleaned her teeth before she had her bath rather than after, there would be woe and desolation. The ritual isn’t static, it’s clearly a created and mutated thing, but it continues to exist because it has the function of constituting and maintaining order. I suspect such need for reassurance and the resulting ritual has been a constant factor for small children.

Most adults, of course, don’t have such a pressing need for ritual, but it’s still fairly obvious that these help create group cohesion and bring satisfaction to people. Think of the purely secular rituals that have developed around a big football match [This means soccer, for the hard of English]. The rules of the game don’t prescribe things like how the teams come onto the pitch, or what happens at half-time, but standard practices develop, and it would be thought somehow wrong or even anti-social if, say the members of the team wandered out onto the pitch as they were ready rather than coming out together. Similarly the crowd (or rather members of it) create their own rituals, such as particular chants. These obviously must have an inventor, but that doesn’t stop them being a ritual (or at least a tradition) very quickly.

In other words, you don’t have to think any complex thoughts about religion and society to see how ritual can function, you merely have to look around and see examples. Medieval historians aren’t naively following sociologists and forgetting the political aspects of ritual. If anything, they’re more conscious of the fact that rituals have origins and are manipulated. But if they see rituals as binding societies together and creating cohesion, that’s because that is what they are intended to do, by their creators and developers. After all, the exemplary Christian ritual, the Eucharist, is explicitly shown as historically created (admittedly by God). Jesus tells his disciples collectively (not individually) to repeat particular symbolic actions in memory of him. The Eucharist is to be a holy act, but it’s also surely intended to bind the community of believers together. Rituals may be created, but one of the reasons they’re created is because of their social effectiveness. Buc sees the concept of ritual’s purpose as being to create social cohesion as being possible only after the Reformation, with a Protestant view that some rituals were not sacred. But there’s nothing contradictory between creating a ritual for its social effectiveness and because it pleases a god. Many gods, after all, are shown as wanting their believers to be united together. Buc’s theories, in this and other ways, don’t stand up.


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