My Christmas present to myself (well, who else was going to give it to me?) was Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. Although Ive often seen references to his works, I hadnt read him before, and Im enjoying it a lot, especially since he writes well. Im particularly interested in his work on the anthropology of religion, and his chapter: Religion as a Cultural System has got me thinking a lot. (Whether I can incorporate his ideas into my own work, Im not sure: medievalists have used some anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Marcel Mauss a lot, but thats rather more specific stuff than Geertz is talking about).
Geertz defines culture (p 89) as an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life. The emphasis on religion as a meaning creating activity seems to me to offer a way of exploring the reasons for religion that fills in some of the gaps offered by psychological and sociological theories of religion.
Im not personally convinced by psychological explanations of religiosity, because they dont seem to me sufficient to explain why some people in the modern world believe and some dont (let alone trying to apply them to past societies). If you look round most churches or other religious institutions you find people with very different psychological make-ups, and its equal common for me to meet people (such as some of my family members) with whom I share considerable psychological similarity, but not my beliefs. Sociological views of religion seem to me have more merit, but theyre still too coarse-grained, especially when theres an emphasis on class. Yes, Christianity in the pre-modern period supports and legitimates royal rule, but that isnt its only effect, and false consciousness or split consciousness alone doesnt explain the religiosity of lower social classes.
Geertz uses the idea of religion as a cultural system mainly at the level of a society/a people, which gives me twinges of uneasiness, since it ignores the issue of power. (Maybe its more appropriate for the relatively small, non-specialised societies that anthropologists specialise in). But the idea of religion as a cultural system producing meaning also potentially makes it useful at far smaller scales, right down to the individual family. (Geertz would probably not want to take it down to individual level, since to him meaning always involves communicating the meaning to others via symbols). There is nothing like seeing ones own relatives at Christmas to make you realise how family customs and ethos are both transmitted down the generations, but also changed. Your siblings may have the same background and current socio-economic status, but that doesnt necessarily mean that they still share the same culture. (The changes are probably more marked in a modern society, but the same process is visible as far back as the novel goes, at least). Religion as part of an individual familys tradition/culture needs to be thought about more seriously (as studies of crusaders have started to do), though we often lack the data for the early Middle Ages.
Seeing Christianity as a cultural system is particularly useful for considering Christianisation in the early Middle Ages. I went to a paper about a month ago on the Christianisation of Bavaria (which Jon Jarrett has already ably summarised). What I was thinking about then was how the Christianisation of Bavaria involved a web of new relationships being created between Bavarians and monasteries, Central Carolingian power and the saints (who themselves were being changed retrospectively: the rewriting of Bavarian saints as missionaries was particularly striking). When you combine that with Geertzs comment (p 5): Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, then you can see Christianisation as the reweaving of a complete culture, that has to displace an existing religion. That early medieval Christianisation involved a complete re-ordering of the cosmos (new sacred geography, new sacred history, new chronology etc) has often been recognised: what Geertzs ideas suggest is that all of that process is necessary. In his view:
sacred symbols function to synthesize a peoples ethos the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood and their world view the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order.
If you have to change both the ethos and the world view of a society (even if its just from Bavarian to Carolingian Christianity), you have some pretty heavy conceptual work to do. Conversion of a whole society is not just a scaled-up version of the conversion of an individual in a society which already has that religion as an accessible cultural system. (If I converted to Judaism today, for example, I would need to find a Jewish community to plug into quickly if I was going to retain my Jewishness).
Which explains where monasteries come in: theyre not just prayer powerhouses, theyre also meaning powerhouses, spinning these new webs of significance for their vicinity. They connect people with the saints, they provide a vision of religious order (never mind the buildings, there is no equivalent well-ordered team of people in the West between the Roman army and the Exchequer), they write and rewrite history etc. You cant do this kind of meaning creation at this stage with wandering preachers or parish priests (although this was possible by the late Middle Ages, judging by Eamon Duffys The Voices of Morebath). If you look at it in this way, its not the pastoral, practical work of the monks that is key in these newly Christianised societies: it is their symbolic role. And whatever else monks do, they do symbolism very, very well.