Humiliation and obscurity

Sometimes I find the most intriguing seminars in the IHR Earlier Medieval History series aren’t the ones on immediately relevant topics, but ones that highlight a concept potentially applicable to many cultures. The next two seminars from the autumn term that I want to blog about both reflect this: Annette Kehnel talking about “Rituals of power through the ages: a history of civilization?” and Sinead O’Sullivan on “The sacred and the obscure: Greek and the Carolingian reception of Martianus Capella”.

Annette’s very wide-ranging talk was interested in the ritual humiliation of kings and other rulers during inauguration rituals. She started from a C14 source that discusses how the future Duke of Carinthia was dressed in peasant clothing and slapped in the face by a peasant before he could ascend the throne. She also commented on some of the elements of “weakness” displayed in ordines for making Christian emperors, especially the Mainz ordo found in the Romano-German Pontifical. In this, the king is fetched from his bed to the church, which he enters supported by the bishops. He must take off his weapon and lie on the ground before the altar. He is tested with interrogations as to whether he will fulfil his duties as a king. His anointing, while it sanctifies him, also makes him like a child, someone being baptized or someone who is sick. During it he kneels, with ritually bare shoulders; he is then dressed by the bishop. He has to bow to the person crowning him when he is crowned and the crown is literally too heavy for him to support: Annette reckoned the German crown weighed 3.5 kilograms and was so heavy it had to be replaced by a lighter one before the end of the service.

Annette went on to talk other rituals that seemed to includes elements of the same humiliation, such as Gerald of Wales’ claim in Topographia Hibernica c 25 that one inauguration rite in Ulster involved the king having sexual intercourse with a white mare and then bathing in a broth made from its body. She also cited some non-European parallels and ended up with an image of the humility/humiliation of Barack Obama:


Barack Obama sitting on the steps of the US Embassy in Paris.

Annette briefly touched on the motivations for such displays: a warning to the ruler himself, an imitation of Christian humility, perhaps psychologically using the charisma of weakness, displaying a power that does not require external symbols of support. Simon Corcoran, afterwards, mentioned the apotropaic effect of averting evil in this way. There was no suggestion that this was an inevitable part of inauguration rituals, but it does sound plausible that such acts were part of the available language of ritual. We probably ought to look to see if there are other examples, even within rituals which overall exalt the powerful.

While Annette’s paper roamed widely in time and space, Sinead’s was extremely tightly focused, on around 20 manuscripts of Martianus Capella’s allegorical work De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Martianus’ book is an obscure work, filled with rare words and Greek terms. The eighth and ninth century glossers added more Greek and Sinead was asking the question of the function of Greek in these glosses.

What she showed in a very clear manner for the non-experts among us is that the glossators weren’t simply trying to explain the book to a less educated audience. Instead they were sometimes demonstrably trying to make the work more complicated, for example by using additional Greek terms to explain ones already in the text, or by providing “Greek” etymologies for Latin words. Even stranger were examples of hyper-Graecizing, where Greek letters which resembled their Latin counterparts were replaced by more “foreign” looking ones, so that (majuscule) eta was used for epsilon, theta for tau and omega for omicron.

Glossing of this kind, therefore, wasn’t strictly necessary. But Sinead argued that it also wasn’t being done solely for exotic effect or by scribes trying to show off. Instead, obscurity was being deliberately cultivated to sharpen the readers’ wits, to make them think harder about a particular text. She quoted Augustine saying that obscurity was divinely pre-ordained, to stop intellects getting bored. There was a desire to clothe as well as uncover meaning; in the discussion afterwards Alan Thacker pointed out parallels to the pre-Carolingian Anglo-Saxon tradition of the opus geminatum twinned prose and poetical versions of the same text.

Sinead’s paper was on a very specialist subject, and yet by making us think about why a particular text was written in the way it was it potentially opens our minds up more widely. It’s easy to presume that glosses are always there to simplify, just as inauguration rituals are always there to exalt. Sometimes one of the most useful purposes of a seminar or paper is to remind us of the basic truth that makes history worth studying in all its complexity: “It ain’t necessarily so.”


4 thoughts on “Humiliation and obscurity

  1. I’m fascinated by the thought that knowledge should not always be explained to make it more accessible – there is a case to be made out for it being difficult. I’ll have to ponder that one.


    • It’s an idea that goes very much against modern views of democratizing knowledge and making it available to all. Any deliberate focus on making a work of art or a text obscure (such as modernist literature) is exclusionary: not everybody will “get” it. The counterargument is that by focusing on difficult language (or by using visual references that only some people will spot, etc) you’re producing something richer, something that will repay intensive study with additional insights. Early monasticism was always very much about such repeated and contemplative reading, and they were unashamedly an elite, so an ethos of obscurity fitted in very well.


      • I must talk this one over with a friend of mine who has been a spiritual director and is deeply versed in the monastics. Should be an interesting discussion.


  2. Seminar CL: laying out the land in Anglo-Saxon EnglandOne of the features of being so far behind with seminar reports is that I find myself writing about papers whose definitive versions have already been published.1 In some ways this is better than writing about work in progress, as it avoids the occasio…


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