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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: May 2010

10 - Liturgical Rites: The Medium, the Message, the Messenger, and the Misunderstanding

Summary

We historians are latecomers to the study of ritual. Anthropologists have already spent a century gazing at various societies' formal rites and ritualized behavior, seeing in these a window onto, if not men's souls, at least the structures, dynamics, values, and aspirations of groups. European and North American early modernists began only in the 1960s to feel in a serious way the impact of the social sciences upon their endeavors. Part of this impact was indeed the analysis of ritual for all that it might yield. From my perspective, it has yielded much. Thus, I stand on the shoulders of many predecessors, some of them giants, as I turn my attention to liturgical ritual especially before, during, and after the Reformation in German-speaking lands. I wish to argue here that whether or not there was open contention over ritual content as the reformers took it on themselves to correct what they saw to have been the long-term medieval falsifications of Gospel propriety, ritual was still at the subliminal or unconscious level an ongoing bone of contention. Not only the heads of the emerging churches but their secular overlords, too, perceived the power of ritual and were determined to “get it right.” One prominent level of debate was, then, between and among theologians and heads of state. But in addition, within the ranks of the hoi poloi, ritual was a commodious and potent vessel and could not be, or at any rate was not received in a wholly passive, detached, uninvolved manner.