Historical Context of a Ritual Mentality

For royal ceremonies, the European monarchies, particularly those of France and England, perpetuated in a new key the medieval ritual expressions of Christian sanctity, while Renaissance Italy added strikingly new artistic and theatrical effects and iconologies. Many early modern Europeans held the medieval belief of the "king's two bodies," that is, kingship was represented in a unique royal person who possessed both a natural, mortal body and a mystical, immortal, political one. According to this belief, the king, in ritual, became the intermediary who joined God's working in the world and his justice with the preservation of a people as a unique body politic. In studying the belief in French and English kings' ability to heal scrofula by touching people with the disease, Marc Bloch's groundbreaking study The Royal Touch traced how "rather vague ideas" based on a general belief in the supernatural character of royalty "crystallize in the eleventh and twelfth centuries into a precise and stable institution" that lasted for seven centuries. The ritual of the royal touch developed into frequent public demonstrations of the miraculous results of coronation rites, in which kings were both anointed with holy oil and crowned. Bloch traced the vicissitudes of the ritual among the divergent explanations of eight centuries of writers. By 1500, the coronation mattered less than the evidence of the king's unique nature as a royal person. French kings performed the ritual until the Revolution; the practice ended in England with the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

The belief in the power of the royal touch emphasizes the notion that the king was a "mixed person" part sacred and part layperson. Although the essentially religious attributes of this notion are related to the concept of the "king's two bodies," they should not be confused with it. The latter concept has a larger scope than the particular ambience and rites around the king's person and finds its fullest development in juridical thought and ceremonies that emphasized the king as image or embodiment of justice: justice being, after truth (religion in medieval Christian thought), a permanent part of God's creation. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, lawyers, officials, and corporate bodies claimed rights in this divine creation according to the notion of legal fictions: that is, that towns or institutions have rights in law as do persons. Ceremonies with kings and princes articulated these rights and mirrored right order in secular titles, offices, and institutions. Among the people participating in political life, rituals complemented and represented constitutional developments over which the seventeenth-century French were best positioned to assert hegemony as model builders. Other national histories took different turns: in Spain the isolationist policies of the monarchy starting with Philip II (ruled 1554 to 1598) prevented foreign ideas and innovations in state rituals; in Germany independent imperial principalities limited the spread of royal ceremonies; in England royal ceremonies took shape bounded by the weakness of the monarchy and growth of parliamentary power; in Italy the Habsburgs, papacy, and princely dynasties favored the new inventions of political spectacles over rituals that contained residues of civic traditions; and throughout Europe Reformation and Counter-Reformation churches were attentive to maintain the purity of religious ceremonies from secular pollution. Through symbolic forms and performances, early modern rituals placed one's sense of status and civic consciousness within a framework of loyalty to national monarchy or state identities.


Marc Bloch The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France. Translated by J. E. Anderson. London, 1973. French publication of 1924 was the first to move from apologetics, polemics, or positivist interpretations of monarchical customs and ceremonies and apply the insights of ethnography and anthropology to interpreting historical sources. Essential for studying medieval and early modern ceremonies.

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