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Modern Approximation of First Putting Pen to Paper

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Hey folks. Most of this won't interest anyone, and for the most part it was just an exercise to get me thinking more linearly and making the concrete connections between ideas that I'll have to have to be able to squeeze a paper from my random musings. However, if anyone has the time and the inclination, it would help me quite a bit to see if this particular description of what I want to do makes sense to anyone. In particular, I'm looking for input from people who haven't been reading the jargon all summer (like myself) to see if it's clearly presented, etc. It's only about 1100 words (a tenth of the final project,) if you're interested. It would help me. Thanks :)


For this short dissertation, and as a first foray into this particular research direction, it’s probably best if I focus on applying the thoughts and ideas of other (well-known, accomplished, world-respected) historians, such as Gerd Althoff and Philippe Buc, to the sources and time period that interest me. This will allow me to become well versed with the ideas, theories and methodologies that underlie the current, ongoing debate that really fascinates me. Namely, a young professor at my University has joined the debate raging between Althoff and Buc with some unique ideas about authorial intent, bias, spin, propaganda, and how such things might have affected the description of ritual in narrative texts. Rather than trying to break into this new, uncertain territory now, though, I am hopeful if I’m careful and diligent, that might be something that can be developed into a PhD proposal.

For now, I think it best to lay a foundation with some work analysing certain major ideas and trends from recent work on 9th Century German ritual* and applying them to my chosen region and period: 14th Century England. One of the more fascinating ideas for me is the concept of the “immutability of ritual.” Some contend that public rituals were performed solely as whole entities, immutable and static, conveying only a standardised, pre-programmed subtext. Others, however, view each major ritual enactment as being comprised of numerous, individual, ritualised gestures, such as kneeling, a kiss, placing one’s hands within another’s, etc. These gestures carried established meanings themselves, but could be recombined as necessary to fit specific situations. In short, some historians see the development of an adaptable gesture language for use in public, fomalised ritual and ceremony.

Without having spent nearly enough time with my primary sources - indeed, without having actually isolated which sources or episodes I’ll use – I’m inclined to agree with those who see the development of an adaptable gesture language. At least, I find the arguments to that end concerning high medieval German ritual to be more compelling than the counter arguments. I am inclined to believe that, should such a system of public communication have been developed by the 9th Century in Germany, it is unlikely that it either faded from use by the 14th Century, or that it had not become sufficiently widespread by then to be in use in England. Therefore, I believe that my sources will support the argument for public communication by means of adaptable ritual gesture.

This is not to say, necessarily, that my focus will be on the gestures performed, or the “real” events. It will never be possible to determine the accuracy with which medieval sources portrayed the actual events and gestures of a particular occasion. Far from being detrimental to my work, however, I believe this may provide a unique approach to establishing the existence of such a gesture language in the 14th Century. After all, it was the medieval author’s goal to present to his audience an efficient and accurate description of the tone, meaning, and outcome of such events as he chose to include.** The truth, as perceived and conveyed by the medieval author was as reliant upon meaning and interpretation as it was on physical accuracy. Thus, an author’s decision to convey his meaning by describing certain ritualised gestures supports the argument in favour of a gesture language in 14th Century England. Indeed, it is likely that he viewed the description of a ritual to be the most efficient and unambiguous way of conveying the meaning and tone of the occasion. Thus, it must be assumed that such gestures, whether or not they were used in the physical reality of the event, carried with them an established, unambiguous interpretation on which the author could rely. Such an argument may be further strengthened by an examination of several types of sources. The similarity or dissimilarity of the description of a single event in sources as distinct as monastic chronicles and parliamentary record rolls may reinforce the likelihood of established meanings for individualised ritual gestures. As the aims of the authors of these two types of sources would have been different, the overlap in description and choice of content may more clearly reveal the subtext behind the description of late medieval English demonstrative behaviour.

Ideally, I could pick between two and four separate episodes, such as the reconciliation of the dispute between John of Gaunt and Henry Percy in the Parliament of 1381. An examination of a couple of reconciliation rituals through narrative and parliamentary sources should establish a firm basis for comparison of the authorial approach to describing ritual behaviour in similar, public situations.

Chris*** has recommended simple questions such as “What was done?” “What way was it done?” and “What way was it described?” In this sense, particularly focusing on the author’s choice of small, compositional gestures and his methods of describing them will probably be the most fruitful.

The ideal structure as yet eludes me. In theory, it might be easiest to devote a chapter to each ritual episode discussed, or a chapter to each type of source. However, that seems like a very rigid approach that might make it considerably more difficult to address themes or aspects common to all occasions or to all sources. I’m also reluctant to dedicate an entire chapter to discussing the arguments and theories that have inspired me, as that was one of my professor’s two major complaints concerning my last paper: I spent too much time discussing theory and not enough applying that theory to the source material. Therefore, it seems necessary to intersperse the indispensable snippets of theory into the introduction and the deeper discussion of the primary source material. In that case, it actually might be easier to discuss several descriptions of a single episode per chapter. That way, at least, my focus remains on the author’s intent and the nature of the description. I probably could also dedicate a chapter to each of the questions Chris posed above, though I’m not entirely sure that would help me structure the paper cohesively. I suppose another approach might be to isolate three important gestures common to all of the episodes with which I am concerned. The danger here would be getting bogged down in the minutiae of interpreting the gesture, which is rather unimportant compared to the simple establishment of whether or not it had an unambiguous meaning on it’s own, or whether its meaning was reliant on it’s place within an overarching meta-ritual structure.

*ie: Althoff, Buc, Le Goff, Koziol
**I’ll need to do some more work here, but Chris’ chapters on medieval authorial conceptions of truth should be invaluable.
*** The legend himself, my supervisor, Chris Given-Wilson

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