Realms of Ritual: Burgundian Ceremony and Civic Life in Late Medieval Ghent.
The ritual and symbolism of the late medieval Burgundian court in the southern Low Countries is well-known, thanks to the hugely influential Waning (or Autumn, depending upon one's preferred translation) of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga. As Peter Arnade points out in his intelligent book, Huizinga, "by making court ritual a touchstone of power grasped one of the central pillars of the Burgundian state," but by perceiving symbols as "but empty ciphers," the great Dutch historian "hindered his attempt to unlock the cultural significance of Burgundian ceremony"(3). Equipped with insights from up-to-date cultural theory and a deep familiarity with current research in the urban history of the late medieval southern Low Countries, Arnade offers another key to interpret Burgundian pomp and ritual, and he concludes that "a central dynamic behind Burgundian ritual was the fractious encounter between an ambitious ducal household and a world of townspeople"(5).
Most of Arnade's book focuses on Ghent between 1440 and 1540 because this towns patricians and guildsmen led the charge - ultimately without success - contesting the encroachment of the Burgundian state. Indeed, Arnade organizes his book in almost dialectical fashion, alternating his attention between the court and the town but always showing how inextricably and even reflexively tied court culture was to the civic world of the powerful cities. The gaping chink in the armor of the Dukes of Burgundy was that they were not kings, and so they were forced "to stake out and earn their sovereignty repeatedly, a process predicated on continual rites of public display"(13). It was no accident that this display took place in the powerful towns, and to meld ceremony with power the Dukes needed the complicity and participation of their mighty urban subjects. This relationship, Arnade subtly but insistently reminds us, rested upon a paradoxical and unstable base, for, on the one hand, ducal power required fear and awe, which in turn forced the townspeople to accept a position of inferiority and subservience. And yet, on the other hand, as the townsfolk well knew, withholding such differential complicity could be a powerful tool to protect or even advance the traditional autonomy and independence that these townspeople so jealously guarded.
To illustrate the uneasy process "by which these two worlds played off one another,"(64) Arnade offers chapters on confraternal institutions that reflect accommodation of ducal power (chapter 3, for example, analyzes "Shooting Confraternities and the Circulation of Prestige," while chapter 6, "Drama, Power, and City Rhetoricians," explores the facilitative role the confraternity of the city rhetoricians played in the expansion of ducal power). He also examines critical episodes that uncover the inherent conflict in the relationship: a chapter on "The Public World of Revolt and Submission" which centers upon Ghent's mid-fifteenth-century rebellion which established a regime that aggressively embraced the town's traditional privileges of citizenship; another, "The New Public Order," again dissects a rebellion, this time in Ghent in 1539, the outcome of which definitively quashed civic pretentions to autonomy. Conflict is also at the heart of a chapter on "Unity into Discord: The Entries of 1458 and 1467" where townsfolk symbolically contested ducal power, the urban reception of the second entry even spilling over into open revolt.
There is little to criticize and much to admire in this book. Historians will not find here a book that pushes the theoretical envelope of cultural history, but what they will find is a smart application of current theoretical understandings, firmly grounded in an empirical context that on every page exhibits sound and extensive research wedded to a lively yet disciplined historical imagination.
JAMES R. FARR Purdue University
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|Author:||Farr, James R.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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