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The Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany.

Coinciding with the publication of David Cressy's study on ritual in Tudor and Stuart England, Susan Karant-Nunn explores the function of ritual in early modern German society, examining how the emerging Lutheran and Calvinist liturgical forms were used and regarded as they replaced the Catholic rites. Whereas Cressy chose to look at churching, baptism, marriage and death, Karant-Nunn has also included penitence and the Lord's Supper.

In her introduction, Karant-Nunn acknowledges the insights from anthropological studies for assessing liturgical rites, particularly van Gennep, Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz; she is also indebted to the work of Robert Scribner on sixteenth-century German ritual. What is disconcerting, however, is her apparent lack of acquaintance with the work of liturgists on this period, which results in some surprising omissions.

The book commences with the rituals of engagement and marriage, citing Roland Bainton as a representative of the view that Luther radically altered the status of the married condition. By way of contrast, some feminist writers have argued that whatever Luther's intentions might have been, the ultimate result was the increased control of church courts over women. Karant-Nunn argues that through the Protestant rites, the Reformers sought first to tame sexuality better than the Catholic ritual had done, and to teach men and women their appropriate roles and behaviour in relationship to one another and to the world. Thus she embarks upon a description of the medieval marriage rite, using the form of the diocese of Breslau (though surely her reference to a priest's pallium should in fact be to the stole?). Luther's Traubuchlein omits material which has sexual connotation, and stresses behaviour of husband and wife. In tracing subsequent Lutheran forms, she notes a tendency to extend the promise to include behaviour. There was an attempt to tame the sexual, and to eliminate superstitious customs. Though all this is an interesting interpretation, it ignores a number of factors. Luther himself was quite clear in his Traubuchlein that the church rite must be concerned only with what the church is entrusted to do in Christian marriage. However, he notes the proverb `Many lands, many customs', and advised that his aim was not to eliminate these. His rite is brief, but this is because the German forms, in comparison to the French and British, were extremely meagre, and custom varied considerably. Luther's own diocesan use of Magdeburg might have been a better paradigm, and its provisions in the Agenda are almost as brief as Luther's rite. While concerned with what eccleslastical authority tried to prohibit, she fails to explore just how far these attempts failed. Cressy, in his study, uses much wider sources to show that many customs continued in England, even though the liturgical provision had disappeared. One suspects that this was true also in Germany. Likewise, Karant-Nunn stresses the prohibition marriage before penance where the bride was pregnant. The same was true in theory in England, but Cressy uses demographical studies to show that many brides were pregnant, but married without first fulfilling ecclesiastical discipline. Again, there is no reason to suspect that Germany was different. Clerics have always issued rules which most of the laity have managed to ignore. Indeed, Karant-Nunn illustrates this herself with regard to engagement and wedding festivities. It is quite strange that there is no reference to the work on marriage liturgies by Kenneth Stevenson.

Karant-Nunn next turns to baptism and particularly the concept of sin. In her view, medieval Catholic baptism provides an excellent example of ritual archaism, in that, although used almost exclusively for infants, it was really for adults. Yet although citing the work of Old on Reformation baptismal rites, she has failed to note the moves already afoot in a number of German rituals to address this problem. She shows particular concern for the different exorcisms for males and females, and makes this something of a gender issue, though failing to note their ultimate origin in one set being performed by deacons and the other by deaconesses, in separate places for the sake of modesty. She correctly observes that Luther and the rites which followed his retained exorcisms, but in South Germany under Reformed influence they were toned down or removed. What she fails to point out is that the retention of exorcisms by Luther reflects his strong theological belief in the devil. To suggest some purely social or anthropological reason rather than Luther's stated theological reason seems rather unnecessary. She is again correct to note the importance of godparents as a social institution; yet she could have noted that for all the stress on parents by the Reformed tradition to square infant baptism with covenant theology, godparents survived. Here in the Reformed tradition is an example of the social ignoring the implications of the theology. Once more, however, there is a noticeable failure to utilize studies on Luther's baptismal rite and his baptismal theology.

When turning to the rite of churching, Karant-Nunn asserts that the reforms failed to abolish the rite's witness to the deteriorating position of women in the sixteenth century, based on the view that the rite was mainly concerned with impurity. This seems to be a feminist concern which is not supported by the evidence. Cressy's study of churching in England shows that it was women rather than most parish clergy who demanded it, and it was very much a female occasion, and regarded as important socially. One suspects that had Karant-Nunn moved away from ecclesiastical to more social statements on the subject, another reading of the evidence would suggest itself.

Confession as the means of admission to the Eucharist is next treated in terms of social control. First she describes the medieval mass and system of penance, and then Luther's reforms. She makes much of Luther's insistence on the sermon, and his abolition of the canon of the mass. No reference is made to the studies by Vajta, Reed, or to my own studies in this area. Was the abolition of the canon of the missae really radical? Given that most of the canon was recited silently, its disappearance would be entirely unnoticed by the congregation, and since Luther retained the words of institution with elevation, most would have felt that there was no difference. Citing Bossy, she argues that the medieval mass expressed the wholeness of society in a way which the Protestant rites did not. Yet Scribner and others -- admitted later by Karant-Nunn -- have shown that much ritual and ceremonial was retained well into the seventeenth century in many parts of German Lutheranism; custom was greater than clerical edict. Furthermore, as Bossy himself admits, the Counter-Reformation mass -- the text of which hardly changed from its pre-Reformation form -- no longer expressed the wholeness. The change to individualism from communal was a change in society, not in liturgical text. And the use of the vernacular and the use of hymns in Protestant worship were probably as socially cohesive as the pax of the medieval rite had been.

Perhaps taking her cue again from Bossy, Karant-Nunn's final concern is with banning the dead. The medieval charnel-house was the meeting place of the community which had gone before, but their elimination signified the Lutheran ending of the coming together of living and dead. Yet even here, custom was strong. Clerics may have prohibited the lighting of candles, but not kneeling at graves. There was a market for admonitions to the dying, and the parson was supposed to be called to the bedside of the dying. Since a fee was involved, the poor avoided calling him. Yet one wonders whether this was socially very different from the pre-Reformation poor lighting candles in church because they could not afford the fee for a chantry mass.

The conclusion of this study is that every Reformation ritual incorporated these messages: inner devotion, subdued personal will, ordered domestic life and high morality. Worship services ceased to be a replication of a miracle and became instead a means of shaping the individual faithful. The Reformers used ritual as one among many means of elevating humankind. They were driven by Utopian fervour.

There are a great many important observations and much useful information in this book, and liturgists and historians of this period will greatly profit from it. It does, however, have some limitations. In comparison with Cressy, it lacks the wide range of relevant sources to give a full social picture. Furthermore, although insights from anthropology are useful, they need to be used in conjunction with liturgical and theological studies. There is a danger which emerges in some places in this book of interpreting a liturgy in a manner which is quite at variance with the stated theological rationale of the compiler. Karant-Nunn's final assertion, that the Reformation attempt to apply sacral principles to all aspects of creaturely existence, ran the risk of rendering the sacred so diffuse that it could easily dissipate in the emerging capitalist and rationalist atmosphere, would need to be substantiated.
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Author:Spinks, Bryan D.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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