Much Ado About Nothing? Rituals of Politics in Early Modern Europe and Today

Nov 11, 2010

24th Annual Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster), Commentator: David Luebke (University of Oregon)

The GHI's 24th Annual Lecture was delivered by Professor Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger of the University of Münster, who spoke on "Rituals of Politics in Early Modern Europe and Today." After introductory remarks on the slip-up in the wording of President Obama's oath of office during his inauguration as an example of the significance of ritual in modern politics, Stollberg-Rilinger offered a definition of ritual, defining it as an act or sequence of acts that is repetitive and standardized in its outward form, efficacious in the sense of bringing about a change of condition, performative in character (staged or enacted demonstratively), and symbolic in the sense that rituals point to something beyond themselves. Most importantly, a ritual brings about what it represents; in an act of "social magic," it transforms reality and simultaneously reinforces its basic social principles. This, the speaker argued, is particularly true of political rituals. Political power always requires visibility.

Stollberg-Rilinger then illustrated the functioning of a ritual in the premodern era, using the example of the feudal investiture of imperial princes in the Holy Roman Empire. It was less the power of the emperor, she argued, and more the power of the empire itself that this ritual's form made visible. Whosoever received his fief in this way simultaneously presented himself before the public as a partner in this empire. The symbolic surplus of the ritual was thus a reciprocal one. Both sides profited from the splendor of the staging. By recognizing the majesty of emperor and empire as the source of his own power, the vassal participated in its traditional sacral legitimacy. In addition, the action offered vassals the opportunity to mobilize their social capital and to put their military power on display. Thus, in the investiture ritual, the reciprocal character of power is revealed.

The tournament-like public form of investiture with banners declined over the course of the sixteenth century. The event gradually shifted from the imperial cities to the emperor's court which, as a result, became the center of the Empire as a feudal system. This coincided with a general development in which the emperor increasingly withdrew from the Empire into his patrimonial residence and no longer appeared in person at the imperial diets except for his own coronation. It was not until the eighteenth century, however, that the ritual encountered a serious crisis, from which it did not recover.

In the concluding part of her lecture, Stollberg-Rilinger returned to the present in order to examine the similarities and differences between political rituals in the early modern era and today. In contrast to premodern rituals, she noted, modern ones are striking for their material austerity. More importantly, our modern political order is available as a written founding document, a "constitution" in the strict sense, which is assigned precedence over all other law. The founding norms of the state are preserved therein in a general, abstract, and systematic form. Their validity is based upon their being fixed in writing, which they owe either to their one-time act of foundation or to a legally designated process, but not to a regularly renewed oath-taking by every individual citizen. It is possible to consult the constitutional order anytime and for this reason it is no longer as imperative to symbolically and ritually stage it as it was in the premodern period, when the validity of the entire order could be upheld in no other way than through a complex nexus of rituals.

The efficacy of rituals, Stollberg-Rilinger concluded, is essentially based on the personal presence of all participants, who through their participation in the ritual reciprocally commit themselves to what they perform there. The more complex society became, the less it could be organized by personal commitments, and the more its relationships were converted to impersonal, abstract and universal processes in order to create binding obligations. For this reason, the modern way of dealing with political rituals seems fundamentally broken. Nevertheless, the speaker noted, the question remains to what extent we are deceiving ourselves and underestimating the significance and efficacy of rituals.

The lecture was followed by a comment from Professor David Luebke of the University of Oregon and concluded with a lively question-and-answer session with the audience. Both the Annual Lecture and the comment will be published in the Spring 2011 issue of the GHI's Bulletin.