Ritual, Behaviour and Symbolic Communication in the dispute between Thomas Becket and King Henry II
By Bruce Tollafield
The History Student (2014)
Introduction: Historians looking at ritual and other forms of symbolic communication in the Middle Ages must recognise some obvious dangers. As contemporaries had no words for symbol, symbolism, or symbolic (in a modern sense), when we study ritualistic communication it is from a modern perspective, and in many cases we ourselves decide what was symbolic or ritualistic. Ritual is notoriously difficult to define because we use the term to describe a range of phenomena – coronations, consecrations, crown-wearings, oath-takings, births, funerals, hunts, banquets, knightings, acts of submission or commendation – all can be associated with the enactment of ritual, despite the broad range of attendees, purposes and outcomes. Many of these ritualistic events were concerned with power, order and hierarchy. But we must also consider the vertical dimension; Gerd Althoff writes that, ‘crudely typologised, there is on the one hand the vast religious-cultural domain. Religion is usually dominated by ritual.’
Distinctions between the secular and sacred implies superiority, and as we shall observe in the case of Archbishop Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England, symbolic communication and ritual were key tools for the debate, and most importantly, for the expression of hierarchy. A common issue raised by historians is that contemporary authors’ accounts are less rhetorically coloured than those dating from the tenth or eleventh century, hence giving an impression of being more realistic and closer to reality. This is certainly the case with the authors of the Becket dispute; Alan of Tewkesbury, in his account of the appearance of royal envoys before a papal curia at Sens (in November 1164), writes in a vivid and naturalistic fashion, which gives us the impression that we are witnessing the precise wording of the exchange – “as it really happened”, so to speak.