Matthew Paris and the Royal Christmas: Ritualised Communication in Text and Practice

Detail of a marginal drawing of the marriage of Henry III and Eleanor of ProvenceMatthew Paris and the Royal Christmas: Ritualised Communication in Text and Practice

By Lars Kjær

Thirteenth Century England XIV: Proceedings of the Aberystwyth and Lampeter Conference, 2011 (2013)

Introduction: One of the most attractive reasons for studying thirteenth-century England is the excellent opportunities for comparative studies. The rich administrative evidence allows us to ask and answer questions that must necessarily remain opaque in more data-poor areas. At the same time, as historians such as Nicholas Vincent and Bjorn Weiler have shown, the interdisciplinary, analytical approaches developed in continental historiography can help us unpack the riches of the English sources and restore complexity and depth to our understanding of the medieval past. In this paper I will be looking at the way in which the English evidence can help further the vexed question of the relationship between rituals-in-text and rituals-in-practice. A decade ago Philippe Buc inaugurated a vigorous and fruitful debate amongst historians of medieval ritual with the publication of his The Dangers of Ritual. Buc argued that the descriptions of rituals found in narrative sources were so circumscribed with political interests, and so informed by classical and scriptural models, that they can only with great difficulty be used as evidence of actual ritual performance. One of the topics covered in the resulting debate has been the numerous accounts of disturbed royal solemnities found in the English narrative sources, such as Matthew Paris’s Chronica majora. Geoffrey Koziol has argued that these stories reveal the difficulties that the post-Conquest kings of England, unlike their Capetian rivals, faced when trying to use ritualised actions to buttress their dignity and authority.

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Buc, however, has questioned whether these narrative sources allow us access to the actual reception of rituals in the English court. Rather than straight forwardly revealing contemporary conditions, chroniclers’ accounts of bad, disrupted rituals point to authorial dissent. Whether authorial dissent is itself symptomatic of actual social disorder is another matter altogether.’ There can, of course, be no single answer to the question of the trustworthiness of chroniclers: it depends, amongst other things, on the agenda of the individual writer, his access to information, and his distance in time and space to the events. A closer study of Matthew Paris’s writings may, however, help further the debate because we are often able to compare and contrast his narratives with the administrative sources of the royal court. In this way we may get a former sense of how and how much one well-informed writer crafted his descriptions of ritualised actions and the extent to which his narrative allow usto say something about what actually happened at the royal court.

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