Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages

By Frans Theuws; Janet L. Nelson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION:
RITUALS IN TRANSFORMING SOCIETIES1

Frans Theuws

Since the days of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historiography of the Transformation of the Roman world has been characterised by a grand narrative well into the twentieth century. The core element of the narrative was the disappearance of civilisation and the rise of barbarism or a society in contraevolution. A range of developments were thought to be responsible: the Christian religion was one of them, the barbarians another. The histories were often unilineal and one-dimensional.

The grand narrative had a number of characteristics, that have been analysed before. In an attempt to name a few of these I can only be very sketchy, at some risk of oversimplification. It is not necessary to analyse the narrative in detail for our purpose here, which is demonstrating why the study of ritual may be important for our understanding of the transformations (in the plural) of the Roman world.

What we now call the transformation (in the singular) of the Roman world, was viewed from the perspective of the dominant culture, from the perspective of the powerful, be it Romans or men. From this perspective non-Romans (or those defined as such), the powerless and women most of the time only had bad effects or did not contribute at all to the continuation of civilisation. Their interpretations and representations of change and their consequent actions, were not considered to be of importance neither to the general historical development nor to the historical debate.

The grand narrative also was mainly of a socio-political nature and often an histoire evenementielle. Although 'civilisation' was central in the analysis, to what extent its decline was in the minds of contemporary elite and non-elite Roman men, let alone barbarians or women was seldom considered.

1 I would like to thank Jinty Nelson and Mayke de Jong for their comments on
an earlier version of this paper and Jinty for correcting the English.

-1-

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