Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany

Reformation of Ritual: An Interpretation of Early Modern Germany – Review

Helena Waddy

By Susan Karant-Nunn (New York: Routledge, 1997. 282pp. $74.95).

Susan Karant-Nunn provides an overview of the “ritual change” (p. 1) that Lutheran and (to a lesser extent in this book) Calvinist authorities introduced all over Germany during the period that ended with the Thirty Years War. To do this she extends out from her own work in Saxony to include data from widely scattered archives, and she builds on research into the confessionalizing and social disciplining efforts that typified Protestant jurisdictions. Her subject requires her to include extensive coverage of the Catholic rituals to which reformers were responding in order to reveal the extent of their purging of “superstitious” and non-Biblical elements, as well as the degree of compromise that they made with the old ritual elements beloved by many of their parishioners. The resistance of both urban and rural populations to the confessionalizing efforts of both Church and State officials therefore provides a subtheme; but her main emphasis is on the “agenda of religious and moral reform . . . directed at the broad masses” that dictated the purification of rituals and their use as didactic tools. (p. 5)

Karant-Nunn covers parish-level rituals that include the great Gennepian rites of passage, “baptism, marriage, and funerals,” (p. 3) although she introduces engagement and marriage in the first chapter, followed by a chapter on baptism, together with the reemergence of confirmation in the reform period. She then provides a fascinating chapter about the churching of mothers, which she rightly points out “is a particularly promising rite for the anthropological historian.” (p. 72) It provides a window into the situation of women in reformed societies, where there was “an increase in masculine hegemony, both over evil and over society.” Calvinists did away with churching, choosing to control women through other means, but Lutherans kept it as a tool to recapture women out of the female world of birthing. (pp. 86-89)

Karant-Nunn then moves on to the central questions of confession and the Eucharist; confession served well the aims of Lutheran authorities to control and mold their subjects, while the Mass too became laden with didactic content. She decides “to take a holistic view of the drama of the Mass both before and after the advent of Luther . . . to arrive at an interpretation of the shift in meaning that the entire transactions meant.” (pp. 91, 130) Clearly, Lutherans left much of the old symbolism in place and so compromised with “a still recognizably Catholic-derived Mass.” (p. 133)

Karant-Nunn gives extensive coverage to the “art of dying,” which meant that one was “to die as a candle going out, like a child falling asleep, without sound, motion, or fury.” (p. 160) Of course, the dying and their loved ones did not escape the reforming urge to teach through the final rites of a parishioner’s life; funerals offered another opportunity for instruction through the sermons so many of which Rudolf Lenz has analyzed. (p. 156) Catholics believed in the post-burial reintegration of ancestors into the communal ossuaries, but this was a practice that reformers tried to end as soon as possible. For them “the dead departed and could not return.” (p. 178)

An impressive array of sources provides Karant-Nunn with evidence for the history of these rituals, most particularly the visitation records that reveal both the reforming efforts and the actual state of ritual performance on the communal level. The wonderful detail of this book derives from her willingness to search beyond conventional sources for the evidence that she needs to recreate the practice of ritual in diverse German regions during such a changeable period. As a result she is able to reproduce both the key Reformers’ decisions about the ritual alterations that their followers should adopt and the local authorities’ efforts to regularize and standardize ritual in each jurisdiction. She can also recreate the ways in which subjects resisted these attempts, forced compromises, and retained old customs and beliefs, most notably in the area of highly secular and colorful engagement and marriage ceremonies.

Karant-Nunn is an anthropological historian who reached out to several theorists for ideas when she decided to “experiment with interpretation.” (p. 2) She resists the idea that any one theory “can be laid down like a template upon early modern Germany.” (p. 38) Instead, she brings various theoretical concepts to bear on the phenomena under discussion when one or a number of them can help her to illuminate the significance of a ritual. She also draws on the work of Catherine Bell and others when she discusses resistance to reform efforts. It might have been more helpful to develop one overarching methodological approach pieced together from the most usable theories to provide a source of continuity throughout the text. As it is, the book reads like a collection of essays, in which each ritual receives a different treatment. Similarly, gathering together in a separate chapter her discussions of popular resistance to each set of ritual changes would have helped provide a complete picture of the degree to which parishioners both adapted to and rejected the new ritual forms. More discussion of Protestants’ interconnections with Catholic regions where it was possible to seek out the old religious practices across the border would also have helped. Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully illuminating book that anyone interested in knowing more about the impact of the Reformation on the people of Germany should welcome.

Helena Waddy

SUNY Geneseo

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group