Medieval Rituals, the Arts, and the Notion of Medievalism

By Nils Holger Petersen, University of Copenhagen and SDU

“Medievalism” is “the ongoing reception of medieval culture in post-medieval times” (Richard Utz). Few would object to this definition. Even so, it opens many questions. Firstly, there is the question of periodization, when did the Middle Ages end? Renaissance Humanists looked upon medieval art and literature as a low point between Antiquity and their own time (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), whereas modern Historians sometimes (as the famous French Historian Jacques Le Goff) have considered an extended Middle Ages, understood to last up to the political revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century. Whereas “the Middle Ages” is often thought of as the period from c. 500 to c. 1500, it is also common to think of medieval culture not so much in terms of a specific time-period but rather as certain cultural phenomena associated with the notion of the Middle Ages, regardless of an exact chronology. Especially in popular films, novels and cartoons, medieval culture is often represented through knightly warfare and/or behaviour or through monastic culture (signalled not least also by monastic or priestly garments), including church rituals with processions and chant (often so-called Gregorian, Latin chant, but also other forms of unaccompanied, monophonic church song). Wall paintings in churches and Romanesque or Gothic architecture also signpost medieval culture. Referencing some of these (or other) signs of “the medieval” in various ways are common ingredients in film, in various genres of music, in images as well as architecture in modern times, in practice almost defining what is considered as medievalism.

I shall now turn my attention to the “old” (medieval) church rituals and their receptions into the modern arts, an area constituting a key focus of the NetMAR project. The modern notion of art is somewhat out of place when discussing the function of rituals. Even though modern scholars have had (and still have) difficulties in finding consensus about how to define the concept of a ritual, it seems at least clear that rituals in the human world are recurring events with various kinds of functions for their participants. Rituals have performative and aesthetic aspects, but what we perceive as a well-functioning ritual does not depend on an aesthetic evaluation per se, although aesthetic experiences may contribute to the evaluation of a ritual as fulfilled or successful, i.e. that it functioned as intended.

This was explicitly theorized for liturgical celebrations 1200 years ago. Seen from a modern anthropological point of view, these constituted rituals with spiritual functions, also with important public, even political implications. In the era of Charlemagne (768‒814) and his successors, the notion of sweetness (Latin: suavitas or dulcedo) was applied to the sensory quality of the chant, pointing to its ability to penetrate into the hearts of the participants: “even our fleshly hearts are furrowed through the sweetness of melody” (Amalar II: 78‒79). As pointed out by Mary Carruthers, the notion of sweetness was used as an epithet for God, and while it was used extensively throughout the Middle Ages about aesthetic pleasure, it also denoted “a profound theological and mystical experience” (Carruthers: 89). Briefly summarized, the “sweet” song of singers during a church service contributed to the function of the service: to bring people closer to God through contrition and God’s salvation. The song functioned as a sacred sign of the divine.

Stage set for the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal by Paul von Joukowsky (Bayreuth 1882).
Stage set for the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal by Paul von Joukowsky (Bayreuth 1882).

From Antiquity and up to the twelfth century, the notion of sacrament was broadly applied to sensory signs pointing to the sacred. In the West, during the twelfth century the term was reconsidered with consequences far beyond the strict intellectual, theological discussion, which ‒ notably involving Parisian theologians such as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard ‒ led to the notion of the seven sacraments for the medieval and later Roman Catholic Church. One consequence of this terminological revision was a distinction between the very holy, the (official) sacraments, and sacred objects or procedures, performances that were not to the same extent exposed to the scrutiny of church authorities. From around this time, strikingly new elements in liturgical ceremonies are found, building on earlier phenomena, known since the ninth or tenth centuries, in particular, new large-scale musical polyphony and larger scopes for what has been termed “liturgical drama,” now also with entertaining traits. The early polyphony and the early biblical enactments were experiments, which complied completely with the general tenor of liturgical procedures. But the Paris polyphony of the late twelfth century and later musical polyphony as well as large biblical (and other sacred) enactments show signs of independent artistic interests, although not in opposition to the pious function of the liturgical rituals. They are not devoid of sacramental qualities (in the earlier understanding of the notion). The general question, to what extent sensory artefacts are able to point to the transcendent, can be dealt with for these artefacts as well as for early medieval liturgical elements, where this was presupposed or experienced by liturgists of the time, as well as for modern artefacts including dramas and musical compositions. Answers are, necessarily, interpretations.

Medieval liturgical elements in the modern arts are common, as can be seen in both the visual arts, in literature and in my own field, music and music drama. Medieval liturgical scenes, for instance, are found in numerous operas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a few famous examples are Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882), Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (1983), and, in an East European context, Modest Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov (composed and revised 1868‒72). The so-called churchyard scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) also processes liturgical elements from medieval traditions in the spooky lines of the Commendatore. Reception narratives from the referenced medieval elements to their appropriations explain and interpret the medievalism of the work in question, leading to an array of different historical reception narratives.

Modern performing arts display ritualized characteristics, for instance in terms of a certain semi-sacred atmosphere that emphasizes the importance of the moment of performance. This is similar to the hinc et nunc (here and now) highlighted in medieval liturgical ceremonies expressing the idea and experience of this moment as a now of absolute quality. Bells before a service begins, and the silence and turning down of lights before a theatre performance or a concert are ways to signpost this focus on the very moment.

Since the liturgical phenomena, marked by seemingly liturgically independent artistic concerns mentioned above, were also based on earlier liturgical elements (well-known chants or excerpts of chants) the reception processes that define medievalism in modern times already seem to be at work in what is normally construed as the later Middle Ages. Thus it becomes less obvious how to distinguish between reception narratives within the Middle Ages and the later medievalism, except that to increasing degrees, these reception narratives go beyond traditionally well-defined Christian worldviews, as was made clear by Richard Wagner in his Religion und Kunst (1880, Religion and Art). Here, he claimed that art can save the core of obsolete religion. Music, on the one hand, fully corresponds with Christian belief; on the other hand, only music’s “final severance from the decaying Church could enable the art of Tone to save the noblest heritage of the Christian idea in its purity of over-worldly reformation” (Wagner: 223‒24).

What is “medieval” and what “medievalism” is, in the end, a matter of definition. Leslie Workman’s intriguing ‒ seemingly Hayden White-inspired ‒ almost circular definition of medievalism underlines the point, I have tried to elaborate. Workman wrote that medievalism is “the continuing process of creating the Middle Ages” (Workman 1996:1) and also that “the study of the successive recreation of the Middle Ages by different generations, is the Middle Ages. And this of course is medievalism.” Workman further insisted that “the study of the Middle Ages on the one hand, and the use of the Middle Ages in everything from fantasy to social reform on the other, are two sides of the same coin” (Workman 1999:12). This view underlines the difficulty in making a sharp separation between medievalism and the medieval, unless one defines the Middle Ages chronologically, bringing us back to the problems of periodization.


Amalar of Metz, On the Liturgy, ed. with parallel translation [Latin/English] by Eric Knibbs. 2 vols. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Carruthers, Mary, The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Petersen, Nils Holger, “Carolingian Music, Ritual, and Theology,” in: The Appearances of Medieval Rituals: The Play of Construction and Modification (eds. N.H. Petersen et al.; Turnhout: Brepols, 2004) 13–31.

Petersen, Nils Holger, “Medieval Latin Performative Representation: Re-evaluating the State-of-the-Art,” European Medieval Drama 23 (2019), 115‒32.

Petersen, Nils Holger, “The Beginnings of Musical Notation and Carolingian Uses of the Term ‘Sacrament’: a Theological Perspective,” in: Matteo Nanni und Kira Hankel (eds.), Von der Oralität zum Schriftbild: Visuelle Kultur und musikalische Notation (9.‒13. Jahrhundert) (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2020), 1‒16.

Utz, Richard, “Introduction” to “Medievalism,” in: Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception vol. 18 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), col. 401‒3.

Wagner, Richard, Religion and Art, trans. William Ashton Ellis, in: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: Kegan Paul, 1897 [repr. 1994]), 211‒52.

Workman, Leslie, “Preface,” in: Studies in Medievalism VIII: Medievalism in Europe II (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996), 1‒2.

Workman, Leslie, “The Future of Medievalism,” in: Medievalism: The Year’s Work for 1995 X (1999), 7‒18.

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