The Sacramental Mechanism: Religion and the Civilizing Process in Christian Western Europe with Particular Reference to the Peace of God Movement and its Aftermath

Andrew McKinnon

In the modern world, religion sometimes fosters, channels and perpetuates violence (cf. Juergensmeyer 2003), a fact that has been difficult to ignore after 11 September 2001 (Lincoln 2006). At the same time, contemporary research has also shown that religion is far from an insignificant force in the processes of peace-building and post-conflict resolution (Brewer 2010). In his important survey of social scientific attention on the topic, Scott Appleby sensibly suggests that the role of religion in the violent conflicts of the modern world is profoundly ambivalent (2000).

Much of the attempt to understand the relationships between religion, violence and peace-building is marked by a decided concern with contemporary religion. While this is of undoubted value, and reflects well-intentioned concern over contemporaries suffering from religiously inspired violence, and the potential contributions of religion towards peace, the discussion can sometimes seem characterized by the 'retreat of sociologists into the present' (Elias 1987). It would seem important to try to situate the relationship between religion and violence in the context of long-term changes in dispositions towards violent acts that Norbert Elias referred to as The Civilizing Process in his masterwork of that same title (2004).

Religion and the Civilizing Process

That the relationship between religion and violence has not been previously considered from the perspective of The CivilizingProcess (2004) is not particularly surprising, since Elias himself sidelines the role of religious belief, practices and institutions (Bax 1987; Van Krieken 1989; Mennell 1992; Goudsblom 2004; Turner 2004), seeing it as largely irrelevant to the fostering of either violence or peaceableness, or shaping the course of historical change. Indeed, Elias is explicit that he sees religion, the belief in the punishing or rewarding of an omnipotence of God, never has in itself a 'civilizing' or affect-subduing effect. On the contrary, religion is always exactly as 'civilized' as the society or class which upholds it. (2000: 169)

While the direct consequences of such beliefs may well be limited, religion entails far more than this narrow (and somewhat ironically, markedly Protestant) conception of individual actors whose conduct is guided by their convictions. The dismissal of religion as inconsequential is difficult to reconcile with the history of Western Europe, and its exclusion seems incongruent with Elias' own theoretical inclinations towards sociology as a relational science (Bax 1987; van Krieken 1989). If we pause to consider the power and wealth of the medieval religious elite (Wood 2006), its role in legitimating and coordinating relations among the three orders of medieval society (Duby 1980), and its role as the primary carrier of trans-continental communication and interchange (Mann 1986; Le Goff 2005) it is difficult to see how it can be treated entirely as a 'dependent variable', as 'epiphenomenal', or as institutions with even 'relative autonomy' (Bax 1987). None of these are terms Elias would endorse, but it is difficult to see how he treats religious belief and practice as anything other in the context of the Civilizing Process (2000).

For the most part, scholars working in the school of Elias have followed his lead in this respect, though the work of Mart Bax (1987) and Robert van Krieken (1989, 1998, 2011) stand out as partial exceptions. Bax (1987) shows how Elias' analysis of the civilizing process can be used to great profit for understanding the trajectory of religious evolution in the west, without neglecting its relative autonomy from the emerging state. Unfortunately, Bax contributes little to understanding the role of religious institutions in the major civilizing processes of western European history. Van Krieken (2011) has recently argued that in Ireland at least, the Church played an important role in re-organizing the practices and institutions of marriage and family, with long-term, independent consequences for the civilizing process.

A fall-back position in the face of criticisms that Elias' sins of omission are potentially mortal for a historical social psychology of Western Europe, would be to recall that Elias' self-defined limits to his project are that his stated interest is in the 'secular elite' (Goudsblom 2004). Given Elias' own insistence on the importance of interdependencies (Mennell 1992), however, we can hardly treat the secular elite as entirely independent of the religious elite. Rather, the lives of religious and secular elites in medieval Europe are intertwined in any number of significant ways. The religious elite has long played a central role in educating the children of the secular elite, ever since the development of the cathedral schools (Jaeger 1985), and exemplified by the priest and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, whose De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Libellus plays such an important role in volume one of the Civilizing Process (Knox 1995; Bast 1995). The religious elite were, furthermore, typically kin relations of the secular elite. Finally, and in this context perhaps most importantly, the religious elite had considerable powers of consecration and de-consecration. These powers could, and sometimes did, change the this-worldly fortunes of the secular elite. Bishops had the power to declare someone a sinner or an excommunicate (and with some more effort as a heretic). This may have been perceived to have other-worldly consequences for the fortune of the excommunicate's soul, but it could also have very real, concrete and this-worldly consequences, as I will discuss in what follows.

If medievalists have taken issue with the omission of religion in Elias' account of the civilizing process, they have also found it difficult to recognize the face in his portrait of the medieval habitus (Rosenwein 1998; Meyerson et al. 2004, Thiery 2009; see also van Krieken 1989). While Elias is always careful to argue that the civilizing process has no historical degree zero, and that the difference between the dispositions that developed during the Renaissance and those of our medieval forebears is one of degree. In practice, however, he often treats the medieval habitus as qualitatively distinct, and he often allows a caricature to make his case (Borkenau 1938, 1939; Arnason 1989; van Krieken 1989).

Assessing a range of critical appraisals of The Civilizing Process, Barbara Rosenwein writes that although Medievalists have generally been unwilling to accept Elias' view of emotionally unrestrained medievals, his implicitly Freudian conceptions of human personality, or his exclusive emphasis on secular courts, and, although they have tended to push the civilizing process several centuries further back in European history, Elias nonetheless remains an important touchstone. Despite the many reservations Medieval historians have of the Civilizing Process as it pertains to their period, she writes, '[i]n general, then, historians of the West have accepted the thrust of Elias's model' (1998: 240). Given how much of Elias' 'model' she has summarily sent to the scrap heap, I am not sure that it is his 'model' that has been generally accepted, even as it is equally true that his 'general thrust' has.

In their introduction to A Great Effusion of Blood (2004) Meyerson et al. concur with Rosenwein's assessment:

Few scholars today would subscribe to Elias's notion that the development of a court society and the taming of the European nobility, especially from the end of the Middle Ages, effected a change in norms and a reduction of violence throughout society. Medievalists in particular have criticized his characterization of medieval people as irrational, given to extreme emotions, and uncontrollably violent. They have also questioned his almost exclusive emphasis on the lay aristocracy, his assumption that new aristocratic mores necessarily percolated down to or were aped by the lower classes, and his relative neglect of the latter and the church in his treatment of the ideological and social changes essential to the civilizing process. (2004: 5)

If this seems like a damning indictment from specialists in the period, they do offer a reason why Elias' account of the civilizing process is sent to be redeemed in purgatory, rather than consigned to the burning lake of fire. Their provisional verdict is that:

however medievalists and others have criticized and qualified the work of Elias, it is difficult to avoid concluding that medieval people used and understood violence differently, and that what separates us from our medieval forebears is not just the greater efficacy of modern states in controlling and suppressing violence but, more importantly, fundamental modifications in mentality and behaviour. (Meyerson et al. 2004: 5)

In this chapter, I want to contribute to paying down the debt of indulgences owed for the Civilizing Process, proposing a way to include religion and the religious elite in the model, whilst avoiding any suggestion that medievals were enslaved to their passions but recognizing that there is a difference between their habitus and ours. In this chapter I argue that what I will term the sacramental mechanism is vital for understanding the civilizing process in western European history, suggesting that it may be of importance on a par with the monopoly mechanism and the royal mechanism, two of the primary levers of the civilizing process. My concern in this chapter is with the sacramental mechanism itself, largely leaving aside the relation between the different mechanisms, a full conception of which would ultimately be necessary for understanding the complex web of relations that drive the civilizing process as a whole. To analyse these interconnected forces would require far more than I will be able to accomplish within the limits of this chapter; my ambition here is simply to provide this first and, in my view, necessary, step.

There are a number of historical cases that could be used to show the importance of religious forces and institutions for diminishing the proclivity towards violent means, for fostering self-restraint and taming passions. For example, Daniel Thiery (2009) has written a compelling book on the role of the late-medieval English parish in the civilizing process, and there are encouraging beginnings of the consideration of Protestant institutions in the promotion of self and social control (Bast 1995; Knox 1995). Likewise, although not framed in terms of the civilizing process, both Philip Gorski's The Disciplinary Revolution (2003) and Michael Graham's study of the discipline in Scottish Kirk Sessions (1996) are both important studies that have much bearing on the questions raised here.

I will address the question of religion and the civilizing process by inspecting a rather different case: the pax Dei movement (from the late tenth century) and its after-effects through the eleventh century (including the canons of treuga Dei and the preaching of the First Crusade) proves instructive for the consideration of Elias' account of the civilizing process for several reasons. First, in the Peace Councils, we find the violent, unruly warrior class of castellans (the very group that will develop into Elias' court nobility) being shaped and constrained by ecclesiastical elites and by the peasants, in response to the acts of violence and exploitation perpetuated against them. While these castellans certainly do not become the purveyors of courtly manners at this point, here we find a fundamental step along that path. Second, following from this, an examination of this case shows that, at the very beginning of the process of feudalization, Christian ideals and institutions played a formative role that is decisive for the course of both the monopoly mechanism and the royal mechanism. Third, the church acted to constrain the violence of the castellans by Christianizing it. Although such sacralization of violence was by no means ineffective in constraining the warrior nobles, the church was unable to control their violent impulses completely, at least in part due to the relative religious independence of the knights (Kaeuper 2009); the church also played no inconsiderable role in the formation of the First Crusade. This last point is important, especially given Elias's insistence that the crusades were primarily driven by economic pressures, particularly the finite amount of land and the primogeniture of the French landowning classes. More recent research on the Crusades casts that empirical claim into very serious doubt, but there is an important theoretical point that this example forces us to confront directly in the theory of the civilizing process. This means that the same means of restraining violence and the passions 'at home', may at the same time foster them at a distance; it also shows the importance of religion in fostering both peace and directing violent impulses.

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