Thursday, December 25, 2008

Violence in the Empty See

Many of us, archaeologists, historians, art historians, that deal with destroyed material culture and spolia make a cardinal mistake in pretending that we fully understand the motivations of ancient or medieval violence. We simplistically project explanations for violence from our modern sensibilities into the past. Joe:lle Rollo-Koster's new book throws a wrench into such assumptions. Raiding Saint Peter: Empty Sees, Violence and the Initiation of the Great Western Schism (1378) (Leiden, 2008) explores the looting resulting from the creation of a double papacy (in Rome and Avignon) in 1378. More fundamentally, however, Rollo-Koster explores the ritual violence that traditionally ensued after the death of popes, namely the faithful's pillaging of his property. On face value, this makes no sense. Why would a group of Christians destroy the property of their own church? Looking at the double nature of the bishop's body (like the king's two bodies) and employing Victor Turner's concept of liminality, what we have is the anthropological unpacking of a medieval practice. With the death of a pope, the ecclesiastical estate entered a liminal state that required not only the development of special liturgies and customs, but also expiatory carnivalesque behavior like looting. The democratic origins of ecclesiastical election, moreover, made the bishop's property communally shared (in theory). Once a new pope was elected, he ritually re-distributed the common goods through customs like the magical showering of coins, a gesture that terminated the cycle of violence.

Rollo-Koster's analysis is exhaustive and fascinating; I cannot do justice to it in this short posting. The art historian will especially appreciate the specific discussion of spolia (pp. 107-118); Dale Kinney's fundamental work on the subject (which informs my own understanding) is incorporated. This book is a must even for a reader not interested in the Great Western Schism, or the history of 14th-15th c. church politics. Its breadth and depth of knowledge about ritual violence should cause most of us to reconsider notions of pre-modern violence and its reflection in archaeology. For a more thorough (and informed) review by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, see The Medieval Review (Dec. 6, 2008).

Professor Rollo-Koster teaches at the University of Rhode Island's History Department. Having enjoyed Raiding Saint Peter, I am curious now to read additional articles on confraternities, prostitutes, death, memorialization, and other topics listed in Rollo-Koster's department's web site. I found Rollo-Koster's historical-anthropological approach extremely refreshing, which carries beyond the events of 1378 (treated with painstakingly detail in the second part of the book). In all honesty, I knew very little about the looting of the Empty See during the Schism. Now I understand its relevance for the study of all liminal states in medieval history

Coincidentally, this book came into my attention at the same time that Greek protesters looted downtown Athens and Thessaloniki. Even the most senseless of violence, Rollo-Koster teaches us, has disguised anthropological meaning. The Empty See of papal Rome might illuminate the sociology of disenchanted Greece. Since we project modern notions of violence into the past, why not reverse the process and project medieval phenomena into the present. I'm thinking of a process akin to George Bataille's economy of excess. The Greek state suffers from some obvious (and fixable) problems. The anthropological dimension of these problems, on the other hand, might require some harder analysis (psychoanalytical or not). Something to think about.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States