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Muir builds on his own innovative work on civic rituals, vendetta, and factions in Renaissance Italy to write a synthetic, comprehensive study of the revolution in ritual theory that occurred in Europe between 1400 and 1700. Muir also draws on the insightful Italian studies selected from the pages of Quarderni Storici that he and Ruggiero edited and published in three volumes, thereby energizing the field of Renaissance Italian history and the study of popular culture and religion in early modern Europe. 1 Based on a broad range of archival sources—some previously used documents coaxed to yield fresh insights and others previously overlooked or considered unworthy of scholarly attention—the work of Muir and Ruggiero has illuminated the topics of sexuality and gender, criminality and ritualized violence, and popular attitudes toward death and life in sixteenth-century Italy. [End Page 297]
Informed by anthropological theory and ritual studies, Muir’s work is also self-avowedly historicist in intent. He does not intend to celebrate the ability of the dead “to anticipate us or our ability to surpass them,” but rather wishes “to respect the dead, to honor how different they were from us” (9). Therefore, he is more intent on transporting us back to the pre-Reformation world in which rituals were experienced by participants who believed that rites actually accomplished something (and not just represented something) than on explaining the origins of the ritual revolution or the meaning and importance of the rituals themselves. Muir clearly savors the sensual appeal of rituals and vividly conveys it with descriptions of his own experiences in the ritual process. He wishes readers to share the same sense of awe that he felt when first participating in ritual moments, and he has a gift for introducing chapters with telling examples (often drawn from his own research) that illustrate the workings of ritual and the mindset of the participants. Indeed, reading the book is, in itself, a kind of ritual experience: As you turn the pages, you can almost feel the texture of the crisply folded sacred linens, savor the taste of the eucharistic bread and wine, scent the heady mixture of incense, and appreciate the shimmering play of light from the stained-glass windows! His historicist approach does, however, lead him to neglect discussion of what some would regard as the most crucial and troubling question of all, that is, why the ritual revolution occurred at all, at this time, and in this part of the world.
Muir begins the book by introducing acolytes into the mysteries of ritual theory, but seasoned theorists and researchers will also appreciate his succinct explanation of anthropological debates on ritual. He arrives at a working definition of ritual as “a social activity that is repetitive, standardized, a model or a mirror” the meaning of which is “inherently ambiguous” (7). He persuasively argues, however, that our main concern should not be settling upon the “true definition” of ritual; rather, we should focus on framing the concept in a way that is useful for analysis. “The task of this book,” he explains, “is not to explain ritual in a universally applicable way but to examine rites in the particular historical situation of Christian Europe from about 1400 to 1700” (7). He then presents his materials in three major sections: The first two examine the pre-Reformation, Catholic world in which ritual theory was dominated by the doctrine of presence, that is, the assumption that rites made something “present.” The first of these two sections explores how this doctrine influenced concepts of time, resulting in “ritual moments” or rites of passage (for example, those of baptism, transition to a new social status, marriage, and death) or the rites associated with calendrical or liturgical time in annual, monthly, daily, and hourly cycles. The second section, which further explores traditional Catholic practice, deals with the rituals pertaining to the purportedly rational upper and passionate lower strata of the human body.
The third section examines the genesis of the Reformation debate about what rituals do (if anything). According...