Renaissance and Reformation Civic Ritual
Sharon Strocchia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0037


Civic rituals mobilized a range of people, objects, urban spaces and notions of time in organized, sometimes scripted performances that ran the gamut from the simple to the spectacular. The goals of civic rituals were numerous and wide-ranging. They enacted hierarchies of social and political power, yet at the same time tried to promote civic harmony among disparate social groups. State pageants in particular might be staged to counteract political instability or recent upheavals, or to win the allegiance of particular groups. On occasion, these ostensibly orderly representations of power and status turned into opportunities for social groups to express grievances over specific civic policies or simply a generalized sense of discontent. Civic rituals celebrated various local foundation legends, honored local patron saints, and commemorated important political events in the life of a community. In addition, civic rites helped map a sacred topography of the city by means of processional itineraries and their placement of participants. Inspired by anthropologists, scholars of early modern Europe have recently begun to analyze the meanings and significance of these complex enactments. Their work is taking shape as an emerging interdisciplinary field called “ritual studies” that includes literature and theater, art, popular religion, anthropological studies of popular culture, the social history of the family, life-cycle rites such as weddings, baptisms and funerals, political theory, and other subfields. This bibliographic entry, which emphasizes work written by historians explicitly concerned with the civic aspects of ritual, should be considered a starting point for further investigation into a rapidly growing yet thematically diffuse area of inquiry.

General Overviews

Renaissance Europe was renowned for its pageantry and sense of ceremony. Tournaments, political entry ceremonies, religious processions, and even private family celebrations such as baptisms, weddings and funerals were occasions for ritualized public display that in turn lend themselves to interdisciplinary scholarly approaches. Central questions that drive the study of Renaissance civic ritual revolve around the extent to which ceremonies simultaneously confirmed political power yet enabled its contestation by different classes or social groups; the nature of the interface between high culture and the culture of the crowd enacted in various rites; the ways in which visual and musical aspects of ceremonial life helped achieve specific political objectives; and how ritual helped forge group identities and structure specific communal notions about time and place. Muir 2005 provides the most comprehensive introduction to the study of ritual in Renaissance and early modern Europe. Hanawalt and Reyerson 1994 offers a multi-faceted, interdisciplinary look at some late medieval ritual forms that became increasingly elaborate over time. Strong 1999 focuses on grand festivals staged by Renaissance princes, while Cressy 1989 considers how the rituals that crystallized around important political moments in 16th- and 17th-century England helped construct a Protestant national identity.

  • Cressy, David. Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    Explores the intersections between high political culture and the culture of the crowd via celebrated moments such as the accession of Elizabeth I, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, and the deliverance from the Spanish Armada—episodes that quickly became codified in the English ritual calendar.

  • Hanawalt, Barbara A., and Kathryn L. Reyerson, eds. City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

    Interdisciplinary collection of essays by leading scholars in history, art history and literature that analyze the uses of ceremony as statements of political power, as pleas for divine intercession, and as expressions of popular culture, drawing on examples from 15th-century Spain, England, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.

  • Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    An essential introduction to all forms of early modern ritual life, ranging from rites of passage and the rise of manners to considerations of government as a ritual process. The second edition includes additional material on the impact of European ritual on the Americas, as well as more in-depth coverage of women’s ritual practices. Suitable for both undergraduate use and more advanced research.

  • Strong, Roy. Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals, 1450–1650. Rev. ed. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 1999.

    A beautifully illustrated, learned work that explores the origins, objectives, and legacy of the spectacular festivals mounted by Renaissance princes. Shows how these occasions commingled sophisticated artistic forms with a complex political program.

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