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  • On the use of sacred in medieval history

    Dominique IOGNA-PRAT, 18 January 2012 | 7 June 2010

    Dominique IOGNA-PRAT

    (Directeur de recherche au CNRS - LAMOP)

    [texte traduit par Barbara H. ROSENWEIN]

    For the medievalist, taking up the notion of “the sacred” means reverting to the origins of the social sciences. It was these disciplines that invented the substantive “the sacred,” for in previous centuries the word sacred had been only an adjective. Even in that form, it was a medieval elaboration on an ancient term. Thus the notion of the sacred poses a two-fold problem: it is a medieval concept and a contemporary analytic category, both with distinctly different meanings that invite misunderstanding.
    Revisiting the ancient usage of the adjective requires following a path that goes from the Roman foundations of the sacred to its ecclesial inflections in the Middle Ages. Sacred (sacer) and holy (sanctus) have a common root in the Latin word sancio. Traditional Roman law brought them together with the adjective “religious” to create a combination that permitted a distinction between objects pertaining to human law and those under divine law. These objects were qualified in three ways: sacred, holy, and religious. Contrary to what has long been held on the basis of the thesis of Georges Dumézil on the ancient origins of the tripartite scheme at Rome, the adjectives sacred, holy, and religious were not combined (in that order or in any other) until a later period, certainly no earlier than the second century of our era. When they spoke of “divine things” (res diuini iuris), the ancient Roman pontifices distinguished between sacra, which were ritually consecrated to the high gods, and religiosa, which pertained to the “Manes,” the gods of the underworld, to whom Roman families entrusted their dead. “Holy” belonged to another category: according to civil law, sanctus applied to things that were forbidden to all human meddling and, as such, subject to sanction (sancire). It was only at the end of a long evolution that “holy” came to pertain to “things divine.”
    Before rediscovering the combinative sacred/holy/religious during the revival of Roman civil law in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Christian West saw a remarkable evolution in the adjective “sacred” and in the breadth of its semantic field. This was most notable in the ever more marked convergence of the sacred and the holy (visible in the undifferentiated use of the terms “holy body” and “sacred body” to refer to the relics of the saints) and the development of a great profusion of derivatives of sacer and sanctus (sacrarium, sanctuarium, sanctificare, consecrare, sacramentum, and so on). The evolution continued to the point that a self-proclaimed instance of the sacred was established: the Church, a totalizing institution that “made” the sacred and, by its power to consecrate, set itself up as the true social fabric. It was this institution that gave the adjective its three principal distinctive features in the Middle Ages (J.-C. Schmitt). First, something is sacred when it has been consecrated by the mediation of the institutional Church. Second, something that has been consecrated is concentrated: by contrast with the diffuse sacrality of the pantheism of Antiquity, the Christian sacred is concentrated in time, place, and person; the sacred establishes a “space beyond space” (A. Guerreau). This permits the opposed spheres of the sacred and profane to be distinguished from one another; it delimits the boundaries of membership in Christian society, now confounded with the sacramental community; and it fixes on the ground the framework of this community– its churches, its cemeteries, its parishes – to such a degree as to make them veritable territorial matrices (M Lauwers). Third, that which has been consecrated becomes part of a hierarchy of values that allows not only for differentiating the more sacred from the less so, but also for making clear the polarization effected by that which is sacred. That is, consecration defines the passage from one category (the profane) to the other (the sacred). This is because at its heart Christianity – a religion in which God is made man and serves as the ransom for human sinfulness – insists on the power of consecration to transform men and things.
    The gap between these medieval usages and today’s conceptual use is expressed both by the employment of the word as a substantive and by a semantic quasi-inversion. The banalized use of the noun “the sacred” among historians may be traced, at the latest, to the publication of the work of Alphonse Dupront, Du sacré (On the Sacred), in 1987. Representing a phenomenological approach to history, Dupront perfectly embodies the paradox that “the sacred” is the product of the secularization of thought, with modern rationality making “the sacred the new transhistorical and transcultural form of transcendence” (M. Carrier). For the phenomenologist, the sacred is equivalent to the mysterious, to absolute energy, to the “numinous” Wholly Other (to borrow the expression of Rudolf Otto in his work Das Heilige, published in 1917 and translated into French as Le sacré and into English as The Idea of the Holy.) Human beings manage to approach it in those “places reserved to the foundational force.” Some of this sacral vitalism may be found again in the field of anthropology, as for example in the “savage spontaneity” dear to Roger Bastide, or in the “literary sacred” of a Georges Bataille, grappling with the human limits of the perceptible, or, indeed, in post-modern obsessions with the question of the animal in man (D. Hawley).
    Even more markedly influential, the sacred of the sociologists established – in an historical process that lay at the very foundations of the sociological tradition – a sort of equivalence between the religious transcendence of “traditional” heteronomic societies and the social immanence of “modern” autonomous societies. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss made the case thus: “In our view, everything is construed as sacred which signifies society for the group and its members. If each of the gods in turn has left the temple and become profane, we see on the other hand that human things, social things – such as the fatherland, property, work, the idea of the human person – have entered there, one after the other.” This other modern manner of discovering the sacred is equally transhistorical and transcultural to the extent that it sees the sacralization of the social as the “normal state of things” (M. Carrier). Here the sacred functions as the foundation of an order conceived both in its symbolic function of giving form to the community and as a force of discipline and domestication.
    Medievalists must therefore adopt a critical approach on two fronts: they must make medieval society intelligible while taking into account its own category of the “sacred”; and they must question the nominalist and organicist bias at the heart of the sociological tradition. In effect, its type of sacralization of the social cannot fail to recall the scholastics. The Nominalists designated social entities, such as the group, the corporation, the city, and the community, as “secondary substances” (genera, species, categories, classes of being). These, contrary to the “reality” of persons or “primary substances” (particular beings, such as Peter or Paul), were identified as purely linguistic conventions. They were general and arbitrary terms that had their foundation and reason for being in the empirical world but which signified nothing in themselves. As a “secondary substance,” the social thus came to be disengaged from every ontological referent. In a way, it was desacralized, reified, and established in an autonomous and veritably signifying sphere. One can see from this how the Realist approach to social entities (groups, etc.), which were elevated to the rank of “primary substances,” constituted a sacralizing practice, one that was contrary to a socio-historical approach.

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  • Bibliography

    Dominique IOGNA-PRAT, 23 January 2012 | 7 June 2010

    On the use of sacred

    - CARRIER Michel, Penser le sacré. Les sciences humaines et l’invention du sacré, Montréal, Liber, 2005.
    - DUPRONT Alphonse, Du sacré, Paris, Gallimard, 1987 (Bibliothèque des Histoires ).
    - GUERREAU Alain, «Il significato dei luoghi nell’Occidente medievale: struttura e dinamica di uno “spazio” specifico», dans E. Castelnuevo et G. Sergi (dir.), Arti e storia nel Medioevo. I, (Tempi, Spazi, Istituzioni), Torino, 2002, p. 201-239.
    - HAWLEY Daniel, L’œuvre insolite de Georges Bataille. Une hiérophanie moderne, Genève et Paris, Slatkine et Champion, 1978.
    - HUBERT Henri et MAUSS Marcel, «Introduction à l’analyse de quelques phénomènes religieux», Revue d’histoire des religions, 58 (1906), p. 163-203 [cited in MAUSS Marcel, Œuvres. I, Les fonctions sociales du sacré, Paris, Minuit, 1968, p. 3-39].
    - LAUWERS Michel, «Le cimetière dans le Moyen Âge latin: lieu sacré, lieu saint et religieux», Annales HSS, 1999/5, p. 1047-1072.
    - SCHMITT Jean-Claude, «La notion de sacré et son application à l’histoire du christianisme médiéval», Cahiers du Centre de recherches historiques, 9 (1992), p. 19-29 [reprinted in ID., Le corps, les rites, les rêves, le temps. Essais d’anthropologie médiévale, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, p. 42-52 (Bibliothèque des Histoires)].
    - TAROT Camille, Le symbolique et le sacré. Théories de la religion, Paris, La Découverte, 2008 (Textes à l’appui).

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