Pragmatic & Ceremonial in the Early Middle Ages?

by Samuel Rowe (@SamuelRowe12)

Samuel Rowe holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Strasbourg and is reading for an MPhil in Medieval History at the University of Cambridge. Samuel has contributed to the Sigi-AL (sigillography of Alsace) project. His research interests include Romanness in the Early Medieval/Late Antique world and the history of gender and ethnicity.

In Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film The Lord of the Rings, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book series, the warrior Boromir is depicted with the stereotypes usually associated with Vikings (largely due to costume design choices in performances of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung): an axe, a fur tunic and a conical helmet with large horns. This image of Norse armour and clothing is not accurate, of course: such a helmet would be impractical, the decorative horns an impediment to combat – so only good for ‘ceremonial’ usage. 

Discussions have often surrounded a binary of practical versus ceremonial. The dichotomy is the same whichever word or concept is chosen: functional, utilitarian, pragmatic; the idea of usefulness and ‘actual usage’ is central. The classicist Finney writes about objects ‘actually worn in court ceremony’ and others that are ‘purely symbolic’.1 A common joke said of archaeologists is that when they are unsure of an object’s purpose (either due to not knowing or doubting that it was functional), they are quick to label it as a ritual or ceremonial object, such as a Roman parade mask helmet found at Teutoburg. Museums can tend to label items according to this binary. The idea is pervasive: it extends even down to personal appearance, with the study of Norman knights and why their stereotypical hairstyle was an ‘undercut’. Was it to avoid it tangling with chainmail and being grappled or rather due to stylistic evolutions? Too often the third option is ignored: why not both? 

Even today, distinguishing these categories is dubious and may reflect modern bias. It is true that there are objects that are very utilitarian, and there are some that are very showy and not meant for repeated use. Indeed, some objects were plain and unadorned, while others were restricted to a strictly ‘ritual’ (despite that word’s vagueness) usage different from their putative main function – Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse, in the last stage in which it was transmitted to us, springs to mind.Its main purpose was its symbolic value in one particular public ceremony, not combat: it was carried in the coronation procession of French kings starting from 1270. Though even in this very different role, the associations with leadership and warfare it carried were not lost. 

In the Venn diagram formed by those two categories, there is still a massive amount of overlap. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says: ‘Throughout the history of religions and cultures, objects used in cults, rituals, and sacred ceremonies have almost always been of both utilitarian and symbolic natures.’3 That overlap seems key to understanding the symbolic and pragmatic purchase of an object rather than trying to fit it desperately into either category. Archaeologists are increasingly cautious in how use is inferred and what vocabulary and concepts should be used, for instance whether decoration must be linked to the object’s purpose.4 

But that overlap is still too easily ignored today. In discussions surrounding the Sutton-Hoo sword, shield and armour, a lot of the older historiography was preoccupied with the idea of whether the Sutton-Hoo king5 actually fought in such regalia. After all, he had been buried with it, which is a ceremonial context. It was not surprising for kings to be buried in their best finery, even in the absence of other grave goods, as in the 8th-century Liber Historiae Francorum. The objects they were buried with did not have to have been used during their life, and signs of use are often difficult to gauge when the materials are heavily deteriorated. But is it fair to say that because they were found in a ceremonial context, heavily and carefully decorated, this precludes use? 

The Sutton-Hoo helmet. The British Museum (image by Samuel Rowe).

Returning to the Sutton-Hoo helmet, questions on usage can be developed: was it used in combat? While riding, parading? For daily business? While sitting in judgement? Some of these events themselves combine pragmatic and symbolic concerns: judging an affair is a down-to-earth, legal procedure, but regalia may have given it a special aura of royal, judicial power. Some occasions were more ritual-heavy, it is true, with the primary purpose not being practical (in the sense we’d understand it – but medieval contemporaries would quite possibly disagree), such as animal sacrifices at a Pagan altar. Was the helmet worn during those occasions, especially if the face is to be identified as Woden? Lending his power to the wearer for his kingly duties, which likely included religious matters? This leads us to transformative ceremonies, like coronations, which in this period were precisely done with an ornate helmet (galea). Of course, it could even simply be funerary dress to be presented as such in the afterlife (if this is indeed what the point is – Guy Halsall argues against jumping too readily to that Pagan explanation for grave goods, and the Sutton-Hoo king’s religion is far from certain6). If simply distinguishing between utilitarian and non-utilitarian uses, the question is difficult to answer: the helmet does not show much sign of usage, and was not found at a battle site, unlike the Roman face-mask helmet at Teutoburg forest. Of course, this itself only indicates that the Teutoburg helmet could be used in combat, not that it wasn’t also a parade helmet, though it does contract the older idea of it being only for parades. 

Literary references are normative and tricky sources to use, but do seem to indicate that an object could both be functional and have decorative, ceremonial or ritual elements. In the Book of Taliesin (14th century but likely from a 10th century archetype), Uther Pendragon is made to say: ‘My belt was a rainbow to my foe’ (Vygwreys bu enuys ym hescar)7 – presumably a reference to the bright colours of its tapestry weave, something detailed, perhaps meant to evoke in the 10th or 14th-century Welsh reader an object painstakingly woven by a female relative or given as a gift. In the 8-11th-century Béowulf golden armament abounds, given to others or worn by Béowulf himself. Of course, an epic poem is as normative as it gets, and doesn’t necessarily reflect reality so much as tropes and ideals. Historiographical accounts may be a surer source to turn to. 

Gregory of Tours mentions several golden baldrics in his 6th-century Histories, the most striking depiction of which is a gift: ‘a great baldric decorated with gold and gemstones, and a marvellous sword the pommel of which was made of gold and Spanish jewels.’ (balteum magnum ex auro lapidibusque pretiosis ornatum gladiumque mirabile, cuius capulum ex gemmis Hispanis auroque dispositum erat.)8 Barring the usual problems of fictionalisation of narratives as what ought to have happened or might have happened, we can trust that this type of gift was reasonable enough to not surprise the reader: people wore functional belts that were heavily decorated. In other instances, the people are actually wearing these baldrics – not during a ceremony, or when being buried, but belts seeing daily use all while being ostentatious, showing material wealth and social prestige. 

This need not apply only to arms and armour. What about richly decorated and very heavy books? Were they just for show, like modern ‘coffee table books’? Here again the categories are not mutually exclusive. One can of course oppose small, personal, handwritten books of a more utilitarian nature, and gargantuan, monumental, unwieldy Bibles. But there was overlap, and decoratedness did not preclude usage – quite the contrary. An example of a usable and decorative volume  is the Codex Argenteus (‘Gothic Bible’) with its purple parchment, gold and silver lettering and silver binding (known formally as treasure binding). Monumental books were common to the Abrahamic religions in the Early Middle Ages, with Torahic and Quranic examples of the same kind. One could continue with almost any ‘thing’ used in the Early Middle Ages, however quotidian or necessary. 

We have discussed decoration – is it the same as ‘ceremonial’ and ‘ritual’? The correlation is often found: the Sutton-Hoo helmet is thought to be ceremonial largely9 due to being so carefully constructed, with weeks if not months of work put into its conception, every detail, the imported gems, the carefully selected scenes on its panels. Intricacy and decoration are often linked to the idea that an object is ceremonial and ritual. This in itself may be worth questioning, but is perhaps also a truism – a functional blacksmith’s hammer can do with a simple design, a metal rectangle to be fitted to a handle. Some sort of hypothetical, ceremonial, golden hammer with cloisonné gem-work would require more care and perhaps serve a religious function, but certainly not blacksmithing. But there is a middle-ground: the categories often overlap, and an object can be further on one side of the spectrum while still retaining opposite functional or decorative aspects, as the case may be. 

Two final examples may illustrate some of these much-needed counterpoints: an almost purely utilitarian object with some decoration on it, and an almost purely ceremonial usage that could never be used functionally outside of a ritual. These are a 9th-century gold-hemmed hauberk known as the Saint Wenceslas hauberk and the so-called sword of Charlemagne Joyeuse (in itself an interesting artefact due to being composed of several chronological layers). Overlap can thus be more or less important, with objects that are totally ambivalent, and ones where perhaps the dichotomy is more reasonable, and questioning must never cease: is all armour not de facto for show and manufactured intricately? Are we too cynical in calling Joyeuse a ‘fake’ sword because it did not see a battlefield, not any more than ritually sacrificed swords – built for one specific, non-military purpose – did? Or, as a Late Modern aside, the type of sword the French army produced specifically to be broken during cérémonies de dégradation, as most famously happened to Colonel Alfred Dreyfus? In conclusion, I would say that there is some utility in some cases to seeing an object as largely (but never completely) practical or utilitarian, so much so that this is reflected in its appearance and appreciation. Conversely, there are other cases where an object had solely ceremonial usage, including as a subversion of its more common usage (e.g., a ritually sacrificed sword made extra bendy for the occasion). That said, the overlap is of greater, key concern: people liked to fight and present themselves socially in style, and this was not mutually exclusive from the functional aspect of the objects they used – to read, chop or protect their skull or ribcage. Perhaps the less functional something actually had to be, the more decorative it could afford to be while still seeing active usage: a blade designed for combat ought to have a good edge rather than be very fancy, whereas a baldric need only have working clasps, added decoration not impeding its functionality. Additionally, not only were ‘ceremonial’ objects used in situations agreed by us to be ‘functional’, it would often seem that ceremonial situations were conceived of as functional in contemporary mentalities (which dictated the design of the object regardless of our own modern categories). In short, it is more often useful for the historian and the history enthusiast to think of objects as on the spectrum between those categories, and to remember that functionality was conceived of differently by contemporaries. Defining categories properly allows us to get closer to the beliefs of people of the past, and how they interacted with ‘things’ in daily life.

1 Paul Corby Finney, The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

2 Whilst my examples will mainly relate to the early medieval West, this debate exists in other periods and places; how we classify use of archaeological objects is an important question to discuss across time and space. 

3 Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘ceremonial object,’ by Jeannine Auboyer, accessed December 5, 2021.

4Jennifer A. Loughmiller-Cardinal and J. S. Cardinal, ‘Use, Purpose and Function—Letting the Artifacts Speak’, Heritage 3 (2020), 87-605. 

5 Despite a lack of evidence, he is sometimes tentatively identified as Rædwald, ruling ca. 599–624. 

6 Guy Halsall, ‘Childeric’s grave, Clovis’ succession and the origins of the Merovingian kingdom’, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources, eds. Ralph Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 116–133, at p. 120, esp. note 24.


8, chapter 21. 

9 Another key element being the context in which it was last used: a funeral, with all the symbolic associations and meaningfulness that carried to contemporaries. Burying him in a ceremonial helmet makes sense, if he did indeed have an alternative, more pragmatic helmet better suited to protecting him. Of course, that would mean embracing the fatal assumption that because his helmet is intricate, it could not protect him, which seems dubious, although signs of use in battle as opposed to wear from being worn are not clear due to deterioration. Ceremonial did not mean unusable.

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