We have Erasmus to thank not only for the word “ceremony” but also for the derogatory connotations attached to it. His Latin neologism, ceremonialae, has been translated as “trivial little ritual nonsenses.” Early English occurrences of “ceremony” follow the Erasmian usage. Gentility, one sixteenth-century critic wrote, is no more than a “meer flash, a ceremony, a toy, a thing of nought.”
Medieval Christians would have found these sentiments bewildering. Rituals were not toys but powerful tools that performed a kind of magic. So powerful was the ritual of the Mass that everything connected with it—the altar cloth, the chalice, the table—glowed with the radiance that, in historian Eamon Duffy’s term, “leaked” out of the consecrated host and wine.
As Leithart praised Branch's book, he identified two extremes of thought over ritual in religion: war and indifference:
For a variety of reasons, historians have not followed the story of ritual, sacrament, and ceremony beyond the Reformation. This is unfortunate, because no attitude is so characteristic of the modern Western mind as its indifference, or even hostility, to ritual. In the sixteenth century, Europeans fought wars over the meaning ofHocin the Eucharistic formula “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”). Today, differences of that sort are greeted with a quizzical yawn.
In her dense and sophisticated work, Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (Baylor University Press, 2006), Lori Branch has filled in a considerable part of the history between religious war and irreligious yawns. Focusing on English literary culture and religion, Branch examines the formation of an “ideology of spontaneity” from the Reformation attacks on ritual through Puritan defenses of free prayer to the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth. She demonstrates that the anti-ritual attitude is a central theme in the formation of modern views of religion, subjectivity, morality, and literature.