Sanctifying the World: Ritual Blessings and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion and Society

Derek Andrew Rivard, Fordham University


This dissertation studies liturgical blessing and its role in the religious life of people in the Middle Ages. While commonly acknowledged as a crucial element in the life of medieval people, the meaning and importance of blessings have been frequently overlooked by liturgical and historical scholarship, which has focused instead on the textual transmission and long-term changes in these blessings and the rituals which surround them. I argue that blessings were composed as a direct response to the needs, anxieties, beliefs and fears of the laity, and therefore these rituals represent an untapped source for the study of popular piety. My dissertation fuses two methodologies, the liturgical study of the text and the anthropological study of ritual's function in religion, in order to produce a new understanding of the blessing as an attempt to tap the power of the sacred for use in daily life. Despite their utilitarian nature, ritual blessings reveal much about larger issues of medieval people's cosmology, their perceived role in their cosmos, and the connection between themselves and the powers of that cosmos. Blessings represent the active negotiation of that connection, mingling speech, song, gesture and motion to affirm a contractual relationship that provided divine protection and sacred power in exchange for human worship, veneration and sincere promises of moral probity. As well as this contractual bond, study of the blessings shows that lay piety adopted a more positive attitude towards the world than the renunciation of the world ecclesiastical and theological texts so often espoused; perceived elements of its own spiritual geography within the material world; and saw the divine as an eminently adaptable power, but also as a capricious power whose bonds to the human world must continually be reiterated within the frame of ritual blessings to ensure the survival of the community. Following careful examination of blessings of places, persons, things and events, the utility of a judicious application of anthropological theory for explaining the meaning of medieval blessings is evident, and the responsivity of these ritual texts to the needs of the laity is apparent.

Subject Area

Medieval history|Religion

Recommended Citation

Rivard, Derek Andrew, "Sanctifying the World: Ritual Blessings and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion and Society" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3017539.