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30th McDonald Institute Annual Lecture: The Medieval Ritual Landscape: Archaeology and Folk Religion

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This lecture explores the value of archaeology in reconstructing lived religion as it was practised and experienced by medieval people. Archaeological sources of evidence reveal ritual practices that were never documented in historical texts: archaeology demonstrates how ordinary people expressed their religious agency as part of everyday life, independent of the clergy and institutional religion. The main source material is archaeological evidence for the deliberate deposition of objects in the landscape, in water and in medieval settlements, as part of Christian rituals. Until recently, these practices were not recognised or were dismissed as superstitious behaviour or echoes of pagan survivals.

Ten years ago, a foray into ‘folk religion’ might have been regarded as eccentric or at least marginal to medieval archaeology. But the past decade has seen an explosion of interest in folk religion across Europe and spanning the disciplines of history, archaeology, anthropology and museum studies. ‘Folk’ religion is a contested concept, arising from 19th-century scholarship and rooted in colonial ideologies. But recent approaches share common ground with archaeology’s concerns with agency, gender, power and relationality. There is now a compelling case to rethink our assumptions about medieval ritual and belief and to propose new archaeological approaches for their study. Key to interpreting ‘folk’ practices is an understanding of the different types of agency that were integral to the medieval world view – the perceived causal relationships between humans, objects, the divine and the supernatural.

This talk is part of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research series.

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