Reenacting Religion

You can go very far with reenactment in many directions. We cooked beef feet and people loved it, we showed the audience shrapnel loads in the canon and the public was fascinated, we have fencing masters demonstrate how to break the elbow of an opponent quickly and the newbies watch it in awe. Few people ever told us we were taking it too far.

But there is one thing where you hit the limit immediately. That is when you try to reenact religion. Modern religion is personal, private and very often individualistic. Medieval religion was common, public and much more homogeneous than it appears nowadays. Reenacting religion the medieval way touches the feelings of modern people and it shies away non-religious people because they think it might hurt the feelings of religious people.


Pilgrims and third order Franciscans are a rare sight at a mercer's table (photo Silvia Ballabio)

Personally, I believe that religion is a central part of medieval life. I do not think everybody was a true believer or everybody lived according to the gospel. But I am confident that a fair percentage were and that the medieval society expected or even forced everybody do behave as if he or she was a believer.

Therefore I think that a medieval display without religion is incomplete. And having discussed this with a big number of people, I know that most members of the Company of St. George see it the same way. But let me concede there is a substantial minority of members who think that it is a difficult topic, that we should leave our hands or handle it with exceptional care.

So I thought I would try find to find the position of the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to reenacting religion. I got in touch with two ordained priests and received some valuable insights. But I had to ask an episcopal judge, a so called official, in order to get a balanced view on the subject. Dr. Titus Lenherr from the diocese of St. Gall, Switzerland, has been very forthcoming on this question.

A catholic priest is ordained. This means he stands in apostolic succession with the initial twelve Apostles who followed Jesus Christ. When he performs liturgical rituals or even sacraments, he acts in the name of god through the power of god given to the catholic church. I am sure you see that choosing such a role for reenactment brings up tricky questions.

Before we dig deeper, let me define these liturgical acts. There are prayers and blessings and standard rituals, then there are the sacraments and finally the sacrament of the holy communion, the Eucharist. For simplicity let's think of these as levels of holiness with the Eucharist being the most holy ritual which a priest can perform.

The Catholic Church has a long tradition of Canonic Law. This is the legal base for the church and it deals with all sorts of things. In Canon 1378 and 1379, the law covers the affair in brief words. The law announces punishment for those who try to do perform the Eucharist, hear the confession or try to administer any other sacrament. My contact in St. Gall explained that playing or theater is not a problem. The problem and the law starts when somebody impersonates an ordained priest, makes the audience believe he is an ordained priest and then attempts to actually perform the sacrament. The core lies in the intent of tricking somebody into a wrong belief.

This is why you can see actors play priests in the movies without causing a scandal. But then he went on to explain that there is a dimension behind the law. He thinks that it is important that such a display is done with dignity in a way nobody is offended. Believers should not be hurt and a display is no problem if it is done with respect and not as a mockery or with a blasphemous intention. What matters here is the inner motivation.

A friend of Titus Lenherr works with the TV and had some further insight for us. He says that most film productions do not show the holy communion/Eucharist. The camera moves away at the right moment or already a prayer is enough  to bring the intended effect for the movie (there are exceptions to this rule though).  He also thinks that the display of a holy communion is inappropriate  without a clear need or intention for the display.

Now this was a balanced view and it allowed the Company of St. George to find a reasonable position which allows for religious display without running the risk of hurting anybody: We welcome a priest in the camp and we welcome liturgical acts. We want to make sure that somebody playing a priest does so with dignity and we agree that there is no need for the public display of the Eucharist let alone distribution of the holy communion. So we opted to leave this away from our display.

Among our members, we have found a vast majority for this compromise position. Now the next and much more difficult questions are those about the correct display of such a role. How does a 15th century priest pray, bless or preach? What is his function in a camp or garrison exactly? A lot of research lies ahead of us. And I am very eager to learn more.

By Christian Folini, Company veteran member.

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