The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

This is the second section of Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance. In the previous post, I tried to explain how modern Memory Mavens often read Maurice Halbwachs selectively. For example, Barry Schwartz (see Part 3) and Anthony Le Donne (see Part 5.1) inexplicably failed to read the earlier chapters of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective).

In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.

Localizing individual memories in social frameworks

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...
Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 2 édition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:

To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)

In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.

We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot properly understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)

Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization

Clearly, Halbwachs is not talking about geographical places here, but “locations” within conceptual, sociological frameworks. However, it’s easy to conflate the two ideas by mistake, which Elizabeth Castelli does in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making:  

In The Social Frameworks, Halbwachs had devoted a chapter to “The Localization of Memories.” In The Legendary Topography of the Gospels, he developed this idea of “localization” by analyzing the production of Christian origins through the memory work of Christian pilgrims, travelers, and crusaders. (Castelli, 2007, p. 35)

Of course, in “The Localization of Memories” Halbwachs was not talking about sites on the map, but locations within “the framework of collective memory.” But we shouldn’t judge too harshly. Castelli actually does understand what Halbwachs was driving at when he first expounded on the concept of memories and their placement within social frameworks. Earlier in the same book, she writes:

As its title suggests, The Social Frameworks of Memory argues that individual memory is necessarily produced within a social frame. Here, Halbwachs asserts that individuals remember things only in relation to the memories of others. Individuals obviously possess personal memories peculiar to their own psychologies and experiences, yet even these memories are filtered through the social field. Their meanings derive their intelligibility from context and collectively generated frameworks of significance. (Castelli, 2007, p. 32)

Incidentally, in The Historiographical Jesus, Anthony Le Donne gets it right, after stumbling briefly. That is, after his embarrassing error in which he claimed Halbwachs “neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites,” he settles down. Le Donne writes:

In this process [of localization], mental images associated with the past are anchored to specific mental frames of reference. By themselves, these images (which carry only a residue of the past) are abstract and incomplete until they are set firmly within a context of meaning. These contexts, or frames, of meaning form fragmentary ideas into complete and cohesive memories. The purpose of this process is to reinforce images associated with the past by localizing them within imaginative contexts wherein these ideas are meaningful and intelligible to the present state of mind. (Le Donne, 2009, p. 47)

Schwartz’s toxic cocktail

Castelli’s peccadillo stands in stark contrast to Barry Schwartz’s bizarre and hostile reading of Halbwachs, which you will doubtless recall from the third part of this series, Bethlehem Remembered, wherein we marveled at Schwartz’s hostility and ignorance.

Halbwachs is a master at demonstrating how events occurring at one site are represented at another and how such “localizations,” as he calls them, support the narrative they make concrete. Since Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem conveniently connects him to the line of David, Halbwachs dismisses the Nativity as a legend (1992). The logical problem is patent. John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, Boston, connects him to the beginning of the American Revolution, but this hardly means that he was not born in Boston. Halbwachs’s greatest failure is his inability to see commemoration as anything more than an elaborate delusion. It is not just that localizations distort history; the more they distort the better they work. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49)

I won’t rehash the appallingly bad logic in the above paragraph. What concerns us for the moment is the inexplicable attack on Halbwachs’s view of commemoration. Keeping in line with his traditional hostility-and-ignorance cocktail, Schwartz accuses Halbwachs of embracing his thesis on geographic localizations because he “is determined to demonstrate their capacity to distort” (see Part 3 of this series). He writes:

That commemoration is a selective celebration rather than an inferior version of history escapes Halbwachs. He cannot fully grasp what sacred sites accomplish, how they transmute reality to mobilize and sustain religious sentiment and, above all, elevate Jesus and sustain faith in what he did and represented. (Schwartz, 2005, p. 49, emphasis mine)

As we will see, that accusation doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. In fact, it’s so wrongheaded that we have to ask once again, “Doesn’t anybody read anymore?”

Halbwachs’s views on rituals and ceremonies

A revealed religion like Judaism or Christianity takes atemporal, eternal truths and connects them to our existence in the here and now by attaching them to commemoration and ritual. Christianity, in particular, takes timeless truths that exist, along with God, in the eternal, heavenly realm and realizes them in the earthly plane. The events in the life of Christ connect the believer to these eternal truths by means of participation in rituals and ceremonies.

For Halbwachs, taking part in sacred rites is an important way for religions to reproduce the past and to connect the current members of the group to that past. Halbwachs writes:

If we survey the different components of the Christian cult, we realize that each one of them is essentially the commemoration of a period or an event of the life of Christ. The Christian year is centered around the Paschal period, which is devoted to reproducing through the very order of its ceremonies and the contents of its sermons and prayers the various phases of the Passion. From another point of view, since every day is consecrated to a saint, the liturgical year is the commemoration of all those who contributed to founding, spreading, or illustrating Christian doctrine. Through a larger periodicity, on Sunday of each week, the Mass, which every believer must attend, commemorates the Lord’s Supper. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 88, emphasis mine)

Each act of commemoration, then, cements the relationship between Christ and his followers. It makes the past come alive in the present and binds the flock together in harmony.

Perhaps more than any other religion, Christianity is focused on its history. The act of ultimate redemption is a definite point in the past. And yet the church also believes that these specific acts in history reveal and realize transcendent truths.

Halbwachs asks:

But how can we explain that the Christian religion — entirely oriented toward the past as is the case with all religion — can still present itself as a permanent institution, that it claims to be positioned outside of time, and that the Christian truths can be both historical and eternal? (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 88)

Jesus in the foreground

Comparing Christ to the Buddha, he notes that both entered history and provided paths to salvation. But the Buddha is no longer with us; he showed us the way to enlightenment, but he has already entered Nirvana. He is thus a revered figure in history, but he is “neither mediator nor savior.”

A historical personage, Buddha is not the only member of this species, since one came to acknowledge that there had been and would be an unlimited number of Buddhas. Yet he is a person whose existence is circumscribed by the dates of his birth and death. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 89)

3rd quarter of 16th century
3rd quarter of 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Christianity, however, the savior did not exit our time and space. Instead, he was elevated to the right hand of God and continues to act as the savior of mankind and the mediator to God. He did not merely show the path; he became the path. Halbwachs writes:

Things look very different with Christianity. Here Christ is not only a “knower” or a saint; he is a god. He does not limit himself to indicating the road to salvation to us; yet no Christian can attain salvation without the intervention and the efficacious action of this God. After his death and resurrection Christ did not lose contact with humankind, but rather remains perpetually within the bosom of his Church. 

There is no ceremony of the cult from which he is absent; there is no prayer and act of adoration which does not reach up to him. The sacrifice through which he has given us his body and his blood did not take place a single time. It is integrally renewed every time believers are assembled to receive the Eucharist. What is more, the successive sacrifices — celebrated at distinct moments and in distinct places — are but one and the same sacrifice. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 90, emphasis and formatting mine)

In a sense, believers do not participate in a Eucharist, but in the Eucharist, a perpetually repeated enactment of the original Lord’s Supper, which invokes the presence of Christ in this very moment.

The importance of ritual combined with text

We can hardly overestimate the power of ritual to reveal Christian truths, especially given the nature of Christian scripture — sometimes ambiguous, often obscure, frequently misunderstood. Too many of today’s NT scholars are unable to break from their Protestant past with its emphasis on sola scriptura. They undervalue the effectiveness and importance of rituals.

Halbwachs warns:

The study of the Gospel texts and of the scriptures might serve just as much to alienate us from God as to bring us nearer to him, when no supernatural illumination is available, if we note the obscurities and contradictions of these texts: tot paginarum opaca secreta [quoting St. Augustine, Confessions 11.2]. How could eternal truth be expressed in its entirety in human words understood in a limited time span? (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 91-92)

And yet, over time the holy texts of Christianity have themselves become ritual objects. Through constant repetition during ritual reenactments, they connect believers to the cult.

Rites consist of a body of gestures, words, and liturgical objects established in a material form. From this point of view, the sacred texts have a ritual character. They have not changed since the beginning. They are literally repeated during the ceremonies, and they are closely linked to the cult. The recitations of the Gospels, the Epistles, and prayers have the same value as a genuflection, an oblation, a gesture of benediction. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 116, emphasis mine)


In this post, I wanted to clear up two pervasive misconceptions in NT memory studies. First, we sometimes see authors carelessly confuse the general theory of localization of memories (i.e., the placement of individual memories within larger social frameworks) with Halbwachs’s research related to the localization of events in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (i.e., what skeptics might describe as associating fictional occurrences to arbitrary spots on the map).

Second, we rarely see today’s memory mavens give Halbwachs due credit for understanding the relationship between religious ritual and the perpetuation of memory. Schwartz in particular attacked him, calling it his “greatest failure.” And yet, if we carefully reflect upon what Halbwachs actually wrote, we find a surprising amount of subtlety and depth.

As we will see in future posts, Paul Connerton added greatly to the discussion on rituals and commemorations and how they bind people to societies, creating and reinforcing social and cultural memory. But we should not pretend that Halbwachs had nothing to say on the matter.


Castelli, Elizabeth

Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (Gender, Theory, and Religion), Columbia University Press (2007)

Halbwachs, Maurice

On Collective Memory, University Of Chicago Press, 1992/1925

Schwartz, Barry

“Christian Origins: Historical Truth and Social Memory” in Kirk & Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity, SBL, 2005

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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4 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)”

  1. This seems good. Especially the ritual section. Reminds me of Sausurrian and Structural Linguistics. Which told us that we make sense of individual things only in context of a larger system or structure. Or as Poststructuralism would say, a Master Narrative.

    1. Connerton has some very interesting things to say about “body practices” and rituals. It’s one thing to read a text or have it read to you; it’s quite another to act out rituals and repeat credos out loud. In those cases, you’re actively taking part in the commemoration, and that act changes you.

      The next post will have more to say about such rituals and how they relate to social memory.

      1. Sounds good. I hope our exorcism expert returns to add to that as well. I feel he also has an important piece of the puzzle, relating to the anthropological contribution to the understanding of myths and therefore mythicism.

        Exorcism is a very intense ritual.

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