Gian Antonio Gilli

title.none: Reynolds, Food and the Body (Gilli)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.002 01.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gian Antonio Gilli, Università del Piemonte Orientale,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Food and the Body: Some Peculiar Questions in High Medieval Theology. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. ix, 451. $129.00. ISBN: 0-004-11532-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.02

Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Food and the Body: Some Peculiar Questions in High Medieval Theology. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. ix, 451. $129.00. ISBN: 0-004-11532-3.

Reviewed by:

Gian Antonio Gilli
Università del Piemonte Orientale

The theme of this book is a set of questions debated in Scholastic theology up to the beginnings of the fourteenth century. These questions have, as common reference, "the truth of human nature" (veritas humanae naturae ), considered from the point of view of food assimilation by the body: does the human body assimilate food, or does food pass through the body without assimilation? More precisely: does food result as a constitutive element of the growing body, or does it merely foment growth (i.e., determine growth without adding, per se, new matter to the body)? The problem has at least two (theologically) obvious implications: (1) with the traditional expectations about body resurrection (only what was true in this sense would rise again, and rejoin the soul), and (2) with the transmission of Adam's sin. Some questions connected to that of food truly becoming (or not) part of the body through nutrition, are: whence does parent's semen come: from a superfluity of nutriment, or from the actual flesh of the parent? Have the seminal components of the body, and the nutrimental ones, two distinct fates, or are they mixed? If X eats the flesh of Y, in whom will the assimilated flesh rise? How could matter from Adam's body pass into every human being? Other questions touch more directly upon the problem of identity through growth and beyond: if growth means addition (both as restoration of wastage, and addition of new matter), what accounts for the qualitative/numerical identity of the body? Again, will the body rejoining the soul in the resurrection be numerically (numero ) the same as the body vivified by the soul during life? The book starts from the initial thesis of non-assimilation of food by the body: the body incorporates food, but doesn't convert it into the truth of human nature (i.e., what rejoins the soul in the resurrection). By the end of the twelfth century this doctrine lost some of the consensus it had enjoyed for decades, to become, about half-way through the thirteenth century, the choice of a minority. Finally, Thomas Aquinas denies the existence of a fixed truth of the body: every part of it suffers wastage, and renews; every part can assimilate food. Identity has to be envisaged not "according to matter" (secundum materiam ), but "according to form" (secundum speciem ).

The book is divided into two sections, "Background" and "Foreground": the former, more devoted to questions, the latter, to the protagonists of the debate. In a work of this kind, anticipations and repetitions are unavoidable; but (as we shall see later), overlappings and misallocations are here often disturbing, considering that the "Background" occupies approximately one third of the book, and is preceded by a long introduction which could suffice to enunciate the theme ("Introduction--Utrum Alimentum Transeat in Veritatem Humanae Naturae ", pp. 1-20).

The Background comprises five chapters. Ch.1 ("In Whom All Sinned", pp. 23-49) deals with the question of the veritas humanae naturae in connection with the inheritance of Adam's sin, shared by all human beings because all were "in Adam's loins" when he sinned. Since, to contain the matter of all human bodies, Adam's body should have been unconceivably big, whence does the added matter come? Ch.2 deals with "The Truth of Human Nature" (pp. 50-66), that is a more central theme than the one dealt with in ch.1: this immediately involves several repetitions of things already said (a fusion of chs.1 and 2 would perhaps have been desirable). Ch.3 ("Aristotle on Growth and Nutrition", pp. 67-104) contains a minute exposition of two passages: De anima , 415b28-416b30 and De generatione et corruptione , 320a8-322a30. The philosopher's assumption is that, while form persists, matter is exchanged, that is, there is no fixed or essential component of the body. How to reconcile this assumption with the idea of an enduring veritas humanae naturae ? From the point of view of the reader this long chapter could appear as a sort of detour, since the Aristotelian position, so minutely illustrated, was not accepted. Reynolds himself documents these resistances, partly resulting in a mis- interpretation of an Aristotelian distinction, namely the one between flesh according to form and flesh according to matter; however, "thus interpreted, the distinction owes more to medicine than to Aristotle^æAll that remains of Aristotle's account, apart from the terminology, are^æancillary details" (p. 100). Ch.4 ("Radical Moisture", pp. 105-19) deals with the theory of radical moisture, whose relevance for the veritas humanae naturae depends on its being the primary substance in the body, essential for life but (coming entirely from parents) unrestorable through food assimilation. Finally, ch.5 ("Theologia, Physica, Medicina", pp. 120-46) deals with the question: how did theologians understand the distinction between medicine and natural philosophy? I'm not sure this question has enough importance, in the logic of the book, to require 25 pages; in fact, several of them are off the point, as for instance the paragraph "The history of rational medicine" (with second-hand statements like: "medicine becomes undistinguishable from religion when one traces it back beyond the Hyppocratic writings" (p.127)).

The second part of the book is composed of nine chapters. The first two (chs. 6 and 7) have as point of reference-- respectively, contra and pro--the doctrine of Peter Lombard. Ch.6 ("Development of the Parisian Consensus", pp. 149-71) reconstructs the formation of the communis opinio about the passing of food into the truth of human nature; the protagonists are here William of Auxerre and Alexander of Hales. In ch.7 ("In Defense of Peter Lombard", pp. 172- 214) are summarized the positions of Alexander (already found among the opponents), Richard Fishacre, Richard Rufus (strongly dependent, though in a critical mode, on Fishacre), the author of de corpore humano (he too Fishacre-dependent), and the Summa Theologiae of (the pseudo?) Albertus Magnus. Sixteen lines appended at the end of this long chapter link the defense of Peter to the tradition of the "Oxford Platonism". The remaining chapters (about 40% of the book) are monographically devoted to three leading figures. Albertus Magnus takes the lion's share: one hundred pages in four chapters (pp. 215-310), whose titles and structure contain little elements of novelty for the reader (namely: ch.8, "Nutrition"; ch.9, "Sexual Reproduction and the Formative Power"; ch.10, "Differentiation and Regeneration" and ch.11, "The Truth of Human Nature"). Ch.12 is devoted to "Bonaventure" (pp. 311- 56), and chs.13 and 14 to Thomas Aquinas (respectively, "Food and the Body", pp. 357-95, and "Identity and Reiteration in the Resurrection", pp. 396-428). Finally, the "Epilogue" (pp. 429-40) contains, besides a telegraphic compendium, a brief illustration of the positions of some post-Thomas masters: Peter of John Olivi, Richard of Mediavilla, Giles of Rome and Durandus of St.Pourcain.

I realize I have only touched on the formal articulation of the book, without trying to summarize the author's opinion, neither to trace in it any line of development. I doubt, however, that this ought to be made entirely by the reviewer (or the reader), without any support by the author himself. To synthetize the various perplexities and resistances elicited by the reading of this book, I would say it suffers of a lack of "added value". Let me try to make explicit whence some added value could come, in a book of this kind.

First of all, the book seems to me excessively "a la pair" with its sources. The author's exposition is often little more than a paraphrase of them; even summaries are rare and meager. Actually, a summary would require a higher level of abstraction, or at least of generalization, incompatible, in the long run, with the approach "X says that^æ" here currently adopted. Strictly associated with this attitude towards the sources is a lack of cumulation: the insight into the problem by the reader does not improve as reading advances. It is characteristic that several topoi of the debate (the human flesh eaten by a cannibal; the risk of pig's flesh rising in the Resurrection; the inconceivable size of Adam's body, if we all were in his loins, etc.) are detailed untiringly for every author, without worrying to formularize them, at least through some label. Perhaps, an annotated sourcebook on these themes would have had the advantage of providing the reader--assisted by the competence of the author--with a fresh touch with the sources.

The passive attitude towards the sources involves such a high level of detail, that one begin to wonder, once again, if a reader specialized enough to appreciate it would not prefer to rely directly on these sources. Anyway, the normal reader may often feel disappointed, the more so if this minuteness is on topics off the logic of the problem (see above, chs. 3 and 5). Sometimes this minuteness seems to overcome the control by the author himself, notwithstanding his thorough competence; for instance, the paragraph "The limits of assimilation" (pp. 240-42) should perhaps be better named "The limits of growth", on the basis both of its content, and of the divorce (rightly signalled by Reynolds himself) between assimilation (enduring all the life) and growth (ceasing in early adulthood).

Finally, such minuteness is difficult to articulate, and many perplexities rise from the distribution of the material inter- and intra-chapters. Reynolds often mixes in the same chapter three criteria of exposition: by theme, by author and by doctrine. Particularly disappointing, from this point of view, are the first chapters, with their overlappings and repetitions. I found it difficult, for instance, to distinguish between the matter dealt with in the paragraph "Recovery of the same body" and that in "The problem of assimilation" (p. 52 ff.); the more difficult, since these paragraphs are separated by the paragraph "The entry of the term 'truth of human nature'", which is both tardive (p. 54) and badly inserted. The opposition to Peter Lombard is dealt with in ch. 6, while the treatment of the intermediate cohort of masters (Peter of Poitiers etc.) has been made in ch. 1 (and reiterated in ch.2). Again, it is difficult to have an organic picture of (for instance) Alexander of Hales, split, with the same profusion each time, between ch. 6, among the opponents of Peter, and ch. 7, among his supporters; the more difficult, since the texts of Alexander presented in ch. 6 were probably written after those considered in ch. 7. Of course, difficult does not mean impossible, but, again, a reader interested in restoring the picture's unity, would perhaps choose to rely directly on the sources. It is fair to say, to conclude on this point, that chapters 8-14 (beside ch. 3), being monographic, are much more agreeable, and I regret having been, at that point, too ill-disposed to enjoy them more.

A second level of objections to this work concerns its lack of background: opinions, theories, doctrines, lack of whatever setting, be it political, economic, social, liturgical, pastoral, relative to the Orders, and so on. I regret here the absence of the approach usually known as "sociology of knowledge", which suggests to the scholar to analyze (to use K. Mannheim's definition) "how and in what form intellectual life at a given historical moment is related to the existing social and political forces". In fact, every doctrine moves here in a sort of vacuum, which obliges the reader to restore and compare them only on the basis of their formal content, without any other more concrete support. Let me add that the author himself, in the beginning, foments some expectation in that sense, in a vivid hint to Scholasticism as one "among the most vibrant, expansive, unintimidated and exciting moments in Western intellectual history. " (p. 15)

Finally, I'd introduce a third level of objections, to be used, actually, more as a warning to the reader than as a charge to the book. This book approaches body, digestion, assimilation and growth with the same conceptual equipment as its sources. I don't plead here to make room for the tremendous advancements of physiology, genetics and other relevant sciences since the twelfth century: to compare old and new theories in the field of the natural sciences makes little (if any) sense, and the only reference of this kind I found (a telegraphic call to DNA, p. 245) could perhaps have been safely omitted. Rather, I have in mind some advancements of socio-psychological sciences, which have come to consider the body, its apparatuses, its functioning, not in objective, but in subjective terms: not (e.g.) the body's real functioning, but the subjective feelings/perceptions/sensations of each human being on the functioning of his own body. This could mean that, besides the only objective physiology, there are innumerable subjective physiologies: we may call them fantasy physiologies, or sauvage physiologies, and yet each of them has some normative value for its owner. Many of these constructs may be collected, in the psychiatric taxonomy, under the headings "Disorders of the body schema" or "of the body experience". To get back to our theme, many cases of feeding disorders (typically, anorexia) are accompanied by real elaborations by patients about digestion, assimilation and growth, not so far from those elaborated by Peter Lombard et al. Another source of data on this topic could be the ascetical experience, in which fasting is often associated with considerations on digestion etc. often reflecting (just as those by the patients before cited) a subjective experience rather than a 'scientific' consciousness. Both groups of experiences, very far from any negative stigma, should be considered important paths to basic anthropological data, whose emergence is just permitted by the extreme character of the experience below. In this perspective, one may wonder if some theological doctrines might have some remote link with these experiences, suggesting the recall--on a socially much more respectable level---of backgoing anthropological data. Unfortunately, the author is totally uninterested in reflexions and conjectures of this kind: on the contrary, we find annotations such as "bizarre" (pp. 48, 51) or "abnormal conclusion" (p. 53), which suggest his fidelity to common sense. Of course, every author has complete freedom in how to cut his theme; in fact, however, the title Food and the Body (which sounded to me reminiscent of P. Brown's The Body and Society ) does not entirely keep its promises. It is fair both to free the author from responsibilities he did not assume, and to point out to the transversal reader, interested in 'body' and 'food', the narrow scope of this book.