The Medieval Review 10.01.14

Mowbray, Donald. Pain and Suffering in Medieval Theology: Academic Debates at the University of Paris in the Thirteenth Century . Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. x, 192. $105 ISBN 978-1843834618 . .

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Schuberth
Portland State University

In this focused study of thirteenth century academic debates, Donald Mowbray admirably maps out how theologians at the University of Paris developed a nuanced typology of pain and suffering. While the book is aimed primarily at those interested in scholastic debates, the chapters on gender, penitential suffering, and limbo, will also appeal to scholars interested in broader theoretical questions of agency and subjectivity.

By looking at Commentaries on Lombard's Sentences, quodlibetal disputations, disputed questions, and questions in theological Summae, Mowbray captures the dynamism of these debates, showing the often uneven development of a new vocabulary to describe the human body and soul. His choice of source material also provides him with the opportunity to address how theologians such as Bonaventure and Aquinas interpreted and criticized authorities (11). He argues that the introduction of a new authority, Aristotle, profoundly affected the way in which academic theologians conceptualized suffering and the nature of human beings. Through his lucid analysis of the language of pain in these varied sources, Mowbray not only contributes to our understanding of medieval theological debates, but also provides scholars with "a more sophisticated and complex understanding of attitudes to the body, soul, spirituality, physicality and the use of corporeal imagery in thirteenth-century intellectual circles" (12).

Mowbray divides his book into two sections. The first half deals with pain in this life and the difference between physical and spiritual suffering, while the second addresses suffering in the afterlife. Mowbray begins by showing how debates about human suffering developed a new discourse about the body and soul, as well as provided new tools with which to clarify the relation between Christ's humanity and divinity. Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas abandoned Neo-Platonic dualism and adopted the Aristotelian understanding of "the human being as a composite of soul and body" (14). This formulation of the human being led to questions of whether and how the soul could suffer. Aquinas concluded that the "soul is dependent on a certain kind of sense perception which will enable it to experience suffering," meaning that the soul "is only properly said to suffer in so far as it is part of the human composite" (21). Rather than emphasizing the soul's dependence on the body with regard to suffering, Mowbray argues that "the process of definition of certain specific terms for interior and exterior suffering allowed the composite to be taken apart and discussed separately" (24). While the soul requires the body in order to suffer, Aquinas' use of Aristotle and Augustine allowed him to analytically separate physical and spiritual suffering, dolor and tristitia, exterior and interior pain, so that he could eventually rank interior suffering as greater than exterior, despite the fact that tristitia, depends upon dolor. The theologians used this refined vocabulary of the body and soul when they turned to Christology, using their new theories of suffering to help reveal the extent of Christ's humanity. Mowbray argues that debates about Christ's nature had stalled around the terms of the hypostatic union, but that the language of suffering was an alternative way to define the border between Christ's humanity and divinity.

Mowbray moves from Christological concerns to gender, claiming that "it is not possible to understand [the masters'] attitudes to pain without gender; nor to understand fully their ideas about sex difference without reference to pain" (59). Physicality, not pain, distinguished the sexes in creation, while physical pain differentiated them in the state of innocence and the fall. Mowbray concludes that "gender distinction could be made by the physical pains attributed to each sex at the Fall, whereas the punishments which applied to the soul were not gender-specific" (59). This claim follows from his analysis of Aquinas, but it seems to contradict Mowbray's analysis of the Halesian Summa. In this Summa three types of suffering pertain to woman after the fall: pain in childbirth, hardship in conception and servitude to man. Mowbray identifies the first two as physical, but the third is "a punishment of the soul or reason...In this case, the authors of the Summa did not consider woman to be completely related to the flesh" (56). Servitude to man, according to the Halesian Summa, identifies gender difference in what Mowbray, following Aquinas, describes as a gender-less soul. The disagreements between Mowbray's two sources on the issue of sex-difference only enrich his claim that we must understand pain in order to understand attitudes towards gender, which were by no means singular nor without ambiguities.

Further expanding his typology of pain, Mowbray examines the scholastics' attitudes towards penitential suffering, which is voluntary and has beneficial aspects. He touches on problems raised by pastoral questions about how to instruct sinners, but he is mostly concerned with theoretical paradoxes, such as the question of how suffering, which destroys the body-soul relationship, can also be that which reestablishes this order. Mowbray shows the ways in which the academic theologians sought to intervene in penitential practices, but the centrality of women to the question of contritional pain is noticeably absent, especially considering the previous chapter's concern with gender. When discussing the role of confessors, Mowbray explains that for Bonaventure, "to prefer punishment to sin is a perfect virtue," but that confessors should not recommend this "for this can put man into temptation" (68). Given the abundance of hagiographies about twelfth and thirteenth century women who were engaged in extreme spiritual and bodily acts of penance, for example Jacques de Vitry's The Life of Marie d'Oignies, it seems impossible that gender played no role in the masters' concerns about excessive contritional pain.

After discussing how voluntary suffering can be purgative, Mowbray then addresses the suffering of those who lack free will: unbaptised children. He also returns to the issue of authority, as the theologians wrestle with Augustine's damnation of unbaptised children. Mowbray contends that the masters explained Augustine's position and defended their own creation of limbo by using their topology of suffering. Unbaptised children could not physically suffer as individuals because they had not committed voluntary sins. "By defining the role of the will in relation to suffering, the masters gained greater control over their knowledge of sin, suffering and the positions of those in the afterlife" (96). Mowbray attempts to account for a shift in attitude towards the fate of the unbaptised by examining factors external to the university. However, here he gives a list of examples rather than an analysis connecting the two worlds, and finally gives a theoretical answer: "Augustine's position that these children would be damned did not agree with the masters' theories about pain and its relationship with sin" (103).

The final third of the book takes up the question of the suffering of the separated soul after death, and the body after resurrection. As Mowbray has shown, thirteenth century scholastic theologians were committed to the body-soul composite and the soul's dependence on sense perception to experience suffering. When analyzing the death and resurrection of the body, they were faced with two problems. First, since some souls suffer in purgatory or hell, how does the separated soul suffer without the body? Second, after the resurrection of the body, is the new body-soul composite the same as it had been on earth? The masters' debates around the materiality of hell-fire help explain how the incorporeal soul can suffer, leading to a new kind of suffering that does not require the body (120). For those interested in the Paris condemnation of 1270, Mowbray gives a concise account of the controversy. While he connects this controversy to the issue of the materiality of fire, the details of the controversy distract from his focus at this point in the argument.

Mowbray concludes by explaining the complex views of corporeality developed by the theologians in response to the problem of the eternal suffering of the resurrected body. "During life corporeality denoted mortality, decay and corruption. After death, corporeality was unchanging and eternal" (157). By describing the different ways these bodies suffered, the theologians developed a way to differentiate between two notions of corporeality (157). These last two chapters show the diversity of opinion among the Parisian masters and are especially strong in demonstrating how they sought to reconcile different authorities.

Mowbray's focus on suffering allows him to present the reader with a number of different theological viewpoints, without losing her in the minutiae of the academic arguments. This focus is a general strength of the book and keeps it from slipping into a simple display of knowledge. Instead, by looking at these theologians' debates through the lens of pain and suffering, Mowbray helps his reader better understand how these theologians argued in general, and presents us with a compelling case for the centrality of suffering in the thinking of thirteenth century intellectuals.

Mowbray's analysis also situates theologians such as Aquinas and Bonaventure within their medieval world without retrospectively reading modern categories into their philosophical problems or the solutions they offered. For example, in chapter six, Mowbray addresses a dichotomy that Alan E. Bernstein sets up in which theologians understood hellfire metaphorically while the common man saw it materially. Through his analysis, Mowbray shows that this is not the case and that in fact, the theologians "were strengthening belief in the corporeality of hell-fire, rather than reducing the emphasis placed upon it" (137). These sorts of correctives help us maintain the strangeness and foreignness of these thinkers, whose mode of argumentation sometimes leads us to assume they were more like modern academics than men steeped in a thirteenth century world that was more materialist than we often imagine.