12.03.12, Bynum, Christian Materiality

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Katherine L. Jansen

The Medieval Review 12.03.12

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe. New York: Zone Books, 2011. Pp. 408. ISBN: 978-1-935408-10-9.

Reviewed by:
Katherine L. Jansen
Catholic University of America

Christian materiality has long been a question at the heart of Caroline Bynum's work, even if not broached under that particular heading. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1987), her ground-breaking book on female piety, argued that women's religious devotion was expressed through their bodies, the means through which they were connected symbolically to the humanity of Christ. With the Incarnation as one of its central tenets, embodiment was fundamental to medieval Christianity. It was, she argued, hardly the body-denying religion that some had represented it to be. Holy Feast and Holy Fast was at the vanguard of both gender studies and the new history of the body; her follow-up, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York, 1991), further ruminated on and enfleshed many of the issues first raised in her earlier work. The fate of the body again took center stage in The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christendom, 200-1336 (New York, 1995), which examined the problem of corporeal resurrection as it was treated by medieval theologians and philosophers. That study made it clear that discussions about bodily resurrection at the end of time were simultaneously debates about Christian materiality, specifically the problem of matter, process and decay. How, she asked, did medieval theologians think through the conundrum posed by bodily resurrection when that material body was subject to putrefaction and decay? Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia, 2007) continued to interrogate this subject through the lens of blood piety practiced at Wilsnack, a vibrant late medieval German pilgrimage site whose central attraction was three blood-stained hosts believed to be manifestations of Christ's holy blood. Wilsnack's success generated lively if contentious debates on the transformational qualities of matter, a subject to which Bynum returns in her brilliant new book, Christian Materiality. Here miraculous transformations-- bleeding hosts, oozing body parts of the saints, glowing and flowering relics--are the focus of an extended exploration of material religiosity as practice and theology in the period, ca. 1100-1550.

As an historian Bynum has always had an extraordinarily sharp eye for those quintessentially medieval religious practices which at first glance appear bizarre, peculiar, or even downright horrifying to modern sensibilities. One of her great gifts is the ability to unpack the meaning of those sometimes repellent practices by contextualizing them in their time and place. In so doing, she has made pious practices such as inedia, self-flagellation, bodily partition, and pus-drinking if not more palatable to contemporary readers, then at least comprehensible when set in their late medieval context. Her primary approach has been to probe the discussions of medieval scholastics to illuminate contemporary religious practice. As such her discussions range widely both temporally and geographically. This is the tack she takes in Material Christianity to explain the phenomenon of transformation miracles--Dauerwunder--which erupted periodically on the already volatile landscape of late medieval piety. At the outset she notes that the book is also about paradox: the central one being that as tangible matter came increasingly to be seen as a locus of the divine in the later medieval period, religious expression was gradually turning toward interiority and mysticism. There was simultaneously, then, both a physical embrace of Christian materiality as well as an intellectual flight from it.

Begun as a series of lectures given at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Christian Materiality is comprised of four richly illustrated chapters, any one of which could stand alone in a graduate course. Chapter One, "Visual Matter," investigates medieval devotional images as manifestations of Christian materiality. Wall murals, panel paintings, manuscript miniatures, pilgrims' badges, relics and reliquaries each provide evidence that medieval images frequently insisted on their own materiality by pointing the viewer not beyond themselves to God, as is often suggested, but to themselves as material substance. In fact, they do both at once. The gilding and encrusting of reliquaries with gold and gems is but one example: the materials point toward heaven but the body fragment encased within is changeable, decaying, problematic matter. A gruesome image of a blood-spattered crucified Christ offering a written charter is a fifteenth-century example of this argument (fig. 28). It highlights how Jesus's human body, made of flesh and blood, partakes of the same matter he holds in the inscribed document fabricated from animal skin and ink. It is a visual commentary that emphasizes material pairings of body and charter, skin and vellum, blood and ink.

Chapter Two, "The Power of Objects," treats both sacramentals (objects blessed by priests) and miracles of metamorphosis, of which bleeding host miracles are perhaps the most problematic and well known as they often accompanied or foreshadowed anti-Jewish libels and accusations of ritual murder. Bynum suggests miracles of transformation were both a "problem and opportunity." They were a problem for medieval society's "others" because persecution in the later Middle Ages tended to go hand-in-hand with the appearances of Dauerwunder. But transformation miracles also posed problems for the Church since spontaneous eruptions of miraculous matter into everyday life could neither be controlled, nor access easily limited. On the other hand, such miracles also provided opportunities for the Church and laity alike in that they renewed the faith while providing prospects for ordinary Christians to enjoy direct and unmediated access to the holy.

Chapter Three, "Holy Pieces," investigates the material practice of relic veneration in the later Middle Ages. Among the many topics treated in this chapter, Bynum suggests that the doctrine of concomitance--that part is whole and that each part carries the fullness of the entirety's power--underlay "a habit of mind" in the later Middle Ages that allowed for partition and distribution of saintly and royal bodies, even if that practice presented problems for theologians who argued that bodily resurrection required bodies--no matter how fragmented--to rise and reassemble at the end of time.

Chapter Four, "Matter and Miracles" weaves together many of the themes treated throughout the book, perhaps best summarized in yet another of Bynum's paradoxes: that "when relics flowered on Good Friday or the blood of St. Januarius or St. James the Lesser liquefied, such objects were announcing that holy matter is eternally alive, not subject to corruption of evil, death, and putrefaction" (257).

In the event, Bynum demonstrates that matter mattered in the Middle Ages. This learned and sophisticated study of the material dimension of religious culture shows us how and why. Like Colleen McDannell's Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven, 1998), Bynum examines the material objects of devotion that animated Christian practice. Unlike McDannell, however, Bynum refuses to view material Christianity as the purview of lay culture alone. The learned elites--theologians and natural philosophers--also practiced a material form of Christianity; the difference was that they left written records documenting the urgency with which they conceptualized, argued and discussed matter's place in the scheme of salvation history. We are fortunate to have Caroline Bynum to navigate the thicket of those dense and often difficult conversations, for with grace and clarity she illuminates their relation to everyday Christian practice of the later Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Katherine L. Jansen

Catholic University of America