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19.09.25 Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, Expanded Edition

19.09.25 Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, Expanded Edition

It goes without saying that Caroline Walker Bynum, Professor Emerita at Columbia University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, is a titan in the field of medieval studies. In book after book, decade after decade, her scholarship has charted rather than followed the course of intellectual inquiry into the history of medieval religion [1]. In her 1995 magnum opus,The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, she teased out and explained how Christian thinkers argued about the body's relationship to the soul from late ancient Christianity to the end of the Middle Ages. Originally presented as a series of lectures sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the book treats six chronological flashpoints of debate about the body and the enigma of its resurrection in the decades around the years 200, 400, 1100, 1200, 1270, and 1330. Resurrection of the Body is a model of patient, attentive, comparative reading of medieval sources united by authors wrestling with "a notion of stunning oddness" (xxix) across a staggering array of genres and time periods. The revelations of the book are many, but in particular Bynum found that "a concern for material and structural continuity showed remarkable persistence even when it seemed almost to require philosophical incoherence, theological equivocation, or aesthetic offensiveness" (11). While some readers remarked on Bynum's neglect of the Carolingian period (her narrative jumps from 400 to 1100, for reasons explained on p. 9, n. 14), most reviewers lavished the book with praise. In the American Historical Review, Tom Noble described it as "elegant, fascinating, deeply original, beautifully written, and profoundly challenging," while Publishers Weekly called it "a masterly work of old-fashioned intellectual history." Two decades after its original release, Columbia University Press has now published an "expanded edition" of the book. This review provides a look at what this new edition has to offer.

While it has been clothed in a new cover, the expanded edition of Resurrection of the Body presents a reprint of the 1995 text without any additions or updates. The pagination is the same as the original as are all of the images, which are lamentably grainy and muddy in this new edition. The book also includes as an afterword (345-382) Bynum's contemporary article "Why All the Fuss About the Body? A Medievalist's Perspective," which originally appeared in the journal Critical Theory in 1995. This article provides a thoughtful, often playful, précis of the book's main arguments and themes suitable for undergraduates and general readers (although the currency of some of the pop culture references from the 1990s--from the short-lived television show Max Headroomto the fantasy drama Truly, Madly, Deeply--has no doubt diminished over time). New to the expanded edition is a short, yet incisive, introduction ("What's New About the Medieval?" [xiii-xxviii]). Here Bynum reflects poignantly on the tenacity of the relevance of the study of past concepts of the body and human identity in modern scholarly and political discourse. She also shares insights about her methodology of reading literary images for what they reveal implicitly about the concerns and anxieties of medieval people, evoking, for this reader, Marc Bloch's maxim that "in every literature, society contemplates its own image" [2]. The essay closes with a rallying cry for scholars to take medieval history seriously and to explore all of the bewildering contradictions faced by medieval people, especially their ideas related to their understanding of their bodies and identities, even as we wrestle with our own. For Bynum, the writing of history is an act of empathy with important ramifications for our present lives: "[W]e study the past for the ways it can shock us into diagnosing what is oddest, most perplexing, and yet most glorious and enduring in our own situation" (xxvii). We share with our historical subjects complicated and ultimately unanswerable questions about the relationship between our bodies and our identities. Understanding and effectively communicating that we hold these paradoxical complexities of human experience in common with medieval people, she argues, is an essential part of the humanist project, for it makes historians and their readers more human.



[1] For a recent autobiographical reflection, see Caroline Walker Bynum, "Why Paradox? The Contraditions of My Life as a Scholar," Catholic Historical Review 98 (2012): 432-455.

[2] Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, 2 vols. (London, 1961), vol. 1, p. 102.