Synopses & Reviews
1992 American Academy of Religion Award.
These seven essays by noted historian Caroline Walker Bynum exemplify her argument that historians must write in a "comic" mode, aware of history's artifice, risks, and incompletion. Exploring a diverse array of medieval texts, the essays show how women were able to appropriate dominant social symbols in ways that revised and undercut them, allowing their own creative and religious voices to emerge. Taken together, they provide a model of how to account for gender in studying medieval texts and offer a new interpretation of the role of asceticism and mysticism in Christianity.
In the first three essays, Bynum focuses on the methodological problems inherent in the writing of history. She shows that a consideration of medieval texts written by women and the rituals attractive to them undermines the approaches of three 20th-century intellectual figures - Victor Turner, Max Weber, and Leo Steinberg - and illustrates how other disciplines can enrich historical research. These methodological considerations are then used in the next three essays to examine gender proper. While describing the "experiential" literary voices of medieval women, Bynum underlines the corporality of women's piety and focuses on both the cultural construction and the intractable physicality of the body itself. She also examines how the acts and attitudes of men affected the cultural construction of categories such as "female," "heretic," and "saint" and shows that the study of gender is the study of how roles and possibilities are conceptualized by both women and men. In the final essay, Bynum elucidates how medieval discussions of bodily resurrection and the obsession with material details enrich modem debates over questions of self-identity and survival.
Fragmentation and Redemption is first of all about bodies and the relationship of part to whole in the high Middle Ages, a period in which the overcoming of partition and putrefaction was the very image of paradise. It is also a study of gender, that is, a study of how sex roles and possibilities are conceptualized by both men and women, even though asymmetric power relationships and men's greater access to knowledge have informed the cultural construction of categories such as "male" and "female," "heretic" and "saint." Finally, these essays are about the creativity of women's voices and women's bodies.
Bynum discusses how some women manipulated the dominant tradition to free themselves from the burden of fertility, yet made female fertility a powerful symbol; how some used Christian dichotomies of male / female and powerful / weak to facilitate their own imitatio Christi, yet undercut these dichotomies by subsuming them into humanitas. Medieval women spoke little of inequality and little of gender, yet there is a profound connection between their symbols and communities and the twentieth-century determination to speak of gender and "study women."
These seven essays by noted historian Caroline Walker Bynum exemplify her argument that historians must write in a "comic" mode, aware of history's artifice, risks, and incompletion.
Caroline Walker Bynum is a MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the Schaff Prize for Church History for her highly acclaimed Holy Feast, Holy Fast. She is Professor of History at Columbia University.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 299-417) and index.
About the Author
Caroline Walker Bynum is University Professor at Columbia University. She is the author of Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, and Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Body in Medieval Religion (Zone Books, 1991).