Christianity is a material religion. Its central tenet is that in the man Jesus the eternal God united himself to human nature and human flesh, and thereby opened both humanity and matter itself to the possibility of divinization. So Christians place their eschatological hope not in the survival of a disembodied soul, but in the resurrection of the body, the transformation into another order of being of the whole person, flesh and spirit. In heaven Christ himself retains his body, glorified and transcendent, but bearing still the physical traces of his human suffering. “With what rapture,” says Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “gaze we on those glorious scars.”
Perhaps the most unabashedly materialist form of Christianity is Catholicism, centered around the sacraments, and making material things—bread, wine, water, olive oil, the touch of human hands—vehicles of divine power. In the Mass, Catholics believe, Christ himself is made present in the elements of bread and wine, to nourish and transform those who eat and drink them. Catholics venerate the relics of the holy dead, they bless material stuff—water, salt, oil, wax, medals, holy pictures, palm branches—and the formulas traditionally used in such blessings more often than not implied that those objects, called sacramentals, thereby became objectively holy, changed in themselves, and capable of effecting change at the material as well as the spiritual level. So every year on Palm Sunday Catholics commemorate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem by carrying olive, willow, or palm branches that have been blessed. Until the 1960s, the prayers used insisted on the material as well as the symbolic agency of those blessed branches. “Bless and sanctify this creature,” ran the words, “…that whoever receives it may find protection of soul and body: and may it become, Lord, both a remedy for our well-being, and a sign of your grace.”
But times have changed, clerical nerve has failed, and modern Catholicism appears to be in two minds about the spiritual potency of even sanctified matter. Palms are still blessed and carried each year, but the formula currently approved avoids any suggestion that blessing the branches has any objective effect on them, or on their bearers. So now the celebrant prays, “Lord, sanctify these branches with your blessing, so that we who rejoice to follow Jesus as our King may attain through him to the heavenly Jerusalem.” In this account of what is going on, the palm branches are little more than a pious prop in a ceremony that is simply a metaphor for following Jesus, the blessing of the branches a ritual gesture that is assigned no instrumental value at all.
It is tempting to see the influence of the Protestant reformers in this novel Catholic coyness about the objective power of sanctified matter, for sixteenth-century Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin rejected or minimized the spiritual value of material objects. But Caroline Walker Bynum’s stimulating new book, Christian Materiality, demonstrates that ambivalence about the notion of sanctified matter has much deeper roots: the issues highlighted by these changes in modern Catholic worship troubled also the Christianity of the Middle Ages.
Caroline Bynum is America’s foremost scholar of medieval religion. Over the last twenty-five years, in a stream of books characterized equally by eloquence and deep learning, she has explored one aspect or another of the history of the human body and its religious significance in medieval Europe. This field has long been a happy hunting ground for those approaching the study of medieval history with a range of modern agendas, from militant feminism to economic or materialist readings of the past. So the writings or biographies of medieval nuns and female saints and mystics have been ransacked by historians for the evidence they yield of the oppression of women and the structural misogyny of medieval society, or for proof of Christianity’s fundamental pessimism about the human condition, or its dualistic inability to come to terms with human and especially female sexuality. Bynum’s work, by contrast, has been characterized by its consistent refusal of glibly anachronistic or reductivist readings, and by its determination to explain medieval people in their own terms, however strange or alien those terms may seem to modern sensibilities.
The title essay of the book that established Bynum as a major voice in medieval studies, Jesus as Mother (1982), drew attention to the use of feminine and maternal imagery by medieval monks and clergy when addressing or talking about Christ and the divine, and challenged the widespread assumption that the use of such feminized language was a special characteristic of female piety. In Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987), she moved naturally on from such metaphors of mothering to consider the special significance for medieval women of food, nourishment, and nurture, especially in relation to the Eucharist. Holy Feast included a characteristically sophisticated exploration of a well-known feature of the period, the abstinence by Saint Catherine of Siena and many other holy women from ordinary food, and their reliance for survival instead on the regular reception of holy communion.
Other historians had interpreted this bizarre and radical asceticism through modern medical categories, seeing in it a form of “holy anorexia,” evidence of a morbid and dysfunctional sensibility, driven by an internalized misogyny and self-loathing determination to punish the body and eliminate female sexual characteristics. Bynum, while not altogether discounting such explanations, argued against the anachronistic reductionism of modern medical or psychoanalytical readings of complex medieval behaviors and beliefs. She emphasized the special links between these women and the Eucharist, and pointed to the many ways in which the manipulation of food in sacred settings gave them control and direction over their own lives and environments, and established a privileged space for them in an institution otherwise dominated by male concerns and male authority. She thereby restored agency and opportunism to women seen by other historians as passive victims of an oppressive patriarchal system.
This was much-admired but also controversial work: the suggestion that these holy women should be seen not as victims but as resourceful people in control of their own destinies outraged some readers, and Bynum was accused by less sophisticated feminists of displaying more respect for medieval than for modern women. Perhaps understandably, she has not confined herself to the history of femininity, sex, and gender. She has cast her net widely, and drawn her subject matter from abstruse theological debates, manuals of devotion, alchemical treatises, even werewolf legends.
But all her writing has remained resolutely focused on aspects of the body and the meaning of corporeality for medieval society. Her study The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (1995) explored medieval thinking about the nature of death and resurrection, of the connections between the living and the dead body, and hence of self, identity, and permanence. In 2007 a new book, Wonderful Blood, analyzed theological reactions to a burgeoning fifteenth- century German phenomenon: pilgrimage to the shrines of miraculously bleeding Eucharistic wafers. Bynum used this as the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of the macabre but ubiquitous “blood piety” that loomed large in Western Christianity in the later Middle Ages.
Christian Materiality, the expanded text of three lectures given at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2007, represents a distillation of the work Bynum has been pursuing over the last fifteen years or so. Anyone familiar with her recent writings will recognize the themes, the authors, and the works discussed, and even many of the pictures used as illustrations: we remain firmly in the territory covered in The Resurrection of the Body and Wonderful Blood. The book, therefore, breaks no new ground: its value is as a synthesis of a great scholar’s thinking about late-medieval religion, and about medieval attitudes toward corporeality and the material world.
The book’s subject matter is daunting—the medieval fascination with relics of the fragmented bodies of the saints, and the display of such relics from 1200 onward in reliquaries shaped like body parts; statues and paintings that move, weep, bleed, speak; congealed blood that liquefies on significant dates; communion wafers that spurt blood when broken or pierced, often, in late-medieval anti-Semitic legend, as a result of attacks by Jews; pictures and crucifixes that imprint themselves on living bodies: visions in which the Eucharist is transformed into live babies on the altar, or gaping wounds, or bleeding hunks of flesh. All this may strike modern secular readers as bizarre, and even repellent. A moment’s reflection, however, on the popularity of the novels of Patricia Cornwell, of the Hannibal Lecter films, and of TV detective series like Bones and Waking the Dead, which exploit the more gruesome aspects of forensic science, will suggest that these medieval fascinations are not so remote from our own as might at first appear.
Bynum is concerned to rescue this material and the piety that surrounded it from modern “incomprehension and condescension.” She mobilizes the disjecta membra of her grisly materials in support of a broad and bold thesis that the period from about 1100 until about 1550 was the great age of “Christian materiality.” Other historians have seen the early Middle Ages as the era of “credulous, mechanistic, and materialistic” piety, and have presented the later Middle Ages, by contrast, as reacting against all that, “a turn to interiority on the part of spiritual writers and reform-minded church leaders.”
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Bynum agrees, were indeed the age of mystics and of writers like Thomas à Kempis or Nicholas of Cusa who downplayed exterior piety and pilgrimage and called for a Christ-centered journey within. But she wants to insist on a paradox: that alongside this turn to interiority, there was a great burgeoning of fascination with the material, so that the piety of the four centuries before the Reformation might be characterized as a turn toward rather than away from the object.
Relics and other sacred objects had long held a place of importance in Christianity, but the period after 1100 was the age of “living holy matter,” when sacred objects took on a new kind of animated vitality. These were the centuries in which miraculous “hosts” (the Eucharistic wafer) began to bleed, in which saints first began to find the wounds of Jesus printed on their living flesh, when relics animated themselves and the blood of saints like the Neapolitan Saint Januarius first began to liquefy, and when wooden or stone images of Christ and the saints began to weep, bleed, or gaze with living eyes on the faithful.
Bynum relates this new interest in the power of living and moving relics and images to parallel developments in the liturgy, like the life-sized statues of Christ on a donkey dragged through the streets on Palm Sunday in France and Germany, or the jointed wooden figures of the dead Christ buried and resurrected in ritual tombs during Holy Week, or raised into the roof of great churches on Ascension Day. But she sees the phenomenon as going far beyond liturgical mimesis, rooted rather in a new sense of the vitality and potential of brute matter, a vitality that made it both fascinating and dangerous. Theologians and reformers might warn against treating dead matter as if it were alive, or attempting to pin God down in the material, but late-medieval Christian instinct eagerly embraced the paradox of dead matter that came alive. In a culture much possessed by transience and decay, “miraculous matter”—bleeding wafers or moving statues or liquefying blood—fascinated and reassured, because these things “manifested enduring life (continuity, existence) in death (discontinuity, rupture, change).” They were simultaneously what the theologians said they were, “the changeable stuff of not-God,” but also, and paradoxically, “the locus of a God revealed.”