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Sacred Bones & Blood

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Nathan Benn/Ottochrome/Corbis
The Roman Catholic monstrance known as the ‘Prague Sun,’ made in Vienna and studded with more than six thousand diamonds, 1699. It is in the treasury of the Loreto Sanctuary in Prague.

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.”

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Holy Trinity Church, Tattershall, Lincolnshire, England
‘Saint Helena Presenting the Nails and Part of the True Cross to the Emperor Constantine’; stained glass window, 1482

Historians like the late Bob Scribner characterized the late Middle Ages as a period in which the “sacred gaze” became central to Christian practice. There was a huge increase in imagery of all kinds in churches and in manuscript and printed devotional literature, and at many shrines images rather than relics became the focus of devotion. Even more significantly, from the twelfth century onward, the elevation of the Host in the Mass—the raising of the communion wafer above the priest’s head—became increasingly the center of the celebration. At a time when most people received communion only once a year, gazing at the Host at the elevation replaced its consumption as the main form of lay communion. These moves, from relic to image, and from communion to disembodied gazing in the Mass, might both seem to tell against Bynum’s theory of an increasingly insistent materiality, so she devotes a chapter to exploring the place of the visual in late-medieval Christianity.

Here her central insistence is that medieval images were more like physical relics than modern portraits: “a medieval image is an object in a way that a Renaissance or modern painting is not.” Bynum emphasizes the plasticity of medieval images, their three-dimensionality, their use as containers for relics or the Blessed Sacrament, their decking with real cloth or real gold and jewels, all of which material “self-referentiality” drew attention to their corporeality. What was involved here was not realism or mimesis, she insists, but “disclosures of the sacred through material substance.” There are echoes here of the sharp distinction made by the art historian Hans Belting between the cult image and the work of art, and Bynum is right to insist that while images do increasingly replace relics as the focus of veneration in late-medieval piety, in the process those images often came to be treated as if they were themselves relics.

But at times Bynum’s argument, like Belting’s, seems weakened by being pushed too far. Her insistence on the plasticity and physicality of late-medieval carved winged altarpieces, for example, obscures the fact that most such altarpieces were in fact painted two-dimensional objects, which were certainly not intended to be touched. Her discussion of late-medieval depictions of the legendary Eucharistic miracle of the Mass of Pope Gregory—when the wounded Christ appeared before the congregation after the Pope had prayed for a sign to convince a nonbeliever of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist—emphasizes its physicality, but ignores the fact that many depictions of the Gregory Mass include a portrait of the donor precisely as spectator, suggesting that the notion of vision had more importance than plasticity or touch for those who commissioned or created such images. She is on stronger ground in her exploration of the paper and parchment images of the wounds of Christ that became so important in late-medieval piety, for such depictions were often explicitly intended to be touched, kissed, and carried around as a protective talisman, functioning as a powerful contact relic of Christ, rather than a mere pictorial reminder of his passion.

From images Bynum turns to other kinds of holy matter—relics, sacramentals (blessed objects), and the Eucharistic bread, both ordinary and miraculously bleeding. These sacred objects had all been important in early medieval Christianity, but after 1100, Bynum argues, take on a new vitality and fascination. She is particularly interesting on the changing form of reliquaries. In the early and high Middle Ages, relics were normally kept for veneration in closed containers—purses, caskets, coffins, or ornate boxes, the latter often gabled to resemble a church. Such reliquaries both concealed the relic itself and stressed “the collection or gathering together of their contents.”

These increasingly gave way to crystal monstrances, designed to expose the relic to view, and to “speaking reliquaries,” containers often grotesquely fashioned in the shape of a body part—head, foot, or arm—and often with a crystal window, designed to “flaunt the fragments of bone” that they contained. As the possession of relics became more important to churches and wealthy lay devotees, reliquaries displaying ranked rows of bone and other body fragments became increasingly common, their multiple open chambers similarly drawing attention to the fact of the dismemberment of the holy bodies from which the relics were derived, and thereby flaunting their materiality.

Bone fragments were relatively permanent, and were given even greater symbolic permanence by their being enshrined in gold and precious stones. But the period also saw attempts to give material permanence to visions and miraculous apparitions. Many medieval visionaries (often women) experienced visions of Christ in the Eucharist. The spread after 1200 of belief in miraculous bleeding hosts, whether preserved themselves, as at the German shrine of Wilsnack, or in the form of the blood-stains on the altar linen, as in the holy “corporal,” or altar cloth, of Bolsena in Orvieto Cathedral, offered a way of making such ephemeral and private experiences permanent and public.

This form of Christian materiality posed difficult questions, for Christ was risen, and for medieval theologians that meant that every fragment of his body—blood, fingernails, hair—was risen also and reunited to his glorified body in heaven. There could be no body relics of Christ. How then could his blood (or his foreskin, of which there was more than one alleged relic!) remain to be venerated on earth? Moreover, the doctrine of transubstantiation insisted on the intrinsic invisibility of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The substance of bread and wine, their inner reality, was replaced by Christ’s substance. But their accidental qualities—color, weight, texture, taste, smell, nutritive value—remained. Hence, if you could see it, by definition, it wasn’t Christ. Theologians and preachers from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Nicholas of Cusa labored to preserve the theological niceties while leaving room for well-intentioned pieties, which they themselves sometimes shared: in the process, they could seem to be attempting to square the circle.

There were similar intellectual agonies over sacramentals. Did blessed objects possess intrinsic power, or were they merely eloquent pointers to spiritual realities? Theologians dithered, and their conclusions could seem arbitrary or parti pris. Dominican theologians howled down the use by the Franciscan revivalist preacher Saint Bernardino of painted and gilded wooden tablets bearing the holy name of Jesus. When Bernardino held up such verbal icons, crowds knelt in adoration. Was this the idolatrous worship of a material object or the legitimate veneration of the Name, at which Saint Paul said every knee should bow? Bynum argues that these tensions were not and could not be resolved, and that late- medieval Christianity, both mainstream and deviant, was therefore caught in a radical ambivalence, living rather than resolving the paradoxes of materiality, “simultaneously embracing and rejecting…material religiosity.”

This insistence on paradox is a characteristic of Bynum’s work and of her rhetorical strategy as a historian, and it is often both refreshing and illuminating. Not for her tidy simplicities that bulldoze flat the intractable strangeness of the past. But her insistence on unresolvable ambivalences can be vexing too, by appearing to refuse necessary distinctions. Bynum wants to insist, for example, that all medieval Christians shared, whether they acknowledged it or not, a conception of matter as fluid, vital, animated. So even the heretical opponents of holy matter, on her account, demonstrate their immersion in these paradoxes by the very vehemence of their opposition. English Lollards, cooking their cabbage over a fire made out of a desecrated saint’s statue, were triumphantly demonstrating that the torched fragments were incapable of tears or protest. But, says Bynum, they simultaneously indicated the opposite, for they did so with “what feels to a modern reader like genuine surprise.”

Here, alas, Bynum parts company with the evidence. It is true that at least one Lollard claimed that the statues in the churches were infested with fallen angels, and so had an evil life within them. But the specific Lollard iconoclasm she alludes to is known to us only through the not very circumstantial testimony of hostile orthodox opponents. The accounts contain not the slightest indication that the heretical cabbage-cookers were surprised that the burned statue remained stubbornly inert. Quite the contrary: they burned it to show that they knew it was just a piece of a dead matter, and therefore unspiritual. Bynum reads the conflicted sensibility, and tacit Lollard acquiescence in a vitalist understanding of materiality, into rather than out of the contemporary account. The rhetoric of paradox has here carried her into pure speculation.

And rhetoric can color her arguments elsewhere. In her fascinating discussion of reliquaries, Bynum reflects on the meaning of body-part reliquaries in relation to medieval horror at decay and putrefaction. By clothing bone fragments in gold and jewels, she argues, their makers demonstrated that what they feared was not the division of bodies, but the fact that the dead rot. “Reliquaries,” she writes, “glorify and sublimate partition. What they deny is putrefaction.” But that claim would surely be just as plausible if it were reversed: body-part reliquaries do indeed sublimate the dismemberment of the saints by mimicking the dismembered fragment in precious and imperishable materials. But they also display or signal the presence of shards of bone, and therefore celebrate and sublimate the fact of death and decay exactly as they do that of dismemberment.

Dry bones, of course, make better and more permanent relics than soft tissue, and the bodies of dead saints, like those of dead kings and queens, were often eviscerated and boiled down to procure clean bones. But bones, especially fragmented bones, also functioned in medieval devotional language as vivid emblems of the grave, death, and decay, rather than of permanence or incorruption. In many a medieval crucifixion scene, the horror of death that Christ overcomes on the cross is symbolized by the bones of Adam, scattered at its base. Bynum’s neatly polarized rhetoric here closes down areas of ambiguity that the objects themselves leave open.

But these are minor reservations about an important and enjoyable book. Bynum’s study is the distillation of years of learning and accumulated insight, the work of a mature scholar at the height of her powers. It will delight, challenge, and energize her fellow historians. It will also inform, fascinate, and on occasion curdle the blood of the intelligent general reader. And books that achieve that enviable double objective are as rare and precious as the relics of the saints.

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