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Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion…

Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe

by Caroline Walker Bynum

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Christian Materiality was originally a series of lectures given at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I have to imagine that those lectures were quite different in form and phrasing to this book, because the text is dense and Bynum's argument subtle and complex. This is not a book to speed through—I had to pause and re-read parts several time to be sure that I was parsing what she was saying correctly, and of course I had to have a dictionary to hand. There were several times that I wished Bynum had adopted a simpler vocabulary in points, because I think there was sometimes an air of studying too much for words of five syllables (TM Charles Bingley), which obscured what is otherwise a treatment of an interesting subject. That a text is hard work is not, of course, necessarily a mark against it, and much of what Bynum says here provides interesting food for further thought.

This book is a call to reassess the piety and religious praxis of Christians in late medieval Europe on their own terms—different from the early medieval period, but no mere precursor to the changes wrought by the Reformation. Bynum sees this period as characterised by a sharp awareness of the power of matter, but equally by the tension caused by that awareness—matter can be holy, a means of mediating between humanity and divinity (through relics, the Eucharist, Christ's body), but it can also corrupt and decay. As she puts it, "The sacred slips between animate and inanimate, bodily and heavenly, present and eternal, as if the poles were simultaneous, rather than dichotomous" (251) In other words, all matter—no matter how inanimate it may seem to the modern eyes—had the potential to undergo birth, metamorphosis and decay. The book is beautifully illustrated (though I wish it had been in colour rather than black and white!) throughout with examples of how devotional art work and theological texts dealt with that tension.

A difficult read, but a rewarding one. ( )
  siriaeve | Oct 27, 2012 |
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Late Medieval Christianity's encounter with miraculous materials viewed in the context of changing conceptions of matter itself. In the period between 1150 and 1550, an increasing number of Christians in western Europe made pilgrimage to places where material objects--among them paintings, statues, relics, pieces of wood, earth, stones, and Eucharistic wafers--allegedly erupted into life through such activities as bleeding, weeping, and walking about. Challenging Christians both to seek ever more frequent encounters with miraculous matter and to turn to an inward piety that rejected material objects of devotion, such phenomena were by the fifteenth century at the heart of religious practice and polemic. In Christian Materiality, Caroline Walker Bynum describes the miracles themselves, discusses the problems they presented for both church authorities and the ordinary faithful, and probes the basic scientific and religious assumptions about matter that lay behind them. She also analyzes the proliferation of religious art in the later Middle Ages and argues that it called attention to its materiality in sophisticated ways that explain both the animation of images and the hostility to them on the part of iconoclasts. Seeing the Christian culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a paradoxical affirmation of the glory and the threat of the natural world, Bynum's study suggests a new understanding of the background to the sixteenth-century reformations, both Protestant and Catholic. Moving beyond the cultural study of "the body"--a field she helped to establish--Bynum argues that Western attitudes toward body and person must be placed in the context of changing conceptions of matter itself. Her study has broad theoretical implications, suggesting a new approach to the study of material culture and religious practice.… (more)

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