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The Paradox of Holy Matter in the Later Middle Ages

  • Francis Oakley (a1)


Via the focus on food that she had found to be the distinguishing preoccupation in the female piety of the Middle Ages and had addressed so probingly and with such independence of scholarly spirit in her Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Caroline Walker Bynum has moved on over the past two decades, and logically enough, to bring her formidable scholarly intelligence and drive to bear, first, on issues pertaining to the body and then, beyond that, to the intriguing cat's cradle of questions pertaining to late-medieval assumptions about matter and its nature in general. The first impulse came to fruition in her Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, a book in which celibacy, asceticism, fasting, and renunciation notwithstanding, she pushed back hard against the modern temptation to project onto medieval religiosity some sort of body-hating soul-body dualism. In this she was moved, as she herself has forthrightly acknowledged, by a “determination to let individual voices be individual and to let the past be different,” as well as by the adamant refusal, evinced also in the work under review, to simplify “the intricate and contradictory assumptions and practices” she was exploring. “Paradox remains paradox,” she has bluntly insisted, and “complexity remains complex” (13).



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Caroline WalkerBynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2011). Page references are given in parentheses in the main text.



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1 Bynum, Caroline Walker, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

2 Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

3 Bynum, Caroline Walker, “Why Paradox? The Contradictions of My Life as a Scholar,” CHR 98 (2012) 433–55.

4 Bynum, Caroline Walker, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

5 Bynum, “Why Paradox?,” 454.

6 van Ruysbroeck, Jan, The Spiritual Espousals (trans. Eric Colledge; London: Faber & Faber, 1952) 40.

7 Bynum, “Why Paradox?,” 451.

8 Thus William J. Courtenay, while putting the point in (admittedly problematic) temporal terms, also describes the potentia absoluta (absolute power) as referring to “the total possibilities initially open to God, some of which were realized by creating the established order” with “the unrealized possibilities now [therefore] only hypothetically possible” (“Nominalism and Late Medieval Religion,” in The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion [ed. Charles Trinkaus and Heiko Oberman; Leiden: Brill, 1974] 29–39 [italics in original]). See also his Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power (Quodlibet 8; Bergamo: Lubrina, 1990), where he lays great (albeit misleadingly exclusive) emphasis on this particular meaning. For a succinct and (more or less) up to date account of the rapidly shifting state of scholarly play on the topic, I venture to refer to Oakley, Francis, Omnipotence and Promise: The Legacy of the Scholastic Distinction of Powers (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2002).

9 Printed in Gerson, Jean, Opera Omnia (ed. Du Pin, Louis Ellies; 5 vols.; Antwerp: Sumptibus Societatis, 1706) 2:903–16.

10 D'Ailly's official verdict in these cases may be found in Annales de la province et comté du Hainaut (ed. François Vinchant; 6 vols.; Brussels: Vandale, 1848–1853) 6:133.

11 Dimmick, Jeremy, Simpson, James, and Zeeman, Nicolette, eds., Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 1.

12 Bloch, Marc, Les rois thaumaturges. Étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale particulièrement en France et en Angleterre (Strasbourg: Librairie Istra, 1924); Bertelli, Sergio, The King's Body: Sacral Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (trans. Litchfield, R. Burr; University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001); Boureau, Alain, Le simple corps du roi. L'impossible sacralité des souverains français XVe–XVIIe siècle (Paris: Éditions de Paris, 1988).

13 On which, and on the similar view of Bernard Sylvestri's, see Bynum, Caroline Walker, “Metamorphosis, or Geraldus the Werewolf,” Spec 73 (1998) 77111.

14 In this connection, see the perceptive observation of Mircea Eliade to the effect that Plato “could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of ‘primitive mentality,’ that is, as the thinker who succeeded in giving philosophic currency and validity to the modes of life and behavior of archaic humanity” (Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return [New York: Harper & Row, 1959] 34).

15 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (ed. Malcolm, Noel; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012) pt. 4, ch. 45.

* Bynum, Caroline Walker, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2011). Page references are given in parentheses in the main text.

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Harvard Theological Review
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