Authors: Caroline Walker Bynum

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Docere Verbo et Exemplo: An Aspect of Twelfth-Century Spirituality, 1979

Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of theHigh Middle Ages, 1982 (a collection of essays from 1973 to 1980)

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, 1987

Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1991 (a collection of essays from 1984 to 1989)

The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, 1995

“Why All the Fuss About the Body?,” Critical Inquiry 22 (Fall, 1995)

Metamorphosis and Identity, 2001

Edited Texts:

Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, 1986 (with Stevan Harrell and Paula Richman)

Last Things: Death and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 2000 (with Paul Freedman)

Biography

As more than one reviewer of her work has commented, Caroline Walker Bynum (BI-nuhm) is one of the few late twentieth century historians whose work undoubtedly will deepen and change not only traditional understandings of particular historical periods but also the writing of history itself. Bynum belongs more in the rank of historians and philosophers who only emerge a few times in a century than in the rank of “merely” brilliant scholars and researchers.{$I[AN]9810002055}{$I[A]Bynum, Caroline Walker}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bynum, Caroline Walker}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bynum, Caroline Walker}{$I[tim]1941;Bynum, Caroline Walker}

She received her bachelor of arts degree in 1962 from the University of Michigan, earning an M.A. in 1963 and a Ph.D. in history in 1969, both from Harvard University. She began her professorial career in Harvard’s History Department and was promoted to associate professor of church history in Harvard’s Divinity School in 1973. In 1981, she moved to the University of Washington as professor of history. In 1988, she relocated again, this time to Columbia University.

Bynum’s principal fields of study might be categorized as women’s studies, gender studies, and the history of Western Christianity and theology. As with all great historians, however, no single category or combination thereof adequately represents the breadth of her work. Nearly all of Bynum’s writings are unified by a consuming interest in the qualities that make human beings human and how their humanity shapes and is shaped by the actual physicality of their bodies and their perceptions of that physical structure. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, for example, present arguments that, like Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, overpower the reader through their elegance and complex simplicity. Holy Feast and Holy Fast demonstrates that medieval religious women, who traditionally had been most identified with “passive” virtues such as poverty and chastity, exerted a unique type of control and authority that was determined by the domestic roles prescribed for them by their cultures. This authority manifested itself through their relationship with food, through denying themselves food for physical sustenance and through indulging in food for religious motives.

The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 traces through several centuries a fundamental dichotomy in religious attitudes concerned with the human body. Bynum discovers and delineates an opposition, integral to Christianity, between viewing the resurrected body, on one hand, as a concrete entity identical to the original form and, on the other hand, viewing the body that lives in heaven as a spiritual, noncorporeal entity. Faith in the resurrection of a concrete body, she argues, became the dominating view in western Christianity, beginning with the writings of Tertullian of Carthage in the third century.

These arguments may seem by their nature to be limited exclusively to highly erudite audiences, but Bynum has the ability to write lucidly, even appealingly. Unlike many scholars who write for specialized audiences, she has a natural aversion to academic jargon. Bynum is never unnecessarily abstruse, never insensitive to the humor that modern audiences may find in some of the ideas she explores (such as Tertullian’s contention that the blessed will be equipped with teeth in heaven–not because they need them, but because they would look strange without them).

In a period spanning fewer than twenty years, Bynum emerged as an influential and innovative scholar specializing in the early Christian era and the Middle Ages. Her publications are eagerly awaited and reviewed not only by the leading academic journals but also by more mainstream magazines such as The New Republic. Holy Feast and Holy Fast received the Philip Schaff Prize, one of the highest honors given in the field of religious history; Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion earned both the Lionel Trilling Book Award and the Award for Excellence from the Academy of Religion. For her overall achievement, Bynum received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation and was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society.

Bynum began her career when the writing of history, particularly the history of religion, was dominated by men. Although she applauds the advances made by women in American academia in the last two decades, she also contends that the marginalized quality of women’s scholarship (and other endeavors by women) possesses a unique value, a uniqueness that should never be completely lost, never fully sacrificed to the mainstream.

BibliographyBiddick, Kathleen. “Genders, Bodies, Borders: Technologies of the Visible.” Speculum 68 (1993). Although scholarly articles extending Bynum’s ideas and methods are countless, this is one of the very few lengthy critiques of Bynum’s historiography, limited to Bynum’s arguments in Holy Feast and Holy Fast.Hollywood, Amy M. Review of Fragmentation and Redemption, by Caroline Walker Bynum. Journal of Religion 72 (1992). Provides useful background material.Morris, Colin. “Individualism in Twelfth-Century Religion: Some Further Reflections.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31 (1980). Responds to and critiques Bynum’s “Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?,” one of her most famous and controversial essays.Shaw, Brent D. “Out on a Limb.” Review of The Resurrection of the Body, by Caroline Walker Bynum. The New Republic, April 17, 1995. Valuable not only because it is aimed at a general audience but also because Shaw describes Bynum’s overall contribution to her fields of study.
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