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Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion.

Caroline Walker Bynumm, (New York: Zone Books, 1991). 426 pp. ISBN 0-942299-63-9. 22.50[pounds].

The Apostles' Creed commits Christians to a belief in the resurrection of the body. Comforting as this article of faith may be to those attached to the material basis of existence, it has raised innumerable difficulties for theologians. There is not only the problem of which body is to be resurrected -- whether it will be young or old, will retain sexual differentiation or the marks of the physical suffering through which beatitude has been won -- there are also more abstruse questions, such as whether an aborted foetus will be resurrected as an adult person, or whether the body of someone devoured by a cannibal can be separated from the body of his devourer in the hereafter. Caroline Walker Bynum shows that mediaeval interest in such questions was not a matter of mediaeval pedantry losing itself in the mazes of grotesque casuistry, but the result of a profound belief in the psychomatic unity of the individual human being. The dualist strain in mediaeval thought which gives soul primacy over body is counteracted by a tendency, increasingly evident from the thirteenth century onwards, to see soul and body as inseparable constituents of personhood, their reunion being the essential precondition of heavenly bliss.

The implications of this commitment to the centrality of the body in the constitution of human identity -- implications for the cult of relics, for example, or for the treatment of corpses after death -- are discussed in the last of this collection of essays by one of the foremost writers on mediaeval spirituality. Earlier essays explore the special significance given to the body in female spirituality in particular, covering some of the same ground as Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Women, as Bynum puts it, |were more apt to somatize religious experience and to write in intense bodily metaphors'; they are associated with |the most bizarre bodily occurrences ... stigmata, incorruptibility of the cadaver in death, mystical lactations and pregnancies, catatonic trances, ecstatic nosebleeds, miraculous anorexia, eating and drinking pus, visions of bleeding hosts'. Bynum argues that these occurrences are not the result of a desire to degrade and punish the flesh; on the contrary, it is the agency through which human beings can achieve a true imitatio Christi, by replicating the divine suffering in their own bodies. The association of women with the body, men with the intellect, does not, therefore, work entirely to women's disadvantage, since it gives women a much closer relationship to the redemptive bodily suffering of Christ. This relationship is realized in mediaeval visual art in representation of Christ's body as in some respects |female' -- as nurturing with blood from his breast, for example, in a manner parallel to Mary's nurturing with milk, or as bringing forth mankind to a new birth from the womb-like aperture of the wound in his side. En route, Bynum provides an interesting reassessment of Leo Steinberg's claims concerning the representation of Christ's male sexuality in mediaeval art; pictures drawing attention to Christ's penis are not, she argues, stressing his maleness, but rather drawing attention to his miraculous humanity, evidenced in the Circumcision, which was his first shedding of blood and so proleptic of the Crucifixion.

These reprinted and updated essays are uniformly stimulating, imaginative, and grounded in an extensive knowledge of mediaeval religious belief and practice. Only the first two, which are critiques of Victor Turner's theory of |liminality', and of the religious typologies of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, strike the reader as more obviously |occasional pieces', limited by an imposed brief, than the others, which hang together by virtue of their interrelated themes and justify the reassembly of these essays in a single volume. The well-chosen illustrations, whether mediaeval or modern, have an interest of their own, and the only complaint one would have is over the irritating separation of the full and learned footnotes from the text, a practice which computer-setting ought to be eliminating.
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Author:Mann, Jill
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:663
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