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Reviewed by:
  • Metamorphosis and Identity
  • Louis Haas
Metamorphosis and Identity. By Caroline Walker Bynum (New York: Zone Books, 2001. x plus 270pp. $28.00).

Postmodernism focuses on shifting and fluctuating boundaries and categories, on deconstruction of texts and constructs, and on varying perceptions, especially from subalterns and those on the margins. While all these can offer marvelous perspectives, they are also tremendously unsettling, especially because they all beg the question: what are things—or what and when are they not and who decides this? All of which implies the question: what is change? Just as we are fascinated and troubled with these issues and wrestle with them intellectually, socially, and personally so too did medieval people. This is the point of Caroline Walker Bynum’s collection of exploratory articles, here gathered loosely under the rubric of metamorphosis and identity—or change and construct, if you will. Wisely and cleverly she highlights a particular case study, which like a microhistory says so much about other things. Gerald of Wales (1146–1223) included an account of a werewolf in his The History and Topography of Ireland. What did this creature represent—a change (metamorphosis) or some combination (hybrid)? And how to explain it—where did it come from or how did it come about? By the twelfth century, intellectuals—but also average people—began to look more broadly at things in the world and began to wonder and be amazed. The world represented more than they had previously thought or categorized. What is and what is not? Are there things in between? Can things move between the two poles, and how do they do so? And some important things, on further examination, now began to look unsettling and confusing, heresy for one, the Eucharist for another.

Bynum is quick to point out that this collection is only the tip of the iceberg, for many thought about the problem of change in the High Middle Ages; moreover, she is quick to note how provisional her findings are, based as they are on just a couple of sample cases or sample authors. But these are rich, and leave us with more questions than answers, which is good as we begin to wonder and be amazed. If the examples she provides us with regarding wonder in the Middle Ages and what made for wonder, regarding metamorphosis or what made for change in the Middle Ages, regarding hybrids or what made for combined forms in the Middle Ages, or regarding shape or what made for structure and the narrative of it in the Middle Ages are any indication, we medievalists will be wrestling with these debates and views many years into the future.

The High Middle Ages was awash in wonders, and the intellectual fervor and ferment of the Twelfth Century Renaissance made this possible. Bynum highlights three sources for this wonderment: philosophical speculation; theological writings; and travel narratives and other entertaining literature. Wonder here was paradoxical; for it implied something beyond explanation at the moment yet also something that could be explained given enough time and talent. This concept, of course, harkens back to Aristotle and St. Augustine, who had pointed out that things that are unclear to the ignorant become clarified to the informed. Thus wonder is the first and requisite step to knowledge. The werewolf stories that became a stock in trade for medieval travel narratives exemplify this paradox. [End Page 769] While holding out the horrifying possibility of species change, the stories also implied a very fertile natural world where all sorts of things and processes were possible and that even with this apparent confusion there was the possibility of finding the deeper order to this apparent chaos. But there was always something frightful about this particular type of story—it left the reader questioning what the body was and wondering could it change and how. And these accounts opened up other troubling questions that left medieval theologians wondering: what was the Eucharist then, a metamorphosis or a miracle or just a revelation of what had already been there?

Although metamorphosis was one possibility of change, some resisted this concept and argued for the occurrence of hybrids—no real change occurred, just...

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pp. 769-771
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