- God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages
The basic argument of Newman's God and the Goddesses has been almost completely ignored by medievalists since it appeared in 2003. Medievalists are a conservative bunch. Newman's limpid yet elegant prose is universally admired. Her term "visionary theology" for the poetry, devotional writing, and vision collections of the later Middle Ages has been adopted by those seeking to add to the arsenal of categories (such as Jean Leclercq's "monastic theology" and Bernard McGinn's "vernacular theology") available to be deployed against the outdated idea that university theology was synonymous with sophisticated religious discourse. But Newman's central thesisthat medieval thinking about and reacting to God included a strong sense of a living feminine presence in the divinehas puzzled scholars. Current work on medieval Christianity, when done by Catholics and mainstream Protestants, tends to explore theological contentions or devotional practices from within orthodoxy. When done by Jews, agnostics, or post-Christians, it tends to explain dissident positions as expressions of power, politics, and social structures. By treating as living religious response a full range of expression, from what most assume to be "allegorical personifications" to what [End Page 517] most assume to be traditional "Mariology," Newman has challenged and confused the established ways of medievalists. Moreover, she has no simple presentist agenda that might lead her work to be picked up easily by contemporary feminists or antifeminists. Nonetheless, I suspect that, when we look back fifty years from now, we will see this book as one that changed the face of scholarship and maybe even our understanding of Christianity itself.
Caroline Walker Bynum, formerly a MacArthur Fellow, is professor of medieval European history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and University Professor Emerita at Columbia. Her books include Jesus as Mother; Holy Feast and Holy Fast; Fragmentation and Redemption; Metamorphosis and Identity; and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.