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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 1-12
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An Authorial Aside
Caroline Walker Bynum
We might, I have often thought, gauge cultural change best simply by asking how people at various points in the past would have answered the question, "Who are you?" For the answer—the wife of Livius, the man of Guillaume, a servant of God, an Englishman, a butcher, a sinner, an employee of General Motors, a woman—takes us deep into social structure, values, and culture. It matters, then, that my own answer to this question—and not only for the purposes at hand—can be: I am a historian of the religion and culture of Western Europe in the period between the principate of Augustus and the Council of Trent. But what does that mean as an answer? One elaboration might be: I am the author of a set of books on the European Middle Ages. For surely, taken together, the contents of these books reflect what I "do," although at first glance their range may seem less to provide a definition than to suggest an almost dilettantish curiosity. Nevertheless, it is a place to start. What have I done in my books? What do they suggest I am?
The first, Docere Verbo et Exemplo: An Aspect of Twelfth-Century Spirituality, dealt with ideas of edification in treatises of spiritual advice written by and for members of twelfth-century male religious orders. A doctoral dissertation that never quite grew up into a book, it nonetheless grappled with large issues of how self-conscious ideas about community relate to institutional structure, how ideals are passed on in socialization, how and whether one person can actually affect the [End Page 1] fundamental values of another. What, in other words, does it mean to teach? It attempted to devise a method of probing texts—their silences and slippages as well as their explicit agendas—to find places where groups with a shared heritage might reveal differences in basic assumptions. Then came Jesus as Mother, a series of essays, the best known of which focused on the use of maternal and female images in the religious writing of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries done by both women and men. And then: Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, not—despite the title—so much about food as about women's religiosity. Rejecting both a long and misogynistic tradition of denigrating women's religious writing and a rather simplistic tendency, characteristic of the 1970s, to assume a "female" need for "female" images, it attempted a structural analysis of the characteristics of the surviving literature by and about women's piety, contrasting that structure to the structures of men's writing and practices and embedding female religiosity in the gender expectations and the religious practices of the society. Often paired with Rudolph Bell's Holy Anorexia, it was in fact an argument against isolating a single aspect of religious practice, such as food abstention, both from other food practices (such as Eucharist, food-multiplication miracles, or food distribution) and from other forms of denial and celebration (such as extreme asceticism or mystical ecstasy).
Half a decade later, Fragmentation and Redemption, another set of essays, explored the assumptions about body and person behind the female piety studied in Holy Feast and Holy Fast. And in 1995, The Resurrection of the Body tackled one of the basic assumptions of Western eschatology: the expectation (found in rabbinic Judaism and Islam as well as in Christianity) that the body returns at the end of time. Analyzing texts of mainstream theologians from the patristic period to the early fourteenth century, I attempted to employ the same method of reading for slippage, silence, and metaphor that I had used in Docere Verbo et Exemplo; then, not content with abstruse texts and offbeat readings, I also insisted that both explicit theology and implicit assumptions should be embedded in social practices concerning death, burial, and access to divine power. The result: a difficult book. But behind the complex method was a simple observation: if the body...