- Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe
The later centuries of the Middle Ages are often identified with sensuous displays of extravagant piety: processions of flagellants, images of the body of Christ bleeding on the cross, the exhibition of relics, outbreaks of stigmata among the female followers of Saint Francis. Do such practices of the faithful and their nervous justification by theologians comprise the extreme form, in Huizinga’s age of “blood and roses,” of the doctrine of the Incarnation? Caroline W. Bynum does not deny it but goes beyond to explore a Christian ontology of matter in order to explain the root paradox of religion in this era. The paradox consists in affirming the omnipotence, eternity, and immutability of an invisible and ineffable God while, at the same time, believing that he acts through objects as commonplace and mutable—subject to generation, decay, and putrefaction—as wood (from which holy images were sculpted), bread and wine (the Eucharistic species), and [End Page 134] human bones (revered as relics). In this ontology of matter, the “body” is, like the soul, a component of the human person. According to the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, materia comes from mater, and corpora from creare: bodies comprise the whole of Creation (stars, plants, insects, human beings, even stones), which is to say that matter is engendered “maternally” and fated to disappear, unless the Creator chooses to transform it miraculously (the painted Virgin that sheds tears of blood) or, on the other hand, to suspend inevitable change (the tongue of Saint Anthony of Padua that does not decay, and in Naples the dried blood of Saint Janvier that liquefies annually on his feast day). In the tradition of Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity and The Resurrection of the Body, this very brilliant new book demonstrates that the material is essential to the spirit.
Jean-Claude Schmitt is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and directs the Groupe d’Anthropologie Historique de l’Occident Médiéval. His books in English translation include The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century; The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century; and Ghosts in the Middle Ages. In 2008, he received the Reimar Lüst Award for International Scholarly and Cultural Exchange from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.