Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe

Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe. New York: Zone Books, 2011. Pp 408, ill. $32.95.

In classic surveys of medieval history, the Late Middle Ages is often interpreted in light of the Reformation that it precedes. Late medieval piety is characterized as either the corrupt, superficial, superstitious, literal religion of the naïve masses, or as the interior, mystical, emerging sola fides piety of the proto-Reformers. In her work, Christian Materiality (originally a series of lectures given in May 2007 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem), Caroline Walker Bynum works against these conventional notions in order to define the era’s piety and practice on its own complex terms.

Late medieval piety, according to Bynum, was characterized by an “intense awareness of the power of the material” (18). An object’s physical presence was of foremost importance to late medieval Christians who saw matter as “holy,” as “the locus of [both] generation and corruption” (30). While materiality was a decaying force (for, indeed, an obsession with “stuff” threatened a Christian’s salvation), it represented simultaneously a saving grace, for it was God’s incarnation into a material human body which offered a Christian salvation.

Bynum builds gradually to this conclusion. In chapters 1 and 2, she shows that late medieval devotional objects were not merely mimetic representations of the divine, but instead revealed the divine itself through their very substance—their materiality. Objects became “holy matter” by drawing attention to their tactile qualities (crystal reliquaries, leather-fringed garments, parchments), and iconography increasingly showcased “holy matter” by drawing attention to material objects. Bleeding statues of the crucified Christ, crying statues of the Virgin Mary, and Eucharistic transformation miracles were powerful precisely because they dealt in matter: they physically transformed inert material into seemingly alive material. Matter was dynamic, matter was alive, and, therefore, as a locus of the divine power of creation, matter revealed God.

In chapters 3 and 4, Bynum moves on to discuss the theology of matter. Through these chapters, Bynum argues that materiality was integral to both popular, lay devotion and to the theology of the learned, powerful medieval elites. Clerics often persecuted people who venerated holy matter such as relics, but, Bynum argues, the clerical suspicion derived in part from a fear of the latent power of said holy matter. Theologians and natural philosophers who were unconcerned with religious conformity and clerical control were also intrigued by the nature of matter. These thinkers, partly based on their reading of Aristotle, saw matter not as stable, but instead as changeable and mutable, both decaying and generating. This dynamic view of the material world caused these same theologians to become involved in debates on holy matter: they wondered how putrefying, fragmented matter could host divine miracles; how holy matter could become a site of creation and not just decay; how Christ could both be risen and whole, and yet simultaneously present in Eucharistic wafers and in blood relics across different locations. Bynum argues that this investigation into the matter of matter, and the ambivalence of these thinkers, shows that materiality was not simply an obsession of the ignorant masses, but was a fundamental concern of late medieval Christianity.

The implications of Christian Materiality speak to a wide variety of audiences. Bynum’s demonstration of the clerical belief in the power of matter reminds historians that the Late Middle Ages cannot simply be interpreted as a set-up for the Reformation and the early modern world. Bynum argues that Christianity’s interest in the material object is distinct from the focus on space and the word in Judaism and Islam, speaking to the interests of students of comparative religion. She expands art historians’ understandings of “seeing,” “the gaze,” and of iconography in medieval art by observing the materiality of specific art objects, and by investigating the contemporary thought about these objects and their materiality. Finally, through her exploration of the phenomenon of materiality, Bynum proposes to medievalists of all fields a philosophical basis for many issues in medieval historiography, such as Iconoclasm, mysticism, the belief in relics and miracles, and the dichotomy between “popular religion” and institutionalized religion. Among all these important contributions, perhaps Bynum’s greatest achievement, for the purposes of this journal, is the example her own intellectual trajectory sets for graduate students. Her past works on mystical metaphors and practices, fragmentation, the body, theological discourse, metamorphosis, and blood relics, have cumulated in this major breakthrough in the understanding of a late medieval mentalité: a comprehensive understanding of Christian materiality.

Lauren Mancia

Lauren Mancia is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Yale
University. Her dissertation is on the spiritual writings of John of Fécamp
and the devotional culture at his Norman monastery in the eleventh century.

Creative Commons Licence
Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe by Lauren Mancia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.