Friday, November 14, 2008

Caroline Walker Bynum on Weeping Statues and Bleeding Bread

This past quarter we have had the privilege, here at Ohio State, to be visited by a pair of superstars in the field of history. A few weeks ago Richard Kagan spoke here. Kagan is one of the world’s leading scholars on early modern Spanish empire in general and of the Inquisition in particular. I recommend his book, Lucrecia’s Dreams, as a possible cure for anyone still caught up in the notion that the Spanish Inquisition was simply a group of blood thirsty religious extremists whipping up religious fanaticism and superstition amongst the populace. Yesterday Caroline Walker Bynum came to speak. I have spoken about Bynum on this blog before. She is without question my favorite women’s history person; a model of how to write about women in such a way that is respectful to women on their own terms and does not devolve into handwringing about patriarchal oppression.

Her talk, entitled Weeping Statues, Bleeding Bread: Miracles in the Late Middle Ages, treaded her usual ground of late medieval Christian spirituality and miracle claims, though she did not particularly focus on women, but dealt more with the general context of these matters. Her ability to avoid moralizing and instead present the medieval world as those who lived in it might have experienced it was on full display. She spoke about transformation miracles, such as where statues were seen to weep tears or even blood or the bleeding Eucharist. Such miracles became more important in the later Middle Ages (thirteenth -sixteenth centuries). We have stories of images that come down from the wall and even protect themselves from iconoclasts. We have what are called Dauerwunder – lasting miracles. Not only did the object, such as an Eucharist change but it remained in this changed state. For Bynum these things demonstrate an increased interest in the daily encounter with the material and the struggle to integrate the physical and the spiritual. This is in contrast to the usual picture of the Middle Ages in which body and soul are supposed to be very separate.

While Bynum acknowledges the sinister role that these miracle stories played in anti-Jewish libels, she does not allow herself to sink into generalizing condemnations. She emphasizes the variety of positions as to the nature of the Eucharist. Theologians found themselves in a bind in dealing with popular devotion to the Eucharist and the belief in animated statues. There was the danger of idolatry; that people would come to worship these things. On the other hand there were the doctrines of creation and incarnation which assumed the ability for the divine to descend into physical objects. Some theologians argued that objects were just signs made to remind the believer. Yet these same theologians attacked Hussites and Lollards, who denied the power of relics. Aquinas argued that relics did not retain the form of the saint since the soul of the saint was in heaven. Yet he still believed that the relic was the saint since it would one day be reunited with the saint’s soul. Aquinas argued that bodily remains such as the foreskin of Christ could not exist because all of Christ went up to heaven and to say that he left part of his body behind is to take away part of his perfection.

Bynum integrates the medieval discourse on animated statues and the Eucharist with medieval natural philosophy. She draws a parallel to Giles of Rome’s defense of alchemy. Early medieval theologians were skeptical about alchemy. Giles of Rome argued that alchemy was no different than human beings making glass or the acts of Pharaoh’s magicians. This was all a matter of bodies being generated from other bodies. For the medieval there was no distinction between mechanical and biological reproduction.

This belief in transubstantiation was connected with medieval conceptions of nature, which saw miracles as extensions of the laws of nature. It made perfect sense that people would therefore believe in such things. It made sense that wafers would bleed and statues would walk. The belief in weeping statues and bleeding bread was not just a matter of the incredulity of the masses, but an opportunity for serious intellectual discourse as to the nature of the physical world.

During the question and answer section, after the speech, I got the opportunity to ask a question. I asked her if, by her discussion of these naturalistic conceptions of miracles, she was siding with those who argue for an earlier dating of the Scientific Revolution to the fourteenth century instead of the sixteenth century. She responded with good humor that it seems that no one in the field of history these days seems to believe in revolutions anymore. It is all long term processes. No, she still was sticking to the sixteenth century Scientific Revolution whatever that was supposed to mean.

Another interesting comment arouse out of the question of why there was such a shift in the later Middle Ages. Bynum responded that she had no explanation and that she rejects what is the dominant view that this shift came about due to the Fourth Lateran Council and its establishment of transubstantiation as official church dogma. Bynum argued that this did not reach popular consciousness and that even within the Church itself they were still debating the issue into the Reformation. I am interested to see if Bynum, in any of her books, deals with this issue in more detail. This issue is important for Jewish history because the general view as to the origins of the Host desecration charge is that it arose in the aftermath of the Fourth Lateran Council. The Jew became a stand in for the unbeliever in the power of the Eucharist and the charge of Host desecration an implicit polemic on behalf of transubstantiation; the fact that the Jews would make the effort to steal and torture the Eucharist shows that it really is the body of Christ.

(My discussion here has been based on the notes I took during the lecture. Any mistakes made are mine.)

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