Author: Chin, Catherine M
Date published: March 1, 2012
CHRISTIAN MATERIALITY: AN ESSAY ON RELIGION IN LATE MEDIEVAL EUROPE. By Caroline Walker Bynum. New York: Zone Books, 2011. Pp. 408. $32.95.
The sentence that best captures the book's contribution to theories of materiality and agency is found m its conclusion: "To oversimplify a bit, one migUt say tUat to a modern theorist the problem is to explain how things 'talk'; to a medieval theorist, it was to get them to shut up" (283). Garrulous late medieval objects, such as bleeding hosts or reliquaries in the shape of body parts, insisted upon people's immediate experience of materiality in order to convey divine presence. SucU insistence allows Bynum to explore the paradoxes (34) of religious matter, primarily its ability to be simultaneously fallen, as matter, and "the locus of a God revealed" (35).
Four chapters set out variations on this paradox. Chapter 1, "Visual Matter," a rich survey of late medieval devotional objects, lays a strong foundation by explaining how these objects both represent and are the divine, despite some medieval thinkers' claims that they are, or ought to be, solely representational. For example, a 15th-century woodcut of the wound of Christ (fig. 30) both depicts Christ and claims that the cross pictured inside the wound is precisely one-fortieth the length of Christ's body, so that the woodcut both looks like and physically is the body of Christ. Having established this pattern of simultaneity, chapter 2, "The Power of Objects," moves on to objects (relics and the Eucharist) that are both representational, often memorial, and themselves physicaUy efficacious, raising important theoretical questions of agency and its location in the material. Chapter 3, "Holy Pieces," is the most perfunctory of the chapters, focusing on the notion of concomitance and its practical manifestations, whereby fragments of holy bodies or holy objects are at the same time parts and the entirety of the body or object. Chapter four, "Matter and Miracles," an intellectual history that counterbalances the first chapter's art history, broadens the discussion to consider paradoxes embedded in late medieval theories of matter, which is both constantly decaying and constantly fecund. These properties enable medieval thinkers to understand and delimit miracles as transformations of an inherently paradoxical substance.
B. suggests three contributions her work can make to future research: first, to a reinterpretation of the 15th and 16th centuries as a "crisis of confidence in Christian materiaUty" (272); second, to a broader history of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic materiality; and third, as a historical corrective to modern theorizing about matter, which often takes as axiomatic the need to "break down . . . boundaries" (284) between the human and the nonhuman, the living and the dead. Such boundaries simply did not exist in the same iterations in the late medieval period. In this third area, however, B. misses an opportunity to make a larger theoretical contribution. Many of the efficacious objects analyzed here were understood to be, simply, old: rehcs from antiquity or late antiquity, frescoes from earUer centuries, reenactments of the crucifixion. B. does not engage with this trope of the old, beyond an analysis of the paradoxes of decay and persistence, particularly strong in chapters 1 and 4. Yet this trope of age seems important to B.'s theoretical argument: if modern theorists live in a disenchanted world and seek reenchantment, does the age of medieval objects suggest that latemedieval people themselves considered their age less materially "alive" than previous ages? To what extent is the life of matter also a trope of "history" or "age" itself? Modern discussions of material agency tend to overlook this trope by focusing on the contemporary; B.'s work creates the opportunity to address the temporal dimensions of material agency directly, but does not do so.
Despite this oversight, the book is an important contribution to work on premodern materiality and adds to B.'s record as a major figure in this area. It is an extension of themes in her eariier work, primarily The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christendom, 200-1336 (1995); Metamorphosis and Identity (2005); and Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (2007). There are no major theoretical reversals from these works, although there are some useful clarifications, such as B.'s disentangling of notions of matter, body, and person, often conflated in scholarship on premodern materiality (31-32). Christian Materiality serves as a lucid introduction to B.'s work as a whole and wiU be valuable for both undergraduate and graduate teaching. Likewise, for readers (including this reviewer) whose specialization is outside the medieval period but who are interested in materiality and agency more generally, the book provides a useful case study in how such questions change over time.
University of California, Davis CATHERINE M. CHIN