Fragmentation and Redemption Critical Essays

Caroline Walker Bynum


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

While the seven essays in Fragmentation and Redemption concern gender and the human body in medieval religion, they approach this problem in different ways. The first essay, “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality,” tests Turner’s anthropological model of social drama to understand ritual. The key to this four-stage process of breaking norms, crisis, adjustment, and reintegration involves liminality, a reversal of roles. While men experienced this role reversal in medieval religion, Bynum finds that for medieval women religion was a continuity of roles such as mother, bride, or virgin. This insight suggests that including women’s experience necessitates some revision in the universality of application of the concept of liminality in medieval religion.

In the second essay, “The Mysticism and Asceticism of Medieval Women: Some Comment on the Typologies of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch,” Bynum considers how some of the ideas of religion set forth in the work of these two early twentieth century German sociologists can be useful in understanding women’s religious experience in the late Middle Ages. In Troeltsch’s writings on the sociology of religion, his general topological category of “mystic” features the concept of free or noninstitutional groups that fit the characteristic associations of late medieval women, such as the Beguines or tertiaries. Weber offers concepts of asceticism that capture the combination of discipline and service with mystical devotional practices that late medieval women displayed. These typological insights help to place the piety of these women in a more central position in late medieval religion, particularly as a background to the Reformation.

In the essay “The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: A Reply to Leo Steinberg,” Bynum reconsiders the arguments advanced in Steinberg’s book on the secularity of Christ as depicted in late medieval and Renaissance art. While Bynum agrees with Steinberg that the visual arts have significant theological content, she disagrees with the explicitly sexual interpretations of pictures showing the genitals of Christ to stress Christ’s humanity. She points out that medieval attitudes toward literary and visual imagery of the physical body were less associated with sexuality than with nourishment or suffering....

(The entire section is 973 words.)