Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The seven essays collected in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion were composed and published in various books and journals between 1982 and 1989. Although they were not designed to have a unifying thematic structure, they all address ways of understanding how issues concerning gender and the physical body were expressed in medieval religion. Most of the essays reveal how women’s experience of religion differed from the male-dominated view and practice of religion during the Middle Ages. They assert that the search for and inclusion of medieval women’s distinctive approach to religion enriches, enlarges, and in some cases, modifies modern historical interpretations of medieval religion and its social context.

The first three essays respond to theories articulated by scholars in three different disciplines. The first considers the anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory of liminality. The second looks at typologies established by sociologists Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch as they studied the sociology of religion. The third deals with the art historian Leo Steinberg’s arguments about the sexuality of Christ’s body as depicted in Renaissance art. In each case, Bynum’s inclusion of material based on her research into gender attitudes and behavior in medieval religion suggests modifications of these theories or arguments in disciplines outside the history of religion. At the same time,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the introduction to Fragmentation and Redemption, Bynum acknowledges that her work, including the material presented in these essays, has been “both criticized and praise by feminists.” The reason for this mixed reception arises because Bynum’s approach is to consider issues of gender in medieval religion not exclusively from a female or feminist perspective. Rather, she sees gender as “a study of one hundred percent, not of only fifty-one percent, of the human race.” By placing medieval women’s experience of religion in a broader context, not only in terms of gender but also within its social and intellectual milieu, she presents medieval women not as victims of repression or the misogynist attitudes of men but rather as creative and distinctive in their own right. By focusing on the positive aspects of women in late medieval religion, she is able to demonstrate the significant contributions of women to late medieval piety and their considerable influence on the origins of the Reformation.

Caroline Walker Bynum has published several other books on medieval religion, including Docere Verbo et Exemplo: An Aspect of Twelfth-Century Spirituality (1979), Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1982), and Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Allen, Prudence. The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250. Montreal: Eden Press, 1985. Because the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle on women and sexual identity formed a significant component of medieval thinking on gender issues, this book provides a good exploration of Aristotle’s views about women and sexuality. Also examines the incorporation of these views into medieval philosophy and theology.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. This collection of essays contains a more complete discussion about feminine imagery applied to Jesus Christ in the section “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother.”

Kieckhefer, Richard. Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. By examining the lives of several saints, both men and women, in the fourteenth century, this book places many late medieval devotional practices in historical context, such as the imitation of Christ (with special emphasis on the Passion) and mystical ecstasy.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. This book, which studies the cult of the Virgin, focuses on many issues concerning gender in medieval religion, since the Virgin was the ideal exemplar of feminine virtue.

Wiethaus, Ulrike, ed. Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993. This collection of essays examines a variety of aspects of the religious experience of medieval women mystics. Several of the essays deal with points raised by Bynum concerning the physicality of medieval women’s religious practice in cultivating suffering, pain, and the imitation of Christ.