Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion

Sixteen years before Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, Caroline Walker Bynum wrote what I’m reading now: Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. It was written at a time when she was prolific—or at least her publisher was—thee two full-length works and this collection of essays over the course of two years. After that, not so much.The Resurrection of the Body in ’96, Metamorphosis and Identity, in ’01, Wonderful Blood, and in 2011, Christian Materiality. I’ve compared her in the past to China scholars Susan Mann and Gail Hershatter in the discipline and intense focus of their research, their ability to be equal to that research in writing, the beauty of their writing, and now it occurs to me in the paucity of published full-length works over decades (and of their Wikipedia pages, which are so scant as to be almost misinformation).

After Wonderful Blood, which was one of my Books of the Year for 2014 (along with Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, whom I might also compare) I knew I’d be back for more of her; only a question of how long I could delay. Bynum’s works are not easy. The footnotes take up around a quarter of the pages and are often critical, insightful points (when not fields of citations) that burnish the work. The subjects are always highly specialised, narrow, waste no time with generalities, detailed like tapestries, and simultaneously engaged into unexpected comparisons with 20th and 21st century scholars, of which she writes with equal precision and clarity. And joy.

“Not easy” is a multifarious thing. Derrida and Foucault are not easy for different reasons, My memory of both of them—and similar others—is of many words on pages. Not much joy. Bynum too has many words on many pages, but with her, no matter how demanding her exegesis, there is this playful joy. She knows how good she is and is no modest wallflower, nor does she slip into cocky, bragging arrogance, or try to pull a fast one on her audience. She loves what she writes about, her life’s work. It’s a pleasure so rare to read her.

And it was a pleasure to return to her after the dismal Germany and the Black Diaspora, one of the most expensive books I’ve ever bought, and one that did such a disservice to its subject, with the averageness of scholarship and mediocrity of bringing the essays together into a complementary unity. A long pleasure too. It takes me months to read Bynum, I chew through other works in-between then back to her, methodical, page by page, one paragraph after another, one sentence, one line, a phrase. Sometimes I wander off on thoughts for most of the hour I’ll be reading, not even making it through a part of a page. And not to be too romantic about it all, even though it’s not her primary concern (perhaps to describe it as a parallel one) she makes clear ideas about and ways of seeing the world in the late-medieval era are eminently applicable to today, particularly theory concerning bodies, gender, identity, which at times make it seem we are the ones who are ‘medieval’.