Skip to main content

Ednote

Editor's Note, March/April 1999

Caroline Walker Bynum

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

In the introduction to her book, Fragmentation and Redemption, medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum writes: " I argue . . . that the writing of history must come to terms gracefully with the incomplete, that it must be a conversation open to new voices, that its essential mode is a comic one."

Bynum is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government bestows. She has been teaching for the past decade at Columbia University in New York, where she holds the rank of University Professor.

In her classrooms at Columbia, Bynum willingly risks the unorthodox. Discussion can turn to Star Trek or Invasion of the Body Snatchers as easily as to Aquinas as she and her students explore the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the Middle Ages. Modern- day "body-hopping" in movies and television -- in which people inhabit other bodies or bargain with Death -- to Bynum's way of thinking can offer a flash of identification across the centuries. It is not to draw parallels, she cautions, but to begin to get a glimmering of what the questions might be.

Bynum has written a number of books, among them Jesus as Mother, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, and her most recent, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity. "Her meticulous and imaginative exploration of the texts and artworks that have come down to us from these centuries has changed the way scholars, students, and general readers alike understand the age," says Martha Howell, the head of Columbia's history department.

The age stretches a thousand years, give or take a century or two, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. It wears no easy label. It was a time of the building of cathedrals, of the copying of manuscripts, of inventions like the windmill and the mechanical clock, of quarrels over the rule of law and theologies. A Florentine named Dante wondered over the whole of life and afterlife in an epic called The Divine Comedy; a century later a diplomat-turned-writer named Chaucer looked on the vagaries of humanity in a more earthly way in a work called The Canterbury Tales. It was a time in which a young man of Assisi, whose father was a woolen merchant, found sainthood, and a red-bearded German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, ravaged the cities of Italy, and a scientist named Roger Bacon dreamed of machines that could fly.

In this issue of Humanities we travel back to a little-visited corner of the early Middle Ages, a place called Thingvellir in Iceland, where a thousand years ago feuding chieftains learned to settle their disputes without bloodshed at the Althing. Scholar Jesse L. Byock calls their society a "proto-democracy." We also visit the murky and mythic world of Beowulf -- not just Beowulf himself but how the manuscript has come down to us -- lost for five hundred years, found again, damaged in a 1731 fire, pieced together by scholars. We now have a newer version, this one done by Kevin Kiernan and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky, who have used fiber optics and ultraviolet light to recover obscured passages and to correct miswritings. The Electronic Beowulf Project is attracting young students as well as scholars, says Kiernan. "They think it is so 'cool' that these pictures are on the Internet. And I hear from high school teachers, too."

The casual and questing style sounds a little like Bynum herself. In Fragmentation, she goes on to say: "I suggest that the pleasure we find in research and in storytelling about the past is enhanced both by awareness that our own voices are provisional and by confidence in the revisions the future will bring. . . . I dedicate this volume to my students. May they find that the comedy of history welcomes them, both as actors and as authors."