The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William R. Ferris, spoke recently with medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum about the legacy of the Middle Ages to the modern world. Bynum, who has been chosen as the 1999 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, is University Professor at Columbia University in New York and the author of Holy Feast and Holy Fast and The Resurrection of the Body.
William R. Ferris: The Middle Ages, which is your scholarly world, runs from the fall of the Roman Empire to Renaissance humanism. When we talk about Middle Ages, the question is, what does that mean? Is it a time period or a geographic boundary? A way of thinking?
Caroline Walker Bynum: I would say that it is fundamentally a chronological period, and I would extend it beyond fourteenth- century humanism, too.
We talk about the Middle Ages because the Renaissance humanists thought of a middle age that came between them and classical antiquity. Most medievalists today put an emphasis on the “ages” part -- plural! Most would say that there are at least two middle ages -- an early medieval period that is a preparation and then a Middle Age proper running from around 1050 right on down to Luther and the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In any case, it is a period or periods in which much of what we think of as the Western tradition was formed.
Ferris: How has our understanding of the Middle Ages changed over the last thirty years?
Bynum: Thirty years ago the Middle Ages were seen as important because of institutional, political, and constitutional developments. They were seen as the beginning, on a small scale, of the modern world. More recently the Middle Ages, particularly the early Middle Ages, have been seen as interesting because they are different from the modern world.
There has been a shift from looking at institutions, politics, and government as the building blocks of much what is considered to be typical of the Western tradition, including liberalism and constitutional government, to looking at the Middle Ages as different and more "primitive." The shift is marked by the use of anthropology rather than political science in the study of institutions. Models from African or Asian history are used to understand social and political life rather than those from the Anglo-American legal tradition.
Ferris: What are the questions you feel still need to be answered about the Middle Ages?
Bynum: Almost everything you could think of asking. There is so much material to be explored. We need to know more about the nature of medieval communities on the local level and how they functioned. We still do not understand who joined certain religious movements and why. We do not understand who commissioned and paid for many of the devotional and artistic objects or many of the important works of literature or art. There is even a great deal we do not understand about linguistic change. In some cases we do not actually know what language people were communicating in.
Basic questions also remain about cross-cultural contacts and exchange. We still know far too little about relationships between Eastern and Western Christendom. We know far too little about cultural borrowings, influences, prejudices and resistance in places where Christians were in close contact with Muslims.
Ferris: So there is plenty of work to be done.
Bynum: There is plenty of work to be done, for both Middle Ages. There are new paradigms to be used. And for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there is a tremendous amount of unedited material still in manuscripts and still in archives. The later you get, the more material there is that hasn't been published. Therefore, in a curious sense, the later you get in time, the more there is potentially to know and the less we know of the total picture.
Ferris: Let me ask you two questions that are connected. Why study the Middle Ages, and are there any parallels between the Middle Ages that we can draw to modern life?
Bynum: Those are big questions. Why study the Middle Ages? The answer is implicit in the two kinds of paradigms for studying it, or approaches to studying it, I just alluded to. The older one, which sees the Middle Ages as the roots of the modern world, is still in many ways valid. We do not actually understand modern constitutional government if we do not understand the central and later Middle Ages. Without knowing their medieval roots, one cannot understand the whole Anglo-American legal tradition, for example, or constitutionalism; one cannot understand the modern university, or the modern curriculum.
The other reason is almost the contradiction of that: The Middle Ages in many ways is not like the modern world. I think understanding this is just as useful because it gives you a built- in contrast within your own tradition. The only way to understand yourself or your own society is by seeing how it might be other. Where some things are familiar, the differences stand out more starkly.
Ferris: Beginning in the 1980s you made a name for yourself in medieval history with your works such as Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, and Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Both of these works look at the complex relationship between women and religion. How did you come to write these works?
Bynum: Jesus as Mother is really more about gender than about women. Much of it is about men's use of female images. That project came about because I had been working on monastic reform movements in the twelfth century and had noticed that men, particularly men who were worried about their exercise of authority as religious leaders, tended to use images of themselves as women to talk about their anxieties. To some extent they were also using feminine issues to talk about God and God's exercise of authority.
That led me to wonder how religious women used similar kinds of gender images, so I worked on gender images in women's writing. What I was basically doing was working on people's self- conceptions and how gender images relate to their self- conceptions. And gender images turn out to be very complicated. It is not just that women think in female images or men think in male images, nor is it the reverse.
Then it occurred to me that beginning with gender images -- that is, male and female -- might itself be a prejudicial way of asking the question. Maybe I should just stand back and ask, “Are there differences in the images that men and women use to think about themselves?” rather than assuming that men and women imagine themselves in different ways and express this difference in gender images. In other words, it could be that both men and women used maternal -- that is, mothering -- images for God but women might think of religious community as a household while men thought of it as an army. Or even this might be too simple. Once I asked the question this way, new areas to explore opened up.
I had noticed that food imagery seemed crucial not only to women’s writing, but also to their actual religious behavior, in a way that was not central to men’s concerns. That led me to Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The book became an exploration of a variety of connected images in women's practices, as well as their writing. I talked about food multiplication miracles, food denial, the image of food, the idea of consuming God, and the Eucharist. But the book became more than simply an exploration of food practices. It became as well an exploration of images of the body, of physicality, of bodily location, and bodily expression. So that is how that came about. If that makes sense.
Ferris: It makes absolute sense. My wife is doing a study of Jewish foods in the South and acculturation.
Bynum: There is, of course, a lot of anthropological and sociological theory about why food is so important in constituting communities. Excluding from the table is a major way of indicating who is the “out” group. Those you eat with are the “in” group. The sharing of food is a sharing of community and a sharing of self.
Ferris: What about these works do you feel captured the public's attention, as they clearly did?
Bynum: My husband said once that if Jesus as Mother had had a different title, it would have sold only a fraction as many copies. I'm sure that is true.
The image of God as woman, as mother, although it was only one theme in the book, caught people’s attention. There had been in the seventies a hunger on the part of women, particularly religious women, to find female images to talk about their experience. As a result, there was some unfortunately simplistic discussion of female imagery that assumed women would respond to the female and men respond to the male. When one thinks about it, that is not very convincing. We are embodied people with fairly strong desires towards our own sex and also toward the other sex in complicated ways, regardless of who we are. I think the book managed to make available some beautiful texts from the Western tradition that talked about God in feminine as well as masculine terms without making the simplistic assumption that men and women respond religiously only, or, even primarily, because of their gender.
Jesus as Mother fed into a discussion about language, imagery, and identity that was very important in the culture, both among religious people and among scholars. Holy Feast and Holy Fast picked up on some of this. At the time I wrote it, the writings by medieval religious women and the writings about them were relatively unknown. Many of the texts had been edited and published, but they had been studied mostly from a philological point of view -- as in some cases the first examples we have of a particular vernacular language, for example, Old Flemish -- but they hadn't really been studied as women's texts.
An enormous amount of that material is now out there in English translation. There are dozens and dozens of undergraduate courses in which these texts are now read in the wonderful translations that the Paulist Press and others have been publishing. But at the time I wrote Holy Feast and Holy Fast, most of this literature was not familiar, even to scholars.
The other thing that was important was that, insofar as people had read these texts, they had noticed how bizarre they were from a modern perspective -- bizarre in their intense physicality, and eroticism. On the other hand, some of them are bizarre in the tradition of negative theology -- the denial of the possibility of speaking about God except in negatives. Some of them are radically antinomian, that is, they reject or violate ordinary language, ordinary rules, this kind of thing. So some of these thinkers appear to be heretical. Indeed, an early article that I wrote and submitted to a journal was turned down by a reader who said --
Ferris: I know -- that it was heretical.
Bynum: “If what Bynum says about these women is right, then the women are heretical, and if they are heretical, then we shouldn't publish this article.” That was worrisome. I think Holy Feast and Holy Fast was important because it was not afraid to describe the complex characteristics of this religiosity.
When I gave a lecture in the early eighties before Holy Feast and Holy Fast came out, a young scholar came up to me afterwards and said, "Everybody knows that that is true, but I have never heard anyone say it in public. How wonderful just to have someone say what these texts are really like." That in itself was stunning. I think it is a problem that some people still have with the book. It is more than ten years old, which is a long time in current scholarship given how fast things change, and yet there are people who still are frightened and disturbed by the book. It is disturbing to some feminists because the women do not come out the way they want them to. It is disturbing to some conservatives because the Church doesn't come out the way they want it to. It is deeply disturbing material. But this, of course, also made it attractive.
Ferris: Let me ask you about your most recent book, The Resurrection of the Body, which looks at how men and women in the Middle Ages viewed the relationship between themselves and their bodies.
Bynum: In part it is about the relationship to the dead body, in part it is about the body that dies and rises again. It has a subtext, if you will, of being about death and dying and the way in which people make sense out of that. But the other, more profound way in which it is about the body has to do with issues of identity. It is about how medieval people thought about “Who I am.”
Identity to a philosopher has at least three meanings. My “identity” can be my personality or what makes me unique. My “identity” can also be what many people today would call my “identity position” -- that is, those groups that define me: white, middle aged, female, etc. That would also be who I am. But identity has a third meaning as well -- that is, what accounts for my continuity over time and space. How am I the same person that I was when I was five years old?
The doctrine of the resurrection of the body in the Middle Ages -- people's ways of thinking about what comes back at the end of time -- was really a way of thinking about identity in all three senses of the word: who I am, what characterizes me, and most importantly for the medieval discussion, how one can be the same person not only over time, but into eternity.
What I was looking at was the way in which the doctrine of bodily resurrection -- which the Church was, if I can be irreverent, stuck with from about 200 A.D. on -- said that your exact body will come back at the end of time, even if you are Moses or Isaac and have been moldering in the ground for thousands and thousands of years. This is a quite bizarre doctrine, after all. Yet people were stuck with it and not just Christians. Orthodox Jews are stuck with it, too. It is one of the three core beliefs of Rabbinic Judaism. It is also very important in Islam. Only the three Western religions among the great traditions of the world have this notion of the return of the physical self. This then becomes a kind of definition of what it is to be a self -- it makes the body crucial to the self in a way that it is not in most other cultural traditions.
What I was exploring was the way in which that doctrine -- and the complicated need to figure out what that doctrine meant -- became throughout the Middle Ages a way of thinking about self.
Ferris: Let me ask you a sequential question. Your work has been at the forefront of what is being called body history. When a historian says that the body has a history, what does that mean?
Bynum: Of course, them’s fightin' words, in a way. How far you can put an actual physical entity in historical context is a very interesting question. Historians would debate this with physiologists and biologists, but I think that there are a number of senses in which the body has a history.
Conceptualizations of the body have a history. The Galenic way of thinking about the body in the Middle Ages -- that the body is basically a set of four humors -- is very different from the way of thinking that begins to prevail in the Renaissance with Vesalius and others, who think of the body in terms of anatomy and organ systems. If you think of your body as fundamentally humors, you are actually thinking of it in a more fluid and complicated manner than if you think of it as a skeleton and a bunch of organs .
There is a history of the body in the physiological sense as well, in that one can study actual physical changes in the body. Modern people are taller. Modern people go through puberty at a much younger age. Modern people are fertile longer. There are basic physical changes that have to do with changes in diet, climate, and social situation. Those can also be studied.
I also think that -- and this is the most radical and problematic thing I have argued -- the way the body behaves may change profoundly over time because the body is not simply an appendage of the mind, nor a separate thing to which mind or soul is attached. The person is a psychosomatic unit. What we are is a complicated and unitary self, so as pressures, society, and ideas change, the way in which the body actually performs changes.
I have taken some of the radical behaviors that one can find in history -- things like the somatic miracles that are talked about in the thirteenth century -- stigmata and trances and levitations -- and argued that these may be genuinely new bodily behaviors.
I also think that sexuality itself has a history. Sexual response itself may be different in a period in which one of the major turn-ons for people's desire is religious experience and God. In other words, basic emotional and erotic responses may change over time as much as, say, social structures or economic opportunities.
Ferris: You have devoted an enormous amount of time exploring the role of women in the Middle Ages, everything from saints to mystics to heretics. What are the common misconceptions that we have about medieval women?
Bynum: The most fundamental misconception among the general public is that the Middle Ages was a dark and bleak time characterized by rampant misogyny and therefore by an almost complete lack of -- to use the current buzzword -- female “agency.” And also that Christianity was a vast rejection of the physical -- that it was a dualistic religion -- and everybody was sitting around sticking nails in their hands and flagellating themselves.
Now, it is true that there was misogyny in the Middle Ages. But it is also true -- just to speak in terms of religious life -- that there were significant institutions for women, chief among them nunneries, in which they were able to get education, and produce religious and theological writing. And in the high Middle Ages, one sees the first significant professional role for single women living in the world, not withdrawn from it in cloisters -- the Beguines. Beguines and tertiaries -- sometimes called quasi- religious -- were single women who lived in women's communities and did handicraft or social service. They thought about theology, wrote, taught. It is significant that these sorts of roles, outside marriage and motherhood, were created.
Moreover, in towns there were very complicated opportunities for women to engage in business, brewing beer, for example, or weaving. There were also within noble families significant opportunities for women to manage property, which they could inherit.
Despite the misogyny, which was rampant, and which in some ways got worse in the later Middle Ages, there were clearly women who reacted against it.
There is even a sense in which the equation of Woman with The Irrational had more complicated effects than most people think. The notion that what she was not was rational led to the understanding that she could have special access to inspiration, both demonic and divine. In the later Middle Ages there were probably more women visionaries than men, and some of them -- for example Catherine of Siera or Joan of Arc -- had enormous influence.
Some of the misconceptions about women in the Middle Ages are simply misconceptions about people in the Middle Ages. My students are always saying to me, "Not much happened in the Middle Ages, did it?" Well, it was more than a thousand years. A lot happened.
Ferris: One of the refreshing things about your work is how interdisciplinary it is. You draw on religion, art, philosophy, literature, and anthropology. How have these approaches shaped the kind of history that you write?
Bynum: I came out of graduate school wanting to study the history of attitudes -- of what the French would call mentalité -- to look not so much at the history of ideas as the history of assumptions and conceptions about the world and about the self.
In the sixties, there was more of this kind of work going on in fields such as anthropology. So it was natural for me to look at the work of anthropologists. It was also, given what I wanted to do, natural to look for evidence in the literary field, art history, the history of philosophy and theology.
So there were really two reasons I was led to be interdisciplinary. One was methodological; I was looking for models for how to think. The other was the evidence. When I was in graduate school, historians were inclined to look at charters, at land grants, at legal documents. I wanted to look at other kinds of material. The history of attitudes and conceptions that I wanted to do was really just emerging in the sixties. I was trained in older paradigms that saw only certain kinds of questions in philosophy and theology as appropriate for intellectual historians.
Ferris: In my work as a folklorist, I have used oral history as a way of accessing the subjects I work with. Your subjects are certainly long past giving oral histories. What are the sources that you use in your own work?
Bynum: I work generally with devotional, theological, and philosophical texts, but I don’t use them to do doctrinal history. Instead I read them for their assumptions, their contradictions, the things they don’t quite say. I have also worked on saints' lives, which are a very, very rich source for the Middle Ages. Some saints' lives actually do include material that is almost folkloric.
Recently, I have also been looking at what we can call literature of entertainment -- the things people in the high Middle Ages wrote about the marvels of the world, travel literature, chronicles, and collections of miracles and ghost stories. I have been trying to use such materials to explore my new topic -- marvels and monsters -- which is really a way of examining how people drew the line between self and other, in- group and out-group.
I also use art historical material, mostly iconographically. If I look at a doctrine such as the Immaculate Conception or the Fatherhood of God, for example, I'm interested in why in certain periods God is a man with a long white beard and in other periods God is a hand that comes down from the sky.
Or, if we look at depictions of the Immaculate Conception, why is it often presented as a grandmother and a daughter, as Ann and Mary? I think such depictions tell us about more than just the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; surely we see something here about social structure as well.
But really it is above all texts -- the text qua text -- that I work on. I'm not interested in running around and getting tidbits from a lot of different sources. I like to read the texts in their own complexity and in their fullness. I do not, in other words, want to say, “Let's look at women. Here is a mother and there is a daughter, and let's pull them all together and say, ‘Ah, this gives us a picture of women in such-and-such a century.’”
I want to look at the text and say, “What is the author doing? How is this text working? How does it move? How does this argument contradict an earlier one? Is there an assumption here that seems to be fallacious, that seems to be paradoxical, that seems to be a slippage from what the person was saying in an earlier part?”
So, although I do not think it is easy to figure out what people mean and I know it is impossible to figure out what people intend, I think it is dangerous just to take things out of a lot of different texts and string them together and say, “Ah ha, here we've got the 1220s.” I really, really try to treat the text and the voices in them as a whole before I move to other texts and voices. So I stay pretty close to the text, and I work more slowly in getting from text to text than some people do.
Ferris: In Fragmentation and Redemption, more than a fourth of the book is footnotes. I do not know if that is a medieval quality that I share, but I'm always drawn to read the footnotes before the book in some ways because they contain such interesting material. I felt that in your work, the footnotes were as revealing as the text itself.
Bynum: A lot of people say that about my books. Some people even prefer the ones that have the footnotes in the back because they say, "We can just flip to the back and read the footnotes. We do not have to read the text. We can imagine any kind of text on top of it. We just like to read the notes."
Ferris: It is in some ways revealing about the diversity of your interests. I found that a fascinating dimension.
Bynum: I love to find little nuggets in other people's footnotes, so I never feel hesitant about burying some nuggets in mine.
But the footnote is also a fundamental commitment. I do not really have a post-modern sense that history is all construction or that it is all opinion. The footnote is the proof -- not that you’ve got it right necessarily, but that you got it from someplace.
I know how hard it is to find the past, and I know that you never get back to the past. Historians have always known that. What do we find when we dig into the past? We find a trace or vestige conveyed to us in a text or an artifact. We do not find the past.
Nonetheless, if we do not take it as our fundamental obligation to be true to something other than ourselves -- to voices from the past, to the texts, the pictures, the landscape -- why be historians? We could be novelists or something else.
Bynum: So what’s in the footnote is the voice in the text and my doubts about whether I have heard the voice correctly -- my doubts about whether the voice is the voice of the author or the voice of what the author is recording -- and all my efforts to quarrel with that, to work with that, to explore that. What you put in your footnotes is your bona fides, your indication to other people of how they can go and check up on you. But it is not just for the other historians or for the reviewers. It is for the people in the past themselves; they, ultimately, are what you put in the footnotes; it is to them that you owe the obligation to get it right -- as right as you can.
Ferris: Let me switch gears a little here and ask what originally drew you to the study of history and, more specifically, to the study of the Middle Ages?
Bynum: I am a Southerner, and I think Southerners tend to be more interested in history than people in the rest of the country, not just as an interest, but as a living memory. We feel more than the rest of the country a certain guilt about our past. I think that a Southerner has a complicated relationship to a past as both self and other. Southerners are drawn to the Middle Ages as a period that is both the root of some modern things and “other than” modern things; also it is a complicated legacy that is not all “good.” And then I, having been raised in a family in which religion was central, was drawn also to the period in Western history in which religion was important and problematic. Religion was a defining aspect of my life when I grew up, but not an entirely liberating one. A continuing and deep and serious quarrel with religion shaped me, and it was of course a quarrel with a particular kind of religion because I was raised as an Episcopalian, in a liturgical tradition.
It is hard to even know at what point the Middle Ages began to fascinate me. I have memories of being fascinated by medieval pictures and by medieval stories, by medieval legends, you know, from very early years. When I was in the tenth grade, a friend of mine and I wrote a long -- it must have been ghastly -- historical novel about a little girl who went on the Children’s Crusade. We were involved for a number of months in writing and illustrating this historical novel.
And then in college I had some wonderful teaching. Charles Taylor at Harvard taught my introductory social sciences courses - - a very traditional kind of Western Civ. But he was a medievalist, and he did a wonderful job with medieval ideas. It was really as a result of that that I decided that I wanted to work on the Middle Ages.
I probably knew that I wanted to study the Middle Ages long before I knew that doing it as a historian was going to be the particular disciplinary route.
I think also, finally, that it wasn't just that history and religious history enabled me to explore things about my Southern past. I also wanted to quarrel with certain ways in which my religious upbringing was doctrinaire. The sort of Episcopalianism I was raised in combined many of the most severe aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism. It was a tremendous burden on a young woman who wanted to fight free of certain other basically Southern assumptions about what she should do with her life, that is, grow up, get married, and have kids.
I clearly wanted to do something else. And I felt constrained by many of the assumptions, I’d been reared with, but they had been too important in shaping me for me simply to discard them. I needed to fight with them. And the way in which you fight with something that is doctrinaire is to put it in context.
So the wonderful thing about history was that it enabled me to understand that what I had inherited was the product of a particular time and place. I didn't have to throw it all out. I could continue to live with it and think about it; indeed, I could spend the rest of my life thinking about religion, and thinking about society, and thinking about women's roles.
I could say to my parents, “Oh, it is not that you tell me this because it is true. You tell me this because you have a particular situation in the world. I can explain you.” It gave me a very powerful weapon against an upbringing which had been filled with absolutes -- Thou Shalt Nots of all sorts -- without throwing them out. Because it wasn't that I felt that all the Thou Shalt Nots that I'd been told were wrong; it is just that I needed to be able to work with them, to change some of them, to make others my own.
So I think history is a wonderful tool for contextualizing, working with, rejecting part of your world without throwing out the whole tradition from which you come.
Ferris: We are having more and more conversations about the role and responsibility of a historian to interact with the public, to share his or her work outside the academy, which in part is a mission we have here at the Endowment and that our State Humanities Councils share. Can you talk about the relationship of the historian in the academy with the public?
Bynum: Sure. There are two important needs for interaction between historians in the academy and the wider public.
The first is simply the crying need for all of us who teach at the college level to be more involved in secondary education. There is a crisis in secondary education in this country. All of us have an obligation to work much more actively with people in high schools than we do.
We all have an obligation to join the associations for the teaching of history, to do workshops in high schools, and to talk about how we can get our expectations of college study to dovetail better with the training that is going on in the high schools. The high schools are bearing a tremendous burden these days, and they are not in many cases doing very well with it. We must ourselves pay more attention to some of the problems that they are facing.
For a long time, I have had an approach to my time that I have thought of as something like tithing. So instead of always saying yes to Harvard and Chicago and Berkeley, I try to say yes to, for example, the Death and the Dying Project in Minnesota, or to a local community college, or a high school History Day. Sometimes I give the honorarium back or donate it to the local scholarship fund.
The second aspect of increasing the interaction between historians and the community is that I think that the teaching of European history generally needs to change, both at the high school and at the college level. The buzzword -- globalization -- that everybody uses is in fact right.
I have students at Columbia from all over the world. Even when they have been born in this country, they represent a far wider variety of cultural, religious, social traditions than they did in colleges and universities twenty-five years ago. We cannot continue to teach the Western tradition simply as the roots of ourselves. We need to work out ways of presenting the history of Europe much more as area studies, the way we present Southeast Asian area studies, or Latin American area studies.
We cannot assume that students today understand the basic terminology -- whether it is "parliament" or "priest" or "sacrament.” They do not know the map of Europe. We cannot assume that the things we refer to when we are using a paradigm from European history -- such as aristocracy or feudalism -- are things that our students are familiar with.
Although as a medievalist I know much less about it, I would suggest that the teaching of American history needs to be globalized, too. Obviously the Second World War looks far different from a global perspective than it does from an American one. And I think one would learn a great deal by putting it in a larger setting.
But we are just beginning to think about how to do this and what materials to use. Globalization doesn't mean giving up the teaching of European history. We should continue to teach Europe, but we have to do it from a different point of view, and we have to do it in conjunction with some re-examination of the relationship between college and secondary school education.
Those are ways in which people in my part of the academy need to think beyond the academy.
Ferris: You deal wonderfully with art as a historian. Could you talk about the importance of images, photographs, works of art for the historian?
Bynum: Art is a wonderful primary source from my period, although we can never know exactly what people thought when they saw it. Nonetheless, art is one of the ways in which you are in the same world with people who were not literate. It puts you into the world of the stories that shaped their lives in a way that the written text may never do, unless the written texts record folk material, which is relatively rare.
I also use archeology and photographs in my teaching. It might seem odd because, of course, you cannot have a photograph of the fifteenth century. But I have, for example, sometimes shown my students just the landscape in Burgundy. I have shots that I took that avoid modern superhighways and power lines, so that the students can see the way in which dozens of hills and small mountains shape the countryside. Then they can understand something like feudalism and how with a castle on a hill you could dominate the surrounding countryside in a way that you wouldn't do in a place that was completely flat.
Or I show them a photograph of the fen country in England and they understand what back-breaking work it was to drain that area and what it agriculturally.
Aerial photography can be wonderful for the Middle Ages because we can see sometimes where the Roman villas were and where the roads were. From something that was there two thousand years ago, a vestige remains. It can give you an almost magic feeling of being back in the period.
It is also true that today's students in general read and write with a little less ease than students did twenty-five years ago. They respond to the visual, and therefore the visual can be a way of drawing them in and getting them to ask questions, simply by showing them a photograph and saying, “How do you imagine you might live in this sort of landscape?"
Ferris: Let me carry this a little further. I was fascinated that in your essay, “Continuity, Survival, and Resurrection” from your book Fragmentation and Redemption, you used twentieth century popular culture.
There is a cover of Weekly World News with the painting of Elvis weeping real tears. And you also talk about the Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly in trying to evoke the relationships to the medieval period. Can you talk about this idea of things enduring no matter what age or what level of culture?
Bynum: The kinds of issues I was trying to explore in The Resurrection of the Body -- questions about identity and what it means to be embodied -- are very, very pressing questions at the end of the twentieth century. I find that one of the best ways to get students to think about complicated philosophical and theological issues is to talk about, for example, a Star Trek episode.
Star Trek is a tremendously sophisticated examination of some of the kinds of problems that present-day philosophers of mind are engaged in exploring. It raises questions about identity as sophisticated as those of the philosopher Bernard Williams or Robert Nozick.
Students get confused reading Bernard Williams and say, “Oh, I think this is just silly. Who would ever transplant a brain?” It tends to seem dry and academic, and they think this is a bunch of effete intellectuals worrying about odd things. Whereas, if you've got a Star Trek episode or a movie to talk about, they've seen it, they've been excited by it. And then you can say, “But what is it that is so puzzling about this? Why is it that you are unsure about the identity of this character? What might it mean, therefore, to ask about identity?”
Suddenly they are talking about things that are very disturbing to them. That is, of course, the way to get people into thinking about issues from the past. They realize that there is something that disturbs them as modern people, and that people in the past were disturbed by the same kinds of problems.
Today's students, I think, are in some ways afraid to engage with hard questions, in part because of the intensely political environment in which they live. Because they are so different from each other, they are very much afraid of saying something that is politically incorrect. They do not want to hurt someone who comes from a very different place culturally. They do not want to say something that is insensitive to Islam, for example. They do not want to say something that is insensitive to the Midwest. Therefore they are hesitant to speak up. They are not as argumentative and forthright as young people were twenty-five years ago, when students were actually much more the same and therefore much more willing to get in there and scrap.
The real challenge for the teacher is to get students to see that ideas matter so profoundly that they have got to explore them, they have got to disagree about them. It matters too much. You cannot teach if everybody is just sitting around saying it is all a matter of opinion. It is not all a matter of opinion. We are living beings who have to think about who we are. If we do not explore who we are, life is going to be over, and we will never have engaged with it.
Ferris: That is right.
Bynum: So the real struggle is to get students to see it is not all a matter of opinion. There are good ideas and bad ideas. There is right and wrong. It matters, and they, as some of the most privileged people in the world today, have an obligation to engage with these issues.
How do you get students to understand that it matters? You have to have something that comes close enough to them that they can talk about it and yet that can be distanced in some way.
Popular culture is wonderful. All these movies about people going to heaven or turning into flies or traveling in space -- it is far enough away from them that you can get them to engage, and suddenly they are talking about diversity, about selfhood, about values.
And then you can come back and say, “But look, Hobbes is talking about the nature of society. Thomas Aquinas is talking about identity. Descartes is talking about whether or not thinking is enough to let you know who you are. These things matter.”
If you can get the students to see that it is okay for them to argue and disagree and to believe in the things that they believe in, then you've taken a step forward. And popular culture is one of the ways of getting them going on this.
Ferris: Let me close with one final question. What do you see as the future of the field of history?
Bynum: I think that history is going to continue to be central to the humanities. Whether it’s music or art or literature or philosophy, scholars are going to continue to understand it in its historical context -- its situation in time and place. Some of the post-modern attack, which would seem to make the writing of history impossible, has faded slightly. And from what has been good about post-modern questioning, we have profited.
That is, we've learned to be more careful and more sensitive to the way in which we are always constructing and always reflecting ourselves. That has been useful.
But I think the danger of four or five years ago -- that we might actually succumb to either a narcissism that says, “We cannot really do history, therefore we might as well write about ourselves,” or to a kind of relativism, which proposes that nothing is there -- I think that danger is past.
There is new material to be found, but even if there were not, there is always history to be written. I cannot see how there can be any humanities without history at the center.
I think that history is going to continue to be absolutely crucial not only to people who study politics and institutions, but to people who study literature and art and philosophy as well.
Ferris: That is wonderful. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your taking this time.
Bynum: Well, thank you very much. I have enjoyed talking with you, too.