Introduction of Caroline Bynum

(March 22, 1999)

Introductions of Caroline Walker Bynum,
1999 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities

WILLIAM FERRIS: Good evening. My name is Bill Ferris. I want to welcome all of you to the Kennedy Center and to introduce and thank especially the Kennedy Center for hosting this evening, our Jefferson Lecture. This is a very exciting evening in a historic year for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Endowment is expanding its programs in exciting new ways with new partners. And one of these partners -- we're delighted to say -- is the Sara Lee Corporation. My good friend, John Bryan, is Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee, and John has generously agreed that Sara Lee will be the principal sponsor for the Jefferson Lecture starting tonight through the year 2003. [Applause] John could not be here tonight, but Robin Tryloff is with us. She is Director of Community Relations for Sara Lee Corporation and has traveled from Chicago to be with us here tonight. We welcome you, Robin.

The National Endowment for the Humanities thrives today because of our partnerships with Members of Congress. We are deeply grateful for those friends on the Hill who have stood by us over the years. And I want to extend a warm welcome to all of our Capitol Hill friends who are here tonight. We thank you for coming, and we thank you for your continued support. The Endowment reaches every American through our public programs, and we could not do this work without you.

Our country's greatest strength is our diversity. We can all trace our origins to other countries. We have much to learn from our global neighbors, which is why I am especially pleased to welcome members of the diplomatic community who are here with us.

I want to especially thank President Clinton and the First Lady for their continued strong support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Never in the history of this nation have we had leadership in the White House with such support for education and cultural programs. And to all of those who are here tonight from the White House, we thank you for coming.

The Jefferson Lecture is the humanities' highest honor that the federal government bestows upon a scholar, and no one deserves it more richly than Caroline Walker Bynum. Professor Bynum is a gifted writer, a brilliant scholar, a committed teacher, and an eloquent public voice for the humanities. Tonight we are in for an exciting intellectual journey. When you read Caroline Bynum's work, you're just as likely to read about Star Trek, Elvis, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers as about Hobbes or Descartes. Whatever your assumptions may be about the Middle Ages, you will not leave tonight with them intact.

Now it is my special pleasure to introduce Martha Howell, who will in turn introduce Professor Bynum. Martha Howell is Chair of the History Department at Columbia University and is former director of the university's Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She is the author of Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities and The Marriage Exchange. Martha Howell is also a dear friend and colleague of Professor Bynum and is a member of the Endowment's National Council on the Humanities. Please join me in welcoming Martha Howell. [Applause]

MARTHA HOWELL: Thank you, Chairman Ferris. And good evening. The Jefferson Lecture, as Chairman Ferris has told you, is chosen from that very small handful of scholars in America whose work meets the highest standards of excellence. Who, in the Endowment's official language, "has achieved supreme scholarship in the humanities." Now, "supreme scholar" is a difficult term to define. For "supreme scholar" must be many things. Some of them incommensurate.

A supreme scholar is first and foremost a perpetual student. Someone who painstakingly works to master the skills needed to interpret the cultural products of other people. To read their languages, to understand their symbolic systems, to place their writings and art and fashions and music in their time and place. Thus, someone who has humbly spent days, hours, months, years in quiet contemplation of these matters, in hard study of manuscripts and books and art works, in patient struggle with a single paragraph, a solitary line of prose.

A supreme scholar is also, however, an adventurer. Someone willing to ask new questions, to propose new interpretations, to risk outrage. And a supreme scholar is tough. Someone who perseveres, who pursues an idea relentlessly, but who is at the same time able to respond to criticism, to modify formulations, to recheck sources, to admit mistakes, and to find the energy to correct them.

A supreme scholar is, finally, someone who changes other people's minds. Who teaches other scholars how to see what they did not see, how to understand what they did not understand, how to learn what they once could not learn.

Medievalists in the room tonight or members in the audience who are themselves scholars of Christianity and its history do not have to be told why Caroline Bynum was chosen as Jefferson Lecturer. Why she so easily meets this rigorous standard. But my introductories tonight are not directed principally at such specialists. They are directed instead at those of you who are not specialists in these fields, who may not be in a position to know the effect that Professor Bynum has had on medieval studies and on the study of medieval Christianity.

I will not then stop tonight to do the usual thing of introductions. To list Professor Bynum's many credentials. To recite the long, long list of degrees and awards she has received in the past. I will mention only the most recent honor, simply to indicate how very impressive that list is. In January of this year Professor Bynum was named University Professor at Columbia University where she teaches and holds tenure. This position is held only by seven other faculty members at Columbia, and it has never before been held by a woman.

Instead then of giving you Professor Bynum's academic biography, I want to say a short word about her work. Caroline Bynum has been writing medieval history for about thirty years. And throughout these long years she has explored, circled, and elaborated on a single theme: the implications of the Incarnation in Christian thought and practice and, more generally, in Western culture. The implications of the fact that in Latin Christianity God became man, became fully human.

This doctrine had itself, had, of course, been well studied by historians and theologians before Professor Bynum. But her project has not been study of the doctrine itself. Instead, she has pursued the implications of this doctrine for the way medieval people worshipped, for the way they experienced their relationship to divinity, for the way they understood their God and themselves.

I dare not try to reduce these thirty-some years of research and writing about so complex a set of issues to a few sentences of summary. But I want to try to indicate just some of the areas in which her work has had a huge effect. First, she has rendered comprehensible, even profound, pious practices of the Middle Ages that had once seemed ignorant and bizarre. Practices such as extreme fasting, flagellation, relic worship. Second, she has shown that certain spiritual practices, especially those associated with the medieval mystical tradition, were central to Christianity, not at its margins. Not the work of people who half-understood or misunderstood Christian faith, but who were struggling with its very essence.

Third, she has exposed the way that medieval Christianity was gendered. The way that it incorporated a female as well as a male principle of divinity and the ways that it made spiritual experiences available to women. Fourth, she has utterly exploded the widely held assumption that medieval Christianity was dualistic, that it posited a distinction between the body and the soul, and that medieval Christians understood the body as something to be subdued, to be mastered. In fact, she has shown that one of the central struggles in Christian theology and in Christian worship in the Middle Ages was to resist such dualism and to find ways to celebrate the body's capacity to know God.

Fifth, she has furthermore revealed the significance of the body in Western ideas about the self and exposed as well the ways that even our contemporary ideas about the self hark back to a medieval and Christian notion about the body, the material, corporeal body. Finally, she has provided a model for how to do a certain kind of cultural and intellectual history, by fashioning an invigorating mixture of traditional intellectual history on the one hand and methods drawn from other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, literary studies, and feminist scholarship.

Indisputably, Caroline Bynum is that elusive thing, a supreme scholar. A meticulous and studious worker, a creative thinker, a dogged combatant, and a changer of fields. Medieval religious studies, medieval cultural and intellectual history have been transformed by her work. It is impossible in America today to write about medieval religious practices of any kind, about women in medieval religion, about the body in Western history, or even about Western ideas of the self without citing Bynum. And not just be citing her, but by taking her work as the touchstone from which new work begins.

There are other wonderful medievalists studying and writing in this country today. But none has had a greater influence on this generation of medievalists or, I dare say, on the next. It is my pleasure to introduce Caroline Bynum. [Applause]

The lecture: "Shape and Story: Metamorphosis in the Western Tradition"

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