20 January 2011
Ferris, William R. “From the Medieval to the Modern: A Conversation with Caroline Walker Bynum.” Humanities 20.2 (Marcy/April 1999). Web. 22 December 2010. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/1999-03/bynum.html>
In this interview with medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum, Ferris asks her to address academic questions of historiography and of the role of the medieval to the modern, as well as to explain any personal benefit she has gained from studying medieval history. Bynum positions the Middle Ages as both familiar and foreign, as source of modern institutions and as thoroughly other in its character. Ultimately she says she is a student of the “history of attitudes and conceptions,” which she investigates through devotional, theological and philosophical texts. In describing her own work on women religious figures, she offers alternative ways of understanding apparently unorthodox religious expression by women and considers these figures evidence of greater agency than is usually assumed of medieval women.
A. Her sense of relationship between medieval past and present:
Offers two ways MA have been valuable: as source of our modern institutions, etc., and thus “like” us; and as very different from us (1)
Place her in relation to Gastle and Mortimer, in terms of her “kind” of history: “history of attitudes and conceptions”–working with devotional, theological and philosophical texts not “to do doctrinal history” but instead “for their assumptions, their contradictions, the things they don’t quite say” (6-7).
B. Her work on medieval women:
Offers us, in response to our focus on women lately, a way of conceptualizing their situation: see pp. 5 (lower)-6.
Consider the response she describes having gotten for her early work on women religious (3-4)–with modern scholars rejecting them for being supposedly heretical.
C. Her work on the body, as a historically meaningful object:
In terms of the kind of Catholic religious experience and expression that we’ll be encountering, bear in mind her noting the “return of the physical self” in Catholicism (4-5)
She says that “Conceptualizations of the body have a history…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” (5).
D. For our purposes, esp. notable that she says that the later you go in the MA, the more material there is that is unpublished so that “the later you get in time, the more there is potentially to know and the less we know of the total picture” (2)
1. How does she describe our relation to the past? How, more personally, does she describe the past as “helping” her in terms of her own life experiences? Do these seem to be two different things? And is it worthwhile, do you think, to consider our relation to the past in such personal, rather than scholarly, terms?
2. What does or can her work with religious women and the opportunities for women that she sees them exemplifying tell us about the situation of women in general in the Middle Ages?
3. Would you describe her attitudes toward what History is, and what it can do, as progressive or conservative?