Caroline Walker Bynum. Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. xviii + 402 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3985-0.
Reviewed by Volker Leppin (Lehrstuhl fÃ¼r Kirchengeschichte, Friedrich-Schiller UniversitÃ¤t, Jena)
Published on H-German (October, 2007)
The title of this impressive study invites the declaration that this is a wonderful book. Caroline Walker Bynum provides a background on how discourses that are separated by modern scholarship can be combined. She examines the theology of blood and the practice of piety concerning blood in the late Middle Ages in relationship to one another; throughout her study, she shifts between theology and piety. This work provides a new perspective on many questions that stem from medieval Christological debates.
Bynum begins her study with the miracle of Wilsnack, a north German village that was torched by a marauding knight in 1383. Although the church burned down and was then pelted by rain, its consecrated hosts survived in a wonderful manner. This miracle spawned a widespread pilgrimage that was, as Bynum points out, significant for late medieval mentalities. After an introduction, she describes the Wilsnack story in the second chapter and then delves further into other "blood miracle sites" in northern Germany in the third chapter. Indeed, blood piety was widespread in this region, which later became Protestant. This conversion, according to Bynum, is one of the problems in researching this topic, because most of the sources come from the sixteenth century and were created or affected by the evangelical rejection of the cults. Therefore, Bynum's approach of integrating an examination of devotion with an analysis of intellectual debates provides a good opportunity for contextualization.
In chapters 4 and 5, Bynum reflects on the problems of presence and absence, problems of Christ's blood and also of the "piety of representation," which includes divine presence in the saints or in holy sites. Without a doubt, the center of the piety of representation is the Eucharist. Bynum does begin her account of this theme with the Eucharist, but she focuses on the growing interest in approaching Christ's blood. This turn sheds new light on the Hussite movement and the discussions on concomitance connected with the reaction to the Hussites. Bynum stresses that interpreting Bohemian reform and revolt only via the patterns of social history neglects the important impulse of spiritual desire within it. And indeed, if one does not isolate the emergence of Hussitism from other occurrences of blood piety, Bynum's explanation seems to be key to understanding it. Still, to give blood any importance in cultural or theological analysis, one has to clarify its status concerning its nature in Christ. As Bynum demonstrates in her close look at the debates on the triduum mortis between Christ's death and resurrection, exactly this question arose, and we can even see different attitudes towards the question in different traditions. While Dominicans tended to assign high, godly attributes to the blood, Franciscans taught in a more human, humble way about it. What became dominant was the connection between blood and the divine nature, even if this link produced some difficulties and contradictions.
Bynum convincingly discusses the cultural reflection of these difficulties in chapters 6 through 8, where she addresses the reception of theological ideas about blood via their assumption into blood piety. The first and most important aspect of these traditions is--as one can see in miracle of Wilsnack--immutability, which obviously is a divine attribute. On the other hand, the rooting of the blood miracles in the story of crucifixion connects tidily with the human nature of Christ, up until the paradox that blood must simultaneously represent the death of Christ and his life. It is at once sanguis, living blood in the body, and cruor, the shed blood signaling death (p. 173).
Chapters 9 through 11 are in some ways a reformulation of standard theological teachings since patristic times. For example, Bynum raises the question of the significance of Christ's death and resurrection and what Christ means for believers by describing the well-known Christological alternatives of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard. She notes that the analysis of this dichotomy is too narrow to account for or understand the full realm of soteriological theories in the late Middle Ages. At the core of thinking about Christ is the concept of participation or, as she puts it, representation. Christ brings his believers to heaven. The symbolic representation of this action is the sacrifice of the mass. Far from linking the Eucharist as sacrifice only to patristic and early medieval tracts, Bynum shows that the Eucharist as a sacrifice is paradoxically connected to aspects of late medieval piety such as "destruction and immutability, death and life" (p. 225).
The study concludes with the topic in which it began: the teaching of the Eucharist. What seems to be a puzzling part of late medieval piety has deep roots in the basics of the Christian creed. The miracle is found in the secret of Jesus Christ being God, man, and the savior of believers.
Indeed, a wonderful book!
. Volker Leppin, "Repräsentationsfrömmigkeit. Vergegenwärtigung des Heiligen in der Frömmigkeit des späten Mittelalters und ihre Transformation in der Wittenberger Reformation," in Die Gegenwart des Gegenwärtigen, ed. Mario Fischer and Margarethe Drewsen (Freiburg: Gerd Haeffner, 2006), 376-39.
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