Harmoniously Arranged Livers

Marina Warner

  • The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity 200-1336 by Caroline Walker Bynum
    Columbia, 368 pp, £22.50, March 1995, ISBN 0 231 08126 X

When a djinn appears in one of A.S. Byatt’s fairy tales and grants the fifty-ish academic heroine any wish her heart desires, she asks for her body ‘as it was the last time she really liked it’. And lo, she finds herself once more housed in the ‘serviceable and agreeable’ form she possessed some fifteen years earlier, bearing some marks of experience (an appendix scar), but otherwise compact, neat, strong. She feels wonderful. ‘I can go in the streets, she said to herself, and still be recognisably who I am ... only I shall feel better, I shall like myself more.’ She proceeds to great adventures of an earthly variety with the djinn himself.

This heroine knows her mind on such matters as her ideal physical identity rather more clearly than the medieval schoolmen who laboured to define what heavenly bodies will be like: what age would babies be when they were resurrected? Would bald men have their hair restored? Would the maimed warrior rise whole again? Would there be genitals in heaven? What of colons, what of teeth? (Tertullian decided that ‘we will not chew in heaven, but we will have teeth, because we would look funny without them.’) And if a man has been devoured alive and has left behind no body in a grave, only macerated meat in a tiger’s belly – what then? The questions grew more and more macabre and bizarre, the kind which gave Catholics their bad reputation for casuistry and for magical, even pagan, primitivism. What if a cannibal had eaten a pregnant woman? In what form would the embryo be found in the afterlife after the Day of Judgment?

Caroline Walker Bynum has made abhorrent corners of Catholic metaphysics her speciality. After remarkable work on the mortifying practices of female mystics in the Middle Ages (Holy Feast and Holy Fast), she has turned her attention to another aspect of early and medieval Christian cult in which the body is the crucial issue: the doctrine that we will all be reunited with our individual appearance after the last day. From the earliest days of Christianity, the resurrection of the body was a central plank of the faith: a tenet of the Nicaean creed, a testing-ground for heresy. At the last trump, the graves would yield up their dead and all – saints and sinners – would be reunited with their flesh. St Paul’s prophecy drew the scene in the first letter to the Corinthians, using the metaphor of a seed planted in the ground, which grows into a wheat-ear: ‘It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body.’ This natural image of transformation did not, however, meet believers’ anxiety that individuals be recognisable in heaven (or hell), and other metaphors gained in popularity. Shattered pots, or broken statues put back together, offered a guarantee that the new body would be identical to the original; the smelting of ore to release gold dramatically envisioned God recovering cadavers from decomposition; Jonah vomited unharmed by the whale prefigured the escape of every human being intact from the jaws of death. Apocalyptic visions, as in the 11th-century mosaic of Torcello, showed tombs gaping while angels and devils gathered up separated bones, and fish and animals spewed up any cadavers or parts thereof they had devoured. The chain of consumption threatened obliteration, but divine power would put it into reverse, and every swallowed and digested corpse would be regurgitated.

The wicked, however, would be returned to the relentless process of annihilation through devouring. Hell has a famous mouth; the maw of Leviathan, the triple jaws of Dante’s Satan chew on sinners without respite; and devils as monster chefs with cooking implements – those pitchforks – turn sinners on spits and feed them into the ovens of hell. As Bynum says, flux, change, natural cycles of transformation profoundly disturb early medieval thinkers and Fathers of the Church. Metempsychosis, the theory of the migration of souls on which Pythagoras built his moral system and his scale of rewards and penalties, afforded the early followers of Christ no satisfactory rationale and certainly no comfort; nor did the natural metamorphoses which Ovid, following Pythagorean metaphysics, invoked to make sense of nature and creation. By contrast to the world of flux and vanity, paradise would be a place of rest, of blissful stasis, in which decay, ageing, the organic cycles of fertility and decay come to a halt. Interestingly, these contrasting eschatological visions – hell’s mouth v. metamorphosis – are both embodied in that popular contemporary fantasy, The Silence of the Lambs, in the figures of the two serial killers – Hannibal Lecter whose mouth must be muzzled in an iron cage or else he will eat people raw, and ‘Buffalo Bill’ who dreams of turning his victims into fantasy frocks, as caterpillars turn into moths.

The Catholic emphasis on the body as food relates of course to the Eucharist, at the heart of Christian ritual, and led to charges of cannibalism against early worshippers; the body and blood of Christ, consumed by the faithful, united them in a food chain that reflects, in a paradisical mirror image, death’s swallowing up of individuals. By eating the transubstantiated bread in communion the faithful Christian becomes one with Christ, and by extension, with other Christians.

Bynum has long studied, with brilliant tough-mindedness, these obsessional clusters of motifs in Christian belief, and this new book contains the chapter and verse of nearly a decade’s reading and musing. She attempts in it to trace the development of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and the changes in approach to the problems the doctrine set in train, from early days to the 14th century. She is able to delineate one strong curve in the history of ideas: that the concept of material continuity between the corpse and transfigured eschatological flesh came under challenge, in the 13th century, from some of the most subtle thinkers of the Middle Ages – Aquinas and Bonaventura, but more particularly from lesser known philosophers, such as Durand de Saint Pourçain. The urgent need in earlier versions of the doctrine for angels to pick up and reassemble all the bits from the selfsame body that had lived and died was modified in the light of an Aristotelian concept of form. Each person has a body which is the material manifestation of their unique form; the body in the afterlife will rise again in this shape, bequeathing an identity of appearance, but not necessarily identical matter.

However, this position came dangerously near denying the literal resurrection of a person’s body, which was after all a plank of orthodoxy. Aquinas elsewhere contradicts his insight, while the work of others who contributed to the refinement of the concept was neglected or in certain instances condemned. Dante’s metaphysics reflect his grasp of the formal identity between body and soul, but this solution did not really catch on: as Bynum readily agrees, the cult of relics, and hundreds of popular stories surrounding martyrs and their shrines, insisted that the blood in the gold and crystal ostensory was the glorious blood of the martyr who was now bodiless in heaven, and would be reinfused into his real flesh at the resurrection. Ditto with the splinters of bone and skulls on display in charnel-houses. The bones of St Ursula, and the eleven thousand virgins who were martyred with her, are still displayed on the walls of the Golden Chamber in her church in Cologne, as if in a floral arrangement, commissioned by pious ladies of the city: the long bones arranged to read as glorifying legends, the shoulder-blades in rosettes, the skulls in columns wearing embroidered visors in purple and gold (now rather dusty). All these will be gathered, sorted and reclothed in flesh.

Jacopus da Voragine imagines the martyr James the Dismembered sweetly apostrophising his body as he is tortured: ‘Go third toe, to thy companions, and as the grain of wheat bears much fruit, so shalt thou rest with thy fellows unto the last day ... Be comforted, little toe, because great and small shall have the same resurrection.’ Sophisticated mystical revisionism did not dent the faithful’s need for direct, bodily contact and the conviction that loved ones will see one another again, face to face, whole and entire, as they were when they knew one another on earth.

The Resurrection of the Body is a work of unusual painstakingness: very few scholars today will commit themselves to reading so much scholastic logic-chopping with this degree of concentration. But in an essay on the same theme, which appeared in her remarkable collection of 1991, Fragmentation and Redemption, Bynum had already identified and summarised the issues at stake. There, in thirty sparkling pages, she argued that the absurdities of medieval ruminations about devoured embryos and maimed corpses shouldn’t be mocked. The questions the medieval mind worried at underlie many lingering problems, and can usefully illuminate a roster of contemporary moral dilemmas, like surrogate motherhood, organ transplants, in vitro fertilisation from donor sperm and the preservation of human remains in museums. Should bog men, should mummies be given quieter resting places? Should a cow with a calf in the womb be sawn in half for display as sculpture? Should microbes preserved in amber from millions of years ago be reactivated and let loose in laboratories, as has just happened in San Luis Obispo in California? A story like Frankenstein continues to exercise its hold because it touches historically rooted notions of personhood and the body. But Caroline Bynum has not developed any of these insights any further in this much longer and more inspissated study; she piles on the schoolmen’s texts with learning and diligence, until one understands the temper the divines of the Reformation (those forebears of Ian Paisley) showed when they made bonfires of Papist abominations.

There is a more fundamental problem than the unholy mix of logical hairsplitting and prurient gore. For another intellectual curve glimmers through the book: the resurrection of the body from the start put paid to the Platonic sense of the soul-body split, but as the doctrine was more and more elaborated, the body became more and more crucial to the idea of a person, so that, paradoxically for a faith which believes in the uniqueness of each created soul, the soul increasingly came to be seen as embodied in order to possess that particularity. As Bynum puts it, ‘what self is (including what body is) will be packed into soul; body will be the expression of that soul in matter.’ This principle departs radically from early Christian dualist lamentations (tinged with Gnosticism as well as classical disgust for the flesh) over that mortal part in which the shining, insubstantial, immortal soul was trapped, over the world of appearances as a cesspit into which spirit has fallen etc, etc. This affirmation of the incorporated soul, Bynum realises, accords with the religion’s body worship, in the mystery of the god-made-flesh, in the cult of blood and bones and of immaculately incorrupt bodies of saints, in the penitential ecstasies of mystics – the marks of Christ’s wounds on their hands and feet. So far so good; but as a consequence Bynum then dismisses the view that Christianity has been a religion which denies the goodness of the flesh. Goodness of the flesh is not at all the same thing as the presence of the body: while Catholicism’s accent on the carnal has definitely enhanced its commitment to sensual excitements, in liturgy and image and holy rapture, it has – and Saint Jerome to James Joyce stand at a rather crowded bar here as witnesses – hardly promoted the beauty or value of the flesh. That radiant body in heaven, Aquinas wrote, will be possessed of the ‘dowries’ – claritas, subtilitas, agilitas and impassibilitas (difficult to define, but broadly speaking, shininess/beauty, penetrability/translucence, movement-without-effort, imperviousness/freedom from sensation) – i.e. it will be a body etherealised, absolved of almost all fleshly qualities as they are understood on this earth. (Augustine even implies that since nothing will be hidden or shameful, celestial bodies will be transparent, and we will even enjoy ‘the sight of each others’ harmoniously arranged livers and intestines in paradise’.) Although some schoolmen were certain that men and women would continue to have sexual organs in the afterlife, no one ever argued they would use them. The djinn from a Turkish nightingale’s eye was much more indulgent about bliss than Thomas Aquinas, in Augustine’s wake, could ever be.

Bynum writes in the sphere of Peter Brown’s influence, and is one of the historians who is revising attitudes to Christianity, not from an avowed parti pris (she wasn’t a cradle Catholic and has not converted), but from a desire for intellectual provocation and a brisk contempt for idées reçues (like Catholic sexual guilt). But this book, which shows such microscopic discrimination in the differences of body and soul in a Giles of Rome, does not meet squarely with the deeper rift between concepts of carnality and embodiment, or scan the hierarchical placement of flesh and spirit. In Holy Feast and Holy Fast, she unfolded the fascinating strategy of mystics who used the Church’s aghast obsession with flesh, with its emissions and transformations, to win themselves a voice of influence in matters of church and state in 14th and 15th-century France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, by making visible and active their prodigious bodies (bearing stigmata, living on consecrated hosts alone). In The Resurrection of the Body, she relates funerary customs – the laying out of bodies with due care, the need for marked and hallowed burial grounds – to Christian respect for the body, excited from the beginning by the persecutions of the martyrs and the scattering of their remains. She also makes a brief – all too brief – excursion into the rise of torture in Europe’s ecclesiastical courts and its connection to the historical picture of the body’s importance in personal identity, and alludes, again rather in passing, to the beginnings of medical autopsy and experiments with cadavers in the great schools of Italian medicine.

In the Museum of Human Anatomy in Bologna and the even spookier Museo della Specola in Florence, wax models of organs and bodies in various states of écorché and dissection were worked from the corpses themselves, the veins injected with wax to take an impression as in the cire perdu method, then limbs cast. It was done without compunction, and under the Pope’s patronage, and suggests, contrary to Bynum’s argument, that belief in the immortal soul’s continued existence apart from the body allowed investigative use and display of inanimate flesh in ways that strike agnostic or atheist observers today as shocking desecrations. But on issues such as these, raised by medical and political developments, Bynum refers us to Marie-Christine Pouchelle and to R.I. Moore. Her book is not a work of social history, and it suffers for it. For above all, Bynum does not seize on the clear link between ideas of the soul’s embodiment and the Church’s teaching today on contraception and abortion, which values bodies to the point where persons themselves don’t matter, an interpretation of the importance of the flesh which is so partial – and intrinsically so negative – that it causes people to be punished for allowing the claims of the flesh at all. Bynum believes that too much energy has been spent on exploring issues of sexuality, eclipsing the overall picture of organic, psychosomatic unity in Christian theories of the body. But her keenness to tip the balance back has blunted her ability to empathise with what it means and what it felt like for many people to have a Catholic body.