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.

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