Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum, part of the The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics series.

Caroline Walker Bynum Holy Feast and Holy Fast

The nature of Bynum’s analysis in Holy Feast and Holy Fast is decidedly synchronic. She both compares and contrasts medieval sensibilities regarding food with those of the twentieth century, tending to emphasize the extent to which modern readers will find the medieval perspectives “alien” (246). But her concern is not to demonstrate any causes or mechanisms by which the earlier state was transformed to the later one. Even within the relatively broad time-frame that she has chosen—three centuries or more during the later Middle Ages—she emphasizes a relatively uniform set of ideas governing consistent expressions of female religiosity (6-7). While she provides explicit disclaimers admitting the reality of historical change and difference, she seems only to demonstrate the process by which European religious culture, like the exceptional women whom she studies, does not change through reversal or disruption, but only intensifies its own given character.

In contrast with her critique of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Bynum elsewhere praises his proposals regarding “dominant symbols,” with “their many facets.” Although it is more understated here, the metaphor is the same as the one that she employs in the “crystalline structure” in her female saints’ lives. And the nature of that gem may actually be most clearly explained by Turner’s predecessor Clifford Geertz, who had written,

“Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the ‘said’ of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior.” (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973, p. 27)

These “conceptual structures” are the “dominant symbols,” arrayed and anchored in such a fashion as to create what Geertz with his own natural and geometric metaphor calls “webs of significance.” Their exposure and explication can create an assurance of integrated meaning sufficiently compelling as to make a specific cultural matrix seem not only lucid, but inevitable. The theoretical danger and difficulty for the historian lies in becoming frozen in the crystal or trapped in the web. There is a hazard of being confined by a “synchronic” sensibility, which, if it has the virtue of avoiding stereotyped storylines, may not be able to accommodate or account for the transformative events of history.

(excerpted from my brief 2006 paper on “The Concept of Structure in Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast”) [via]