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Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional objects in late mediaeval Europe, by Caroline Walker Bynum

19 February 2021

Nicholas Cranfield on late-medieval creativity

THIRTY years ago, Michael P. Carroll wrote the first psychoanalytic study of a range of Catholic cults and devotions (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989). Many derived from medieval practices across the Mediterranean, including the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the blood miracles of Naples, the scapular, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In late-medieval Northern Europe, Professor Bynum investigates the proliferation of holy articles that testify to a desire to objectify heaven on earth: cradles for the infant Christ, the crown headgear worn by Bridgettine nuns, and even cloth representations of Jesus’s footprints.

Other faiths have a pronounced interest in feet, too: imprints where Muhammad trod (Topkapi, the mosque of Qadam, the mausoleum of Qaitbey, and the Dome of the Rock) are similar to the footprints of the Buddha venerated in the pagodas and temples of Myanmar and at Bihar, revered by both Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims alike, for rather different devotions.

Such materiality is the concern of Bynum in this collection of six essays which suggests the importance of the grounding of the transcendent for an appreciation of faith. What excites her in the period 1100 to 1500 is the sudden spread of such objects and the astounding claims made for them and their efficacy. We are reminded of claims made for the eucharistic elements. No medieval carrier would have delivered the Host in the post.

It is a tribute to the author’s four decades of scholarship that she can so richly illustrate her text and only a shame that the black-and-white illustrations do not show well on the matt paper.

We are presented with a painted Swabian retable (c.1470) that depicts a eucharistic mill. The Virgin and the four Evangelists pour flour into a funnel that the apostles and saints grind; perfectly formed wafers pour down, becoming the infant Christ-child, appearing before the Doctors of the Church: a brilliant, simple sermon in art.

One chapter from 2004, on the use of objects within anti-Semitic rhetoric, seeks to understand modern German anti-Jewish political opinion through the lens of the Middle Ages. Should such objects still be displayed? Is their potency/agency safely negated by contextualisation? This reading is as uncomfortable as it is timely.

Missing only to my mind was the historical interrogative; as this superabundance takes place during the Crusades, when many Christians were barred from safe travel to the holy places, is this a fetishisation of desire?

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional objects in late mediaeval Europe
Caroline Walker Bynum
Princeton University Press £28
Church Times Bookshop £25.20

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