University Professor Caroline Walker Bynum Reflects on
Influence, Identity and Teaching
By Mary Jungeun Lee '01
Stacks of papers are neatly arranged in rows in her
Fayerweather office, with bright, crystalline rocks serving as
paperweights. A bulletin board hangs along one wall, overfilled
with flyers — reminders of future talks and panel
discussions. One flyer includes a photograph of herself without her
large glasses, which tend to dominate her small face; it is paired
with a photo of her mother as a young woman, and a heading about an
upcoming talk on metamorphosis spans the two photos. Other
photographs are pinned next to these flyers, including one of her
standing with her Contemporary Civilization class in her Riverside
Drive apartment after a catered dinner. Alongside are photos of
some of her graduate students and their babies.
office in Fayerweather is a sanctuary, one whose quiet is
occasionally broken by the sound of a horn or a car alarm from
Amsterdam Avenue. Books lie open on her two desks, surrounded by
more stacks of papers, post-it pads, and students' papers with
detailed comments penciled in along the margins. Endless volumes
line the walls, all neatly arranged into categories — from
current projects and specific courses she is teaching to new
scholarship in medieval research. Judging from this mini-library on
the Middle Ages, some might presume the occupant of this office to
be a self-absorbed academic, one who prefers surrounding herself in
the Ivory Tower with her books and her neatly stacked papers and
insulating herself from the anxious students waiting for office
hours to begin. This is hardly the case.
Caroline Walker Bynum is one of the most widely recognized
names in European history, and perhaps the most important name in
medieval studies today. She is the author of such pioneering books
as Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High
Middle Ages (University of California Press, 1984); the Philip
Schaff prize-winning Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious
Significance of Food to Medieval Women (University of
California Press, 1988); Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on
Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (Zone Books,
1990), and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity,
200-1336 (Columbia University Press, 1995), which was awarded
the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize of Phi Beta Kappa as best book of the
year in 1995 on "the intellectual and cultural condition of man."
Small wonder that, with six honorary degrees and some 11 books and
34 articles to her credit, she was named University Professor in
1999 — the first woman in history to be awarded Columbia's
highest faculty honor. University Professors, of which there are
12, are named in recognition of exceptional scholarly merit as well
as distinguished service to Columbia, and are permitted to teach in
any department of the University.
there is another side to this Southerner, one that her books can't
convey and that her spacious Fayerweather office only hints at.
Sure she's serious, but always with a light-hearted laugh and
raised eyebrows that seem to say that the pretentious are
Bynum is petite, with a Southern drawl, owl-rimmed glasses and
a bobbed haircut that frames her thin face. Standing in front of
her classes, she constantly gesticulates with her tiny hands,
insists that her students read works like The Republic and
Leviathan to better understand their own convictions, and
isn't afraid to issue a "Writing Advisory!" to students whose
grammatical mistakes have "annoyed Professor Bynum."
southern medievalist may be small in stature, but she is no
pushover — nor is she quiet. Bynum presses her students to
overcome timidity, to "share ideas" because "the class would
benefit from your intelligence." She's a teacher who cares enough
to continuously press her students to improve their writing,
because it is a life-long challenge to "clearly express one's
ideas." A typical comment: "Some great ideas here — but learn
to be more forthright with them."
unwind from the rigors of academia, Bynum explores home-style
recipes as what her grandmother called a "good plain cook." She
loves cabbage dishes, but no longer cooks many of them because her
husband is German and over the years has grown tired of the
vegetable. An avid reader of fiction, Bynum also loves baroque
opera, having developed this appreciation while living in Berlin.
She often takes walks along Riverside Drive with friends from the
Columbia faculty. She also enjoys other areas of New York City and
the plethora of museums, particularly the Metropolitan, where she
took students from her spring seminar, "Medieval Religious Thought
& Practice," to view the reliquaries and crucifixes and discuss
ideas they had read and talked about in their Fayerweather
Southern Roots in the Middle
Teaching has always been an integral part of Bynum's career and
personal life. She held professorships at Harvard, the Harvard
Divinity School and the University of Washington before coming to
Columbia in 1988. However, her love of ideas, and the sharing of
them, long predates her formal teaching positions.
Bynum at age 6.
PHOTO: COURTESY CAROLINE BYNUM
Daughter of professors Merle and Andrew Jackson Walker, Bynum
grew up in Atlanta in a liberal Southern household fueled by
intellectual ideas, from metaphysical questions about time to the
classics of English literature. "I think the kind of historian that
I became — historian of ideas, historian of religion,
intellectual historian, a historian strongly interested in
interpretation, not just in seeking out the facts — was
strongly influenced by growing up with a mother who argued
Growing up in the South also had a tremendous influence on her
interest in the Middle Ages. Sitting amidst her books in her
Fayerweather office, Bynum says, "It is often pointed out that the
antebellum South is like the Middle Ages, that living on a Southern
plantation has affinities to the great estate in the ninth century.
Plantations, ladies in long dresses, a military culture for the men
— that's Southern; that's the antebellum South."
Southern roots meant more than just a curiosity with the past; they
also meant a coming to terms with one's past. "I think the American
South is the part of the United States with the strongest sense of
history," she says, "the strongest sense of being rooted in a past,
and the strongest sense of a complex relationship with the past.
After all, if you have Southern ancestors, you grow up in a
defeated country and you grow up in a country that was defeated for
what you think was the right reason; you come from a region that
lost a war, and you should have lost the war; you were
fighting for the wrong thing. You have a very complicated
relationship with the past because you're always thinking, 'What
can I preserve, but what do I give up?'
Questions about influence, the self, the person and giving
something up have always been issues that intersect in Bynum's
personal and professional life. As a historian of medieval
religion, Bynum studies different factors that triggered divergence
in thought and religious practice in the European past.
the fall of '98, Bynum asked her CC class what it means to die for
beliefs, for interpretation, for convictions — a broader
question about Socrates and Perpetua, those greats of the Western
past, whose texts have survived more than 1,800 years and are
studied today by all College students. This question also permeates
her personal life, manifesting itself in her scholarly interests in
religion. "I had a very strong religious upbringing that led me to
be interested in the Middle Ages and in negotiating some kind of
relationship with something I am not 100 percent enthusiastic
about, but that I don't also simply want to jettison. So, the South
and the Christian Church are both things about which I feel
ambivalent, but also not which I feel I'm ready to throw
The Move North
so many other teenagers, Bynum needed to leave her home to explore
new and different places. She moved out and headed for Boston to
begin her university education at Radcliffe. "I had never been out
of the American South for a single day and I was anxious to get
away," Bynum recalls.
17-year-old freshman, Bynum immediately felt the differences that
distinguished her from her Northern peers. She felt her identity
inextricably defined by her Southern background, with assumptions
about her character, intelligence and social mores. "Being a
Southerner was difficult," she says. "There was a lot of Northern
prejudice. I was from the last non-integrated high school class;
integration had just come in and the civil rights movement was
getting strong. It was a very activist time and many Northerners
from protected backgrounds that I went to school with came from
great wealth and great social privilege, which of course I did
spoke differently," Bynum adds. "Among other things, as a
Southerner, people thought that I was racist; they just assumed
that you were racist if you came from the South. I remember once
around Thanksgiving time of my freshman year, I was in Harvard
Square with someone who lived in my dorm. We were walking around
and talking and suddenly, she looked at me and said, 'You know,
you're not stupid.' And I just looked at her and she said, 'I
always thought that you were stupid because you talked so funny.'
That's how it was. People were not sensitive to
girl growing up in the South and as a student in the late '50s and
early '60s, Bynum faced very different expectations from those most
American women face today. Bynum and her generation of women
encountered what she describes as a "classic double bind."
Reflecting on psychologist Matina Homer's theory on women and
success, Bynum says, "There was an expectation that women would
avoid success because they were on two tracks that conflicted. In
other words, you were expected to be bright and an achiever, and
you were also expected to marry; and those were expected to be in
conflict. You were expected to choose one or the other. And you
can't win in that situation."
Midway through Radcliffe, Bynum found herself caught in this
double bind. She got married and later began publishing under her
husband's name, and continued to publish under that name after
their divorce. "I got married at the end of my sophomore year and I
transferred to the University of Michigan because my husband was in
law school there. This was, again, the double bind, the double
pull. There I was on the fast track at Radcliffe and I had decided
to leave and transfer to Michigan."
had suddenly hit her. Bynum thought that if one didn't get married
when first asked, then maybe one would never get married, a
pressure that even today she finds hard to explain. "It is crazy to
think now how those pressures were on women," she says. "It was a
complicated decision, very much like my mother's decision to leave
Leaving Radcliffe, a scholarly world she had grown to love,
Bynum nevertheless found the highest level of education at
Michigan, enrolling in the very selective Honors Program. After
graduating with high honors, Bynum returned to Cambridge to begin
doctoral work at Harvard in medieval history, a specific period
that she had not concentrated on as an undergraduate. It was during
her graduate work that Bynum focused on medieval history and found
her voice. Her love for teaching flowered.
"Caroline's teaching and scholarship exhibit an enormous
range in both method and subject matter," said Columbia President
George Rupp when Bynum was named a University Professor in
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Today, Bynum, whose work — such as Jesus as
Mother, the award-winning Holy Feast and Holy Fast, and
The Resurrection of the Body — often flows beyond
departmental boundaries, is always interested in discussing the
complicated nature of method, interpretation and perspective.
"Everything is from a particular point of view and perspective,"
Bynum reminds her students. "In complicated interpretations, one
always has to factor in that one is making an
Bynum, intelligent reading is a fundamental part of her role as
teacher. It is a practice she believes can best be taught by
example. "You can't give students five rules on how to read and
expect them to go out and do it," she says. "You want to try to get
students to find something that they love. That's when you can
really make an impact."
fervor for close, careful and slow reading comes from a woman with
a long record of academic achievements. Flipping through her
curriculum vitae is a humbling experience. The lists of awards,
publications and distinctions cover 14 pages. Bynum's impressive
C.V. seems to shout that she always knew what she wanted to do.
Bynum, however, sees it from another perspective. "If you look at
it one way," she said, "it looks as if I always knew what I wanted
to do. But in another way, it looks like I was always backing
myself into corners, making it hard to do it. And like I said, it
was something women in my generation tended to do."
think I always knew what kinds of problems fascinated me and that I
wanted to work on those problems," Bynum adds, "but I think that I
did not know what was going to happen in the social context, and I
didn't know the departmental or disciplinary boundaries. I was
having a hard time figuring out who I was, in terms of discipline.
I'm not really a conventional medievalist. I seem to get letters
all the time addressed to 'Caroline Bynum, Art History,' 'Caroline
Bynum, English,' 'Caroline Bynum, Comparative Literature,' or
'Caroline Bynum, Department of Religion;' people who read my books
don't know, even today, what department I'm in. So in that sense, I
had a hard time settling in."
in the process of writing a book, Bynum says, "I flail around here,
there and yon. But when I figure out what it is that I want to work
on, I feel as if I have come home. I somehow know when I come to
it, this is the kind of topic that I want to work on. Some of that
was always there, even when I was in high school and in college. I
remember in college I wrote a paper on which the professor had
written at the bottom, 'A+. But, this isn't history.' And I kept on
having experiences like that. People would say, 'Whatever this is,
it's excellent. But it doesn't fit our rubric. It isn't what you're
supposed to be doing in this class.'"
perhaps excellence comes from an ability to think beyond the
categories that can constrain a person. Perhaps it comes from doing
what she knows she's supposed to be doing, rather than what
others tell her she should be doing.
Though she has had challenges settling into departmental
categories, Bynum always has been sure of her love of teaching,
even while battling sexual politics in the '70s. While an assistant
professor of history at Harvard, Bynum became increasingly
conscious of the deeply rooted sexism of the academy and of her
identity as one of only 12 female professors throughout the entire
university. Aware of the changes yet to be made, Bynum and a
colleague founded the Committee on the Status of Women, producing a
report, "The Status of Women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,"
that has since been studied by feminists, such as Parr Professor of
English and Comparative Literature Ann Douglas, as a treatise on
the state of academia and women.
Bynum received hate mail for fighting for women; she was
stalked for six months because of her radical demands. Yet, she
admits, "It was also, in a curious kind of way, fun. I knew there
was no chance that I would be kept on at Harvard, so somehow I
didn't have to worry about that. I knew that it was wrong that
there were few women at Harvard and the right thing was to get
more. Pure and simple."
Bynum and her committee found discriminatory procedures
justified by the university that echoed the condition of women in
professional careers in the '70s. "We discovered that the art
history department had two lists. They had a list that ranked
students according to their credentials for admissions. And they
had a list according to which they gave fellowship money. On the
first list, all the women were at the top. And on the second list,
all the women were at the bottom. They did this because they said
that women aren't a good investment — they could have babies
and drop out."
pressure of being a woman in a male-dominated profession, and
making her voice heard in a politically charged era, was nothing
compared to the tragedy of losing a close friend. Cambridge was the
site of a violent event that changed Bynum's views and her life
forever. "The same year when I was at Harvard and on the Committee
on the Status of Women, and under a lot of pressure, my closest
friend was raped and murdered."
sometimes seems as if my life divides into two parts," Bynum adds.
"Somehow after that, I stopped thinking that there is any justice
in the world at all; and since I accepted that there is no justice
in the world, I decided that there is no point in complaining about
anything. There was no point to self-pity. You couldn't just sit
around and say, 'It's not fair. It's not fair that women are
discriminated against. It's not fair that I can't have children.'
Because, who on Earth would listen?
made me a lot tougher. Somehow connected to that was the decision
to leave Harvard, to go to Washington, to adopt a child. It threw
me back on myself. And somehow after that I knew that that's
what you've got — yourself."
Specific Breed of Historian
Bynum with her husband, Guenther Roth, and her daughter,
Antonia, in 1987.
PHOTO: COURTESY CAROLINE BYNUM
Bynum's time as professor of history at the University of
Washington and as a new mother belied the claims of her former
Harvard colleagues — she certainly was not someone who would
have babies and drop off the face of academia. Instead, she
achieved greater distinction than most men in her field, even while
raising a daughter. She is a no-nonsense woman, serious about her
teaching, serious about her writing. While her daughter took
afternoon naps, Bynum took up pencil and paper and began writing
about Christian iconography and women who experienced the raptures
of Christ's flesh. Balancing her life in this way, she was able to
move seamlessly from packed lecture halls to finger-painting with
her daughter to seeking her notepad to jot down thoughts during the
quiet moments of the afternoons while her daughter slept. Switching
gears quickly resulted in the publication of Jesus as Mother
and the book that established her arrival as a major intellectual
voice, Holy Feast and Holy Fast.
was a juggling act," says Bynum. "But it was a doable juggling
act." A male colleague commented on her level of energy and her
ability to be so prolific, and Bynum admits to thinking at that
time, "I write my books when you play squash, eat lunch, gossip in
doesn't care as much for brown-bag lunches as she does for seeking
out more evidence on the lives of medieval women and their food
asceticism. She doesn't care for departmental politics as much as
she does for improving her students' writing.
Thinking about the kind of historian she has become, Bynum goes
back to a moment when she was a child. "One of the earliest
memories that I have is of the ending of the Second World War," she
reflects. "I remember being off with my parents at a lake.
Everybody was clustered around the radio. I remember pulling on
people and asking what's going on and being told that the war was
over. Then I remember going home, and the children in the
neighborhood went out on the street with little American flags. We
paraded up and down, shouting, 'The war is over, the war is
think that has something to do with becoming a European historian.
In my childhood, Europe — what was happening in Europe
— was absolutely formative. My father thought that FDR was
the greatest hero in the history of the world. And the horror of
the Holocaust was coming out.… I think it made a kind of
orientation toward Europe that's hard to understand
Bynum, a former president of the American Historical Society
and the American Catholic Historical Association, wrote about this
strong sense of Europe in an article, "The Last Eurocentric
Generation." "I wrote about why, for us, Europe was the center
— not only as a historical issue, but also as a moral issue,"
she explains. "Europe really carried the burden of things one had
to sort out about what it means to be human. That's not true
anymore. What I was trying to think about in that 'think piece'
was, 'What does it mean as one moves away from European history
being done by people like me, who were Eurocentric, to people who
would be doing European history and enjoying it, but won't be
"Europe is not going to be the lone star, the weight, the
fulcrum, the way it was for my generation. And I think it's in part
because of the war, when we were fighting for other people, against
other people, on another continent. It was a different sort of
question. That makes a difference. And that has something to do
with the kind of historian that I am."
Whether labeled European or medieval, Bynum is a historian
whose contributions to the Columbia community are "extraordinary,"
according to Jonathan Cole '64, provost and dean of faculties of
the University. Describing her as "a great and demanding teacher,"
Cole adds, "When we try to think of the great historians working
today, the name Caroline Bynum comes immediately to mind. With
consummate skill, incredible erudition and scholarly depth, along
with an innovative point of view, Caroline has opened up entirely
new areas of medieval history."
Change and Continuity
her newest book, Metamorphosis and Identity (Zone Books,
2001), Bynum explores images in the Middle Ages that convey shifts
in paradigms and different understandings of change. As always,
Bynum considers contemporary notions of change and the concepts and
images that we have in our lives. For Bynum, witnessing her father
develop Alzheimer's and his metamorphosis influenced her
intellectual interests in these ideas.
would visit her father against others' recommendations that she
shouldn't, because he might not recognize her or know that she has
a daughter of her own. To Bynum, it didn't seem right that this
tremendously intellectual man, who inspired her interests in
literature, would still gesture as if tipping his hat like a
Southern gentleman (when it had been years since he'd worn a hat)
and not be the same person. So Bynum continued to visit her father
regularly and thought further about what it means to change, what
it means to have an identity.
a funny kind of way, these things that seem like personal tragedies
also have intellectual significance," Bynum says. "What does it
mean for a person to survive in a postmodern world? We don't, any
longer, believe that we are the same person from moment to moment
— in terms of body, or even in terms of memory. We know how
labile and changeable memory is. You can't just say, 'The person's
the body or the person's the soul or the person's the person.' It's
very problematic. How, then, can one talk about what it means to be
a person over time?"
is a question her students tackle in reading about the lives of
medieval women like Dhuoda, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of
Siena, and Margery Kempe. It is also a question Bynum asks in
thinking back upon her own life, from waving an American flag as a
young Southern girl celebrating the end of the war to the
medievalist she is today, writing about identity in the Middle
Ages. In discussing Gerald of Wales in Metamorphosis and
Identity, Bynum writes, "Identity tends to have divergent
denotations. Nonetheless change is the test, the limit, of all
denotations of the term 'identity.' I may, for example test what
constitutes my identity understood as personality by imagining what
would have to change through a mental illness such as Alzheimer's
in order for 'me' to cease to be 'me.'"
dedication to teaching and her insistence that people think
carefully about particulars — whether it's in the classroom,
for a weekly "think piece" writing assignment, or in one's personal
life — are eye-opening and transforming experiences that her
students take away from Columbia. A single conversation with Bynum
always has intellectual questions with significance to one's
academic work, and, more importantly, significance to life
trust people you've shared ideas with," she points out to her
students. "If you really talk, whether it is about Heloise and
Abelard, or whether it's the war in Bosnia, or whether it's genetic
research, with professors you know, maybe you could start
talking to them about what you're going to do after graduation.
Then you've got a real advising relationship."
Bynum, 60, plans to continue teaching for at least another 10
years, and will continue to urge each wave of students to read
thoughtfully, always asking questions about the past and the
present with as much care to one's own assumptions as to the books
that teach us. She does not prefer the Ivory Tower to the
fascination of the world. She loves ideas; as a historian, she is
constantly seeking what is behind them, and as a teacher, she is
constantly urging her students to do the same.
About the Author: Mary Jungeun Lee '01, an English
major at the College, now works for the A&E cable