Metamorphosis and Identity
The four studies in this book center on the Western obsession with the nature of personal identity. Focusing on the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but with an eye toward antiquity and the present, Caroline Walker Bynum explores the themes of metamorphosis and hybridity in genres ranging from poetry, folktales, and miracle collections to scholastic theology, devotional treatises, and works of natural philosophy. She argues that the obsession with boundary-crossing and otherness was an effort to delineate nature's regularities and to establish a strong sense of personal identity, extending even beyond the grave. She examines historical figures such as Marie de France, Gerald of Wales, Bernard Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante, as well as modern fabulists such as Angela Carter, as examples of solutions to the perennial question of how the individual can both change and remain constant. Addressing the fundamental question for historians—that of change—Bynum also explores the nature of history writing itself.
About the Author
Caroline Walker Bynum is University Professor at Columbia University. She is the author of Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, and Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Body in Medieval Religion (Zone Books, 1991).
"Bynum is asking that even while we deploy all the tricks and tools of modern historical analysis, we take seriously the obligation to marvel at the complexity, at the otherness, of the medieval world, a world that we will never perfectly understand and yet that seems to point to something worth understanding." , Patrick J. Geary, The New Republic
"Over the past 30 years, Bynum has published an initially contentious series of books that have illuminated many aspects of the oddness of the medieval world... This time she focuses on Christians' intense devotion to objects that they believed both signaled and embodied God's essence and glory."- The Chronicle of Higher Education
"Once again, Caroline Walker Bynum's work captures, with characteristic vividness and precision, the particularity and the urgency of the thought-patterns of a long-past Middle Ages. If, as Bynum argues, 'Wonder is the special characteristic of the historian,' then this book can count both as a ringing validation of the historian's craft and as a challenge to modern persons to take seriously studies of the past that replenish and sharpen our own sense of wonder at central problems of the human experience of change and identity that, for good or ill, refuse to go away."
—Peter Brown, Department of History, Princeton University