– Ann Chapman Price
In the inconsistencies and ironies of texts — judged as such by our standards — we learn things the past did not understand about itself. If we are humble, we learn something as well about our own capacity for self-contradiction.CAroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and REdemption, 23.
With Bynum, I would claim that “My approach is to focus on texts…. My sense of subject matter is pluralistic.”1
I am inspired by the fact that studying history can make us more “magnanimous” people – in the sense of expanding our minds and our spirits.
How can we be more self-aware and humbler, as well as more imaginative and courageous, when we learn from the perspectives and experiences of past humans, especially as they have grappled with questions of significance, purpose, and how to live life well?
Texts help us do this through the ideas we encounter in them; at the same time, texts are always also part of “material & visual culture.”2 Their physical features tell stories, and their ‘thingness’ reminds us that all religion is embodied religion.
The body puts us into relations that are vital for our existence. No one motors their own body on their own.Judith Butler, “Who is Afraid of Gender?” public lecture at University of Cambridge 2023
Because embodied, humans are social; we are bound to each other, the earth and cosmos.3 And ‘religion’ has many times, since antiquity, been associated precisely with these ties that bind us.
We might do well to define religion as all of our human attempts to grapple with the questions, how are our beings connected to everything and everyone else out there and what, therefore, are our obligations?
Texts are the tools for historians to explore how people in past societies have wrestled with these issues. Yet, along with and perhaps beyond the ideas within written works, the embodied nature of texts reminds us that all beliefs and values are only ever ‘real’ if and as they are performed by human bodies.
Medieval Christianity invites us to explore all of these intersections and connections in the texts left to us, and the Digital Humanities offer us new tools for doing so — even as we remember that the work of leveraging new technology for the embodiment of text is as old as history itself.
- Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1991. Fragmentation and Redemption : Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books , 22.
- Phillips, Peter M. “The Power of Visual Culture and the Fragility of the Text.” In Hamidovič, David, Claire Clivaz, and Sarah Bowen Savant. 2019. Ancient Manuscripts in Digital Culture : Visualisation, Data Mining, Communication. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 30-49.
- Who’s Afraid of Gender? | Judith Butler’s public lecture at University of Cambridge 2023