CFP: Jews and Christian Materiality 51st International Congress in Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan (May 12-15, 2016)

Add. 11639  742b

The Brazen Serpent from BL MS Add. 11639

In the conclusion to her Christian Materiality (2011), Caroline Walker Bynum opens the door to an expansion of her discussion of medieval materiality and religion to Judaism and Islam: “Understanding the full materiality of Christian belief and practice,” she says, “may help to clarify at least one of the ways [i.e., the material way] in which medieval Christianity (and, in certain aspects, its modern descendants) is similar to, yet differs from, its sister religions, Islam and Judaism” (273). This session proposes to go beyond Bynum’s brief concluding survey, focusing specifically on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The rational for the focus is the well-documented tendency in Christian thought to present Judaism as the “material other” to Christian spirituality. On the one hand, many accounts of debates between Jews and Christians turn on the kind of generative matter Bynum describes in her book. On the other hand, the idea that Jews, bound to a literal reading of scripture, are blind to the spirit even as they physically bear their scriptures to the corners of the earth, is based on the spirit/matter binary that Bynum’s work problematizes. As much recent work on materiality has radically changed how we think of medieval Christianity’s relationship to the material, it makes sense to rethink how this impacts thinking about Jews and Judaism. The revaluation cannot be one-sided, however, not just about how Christians related to Jews; it must also involve a rethinking of Jews and “holy matter” as well. Christian “holy matter” surrounded Jews—on the outside of cathedrals and churches, displayed in processions, even in Jewish illuminated books–and Jewish natural philosophers drew on the same theories of the natural world as their Christian counterparts. On the other hand Judaism (at least as in the form dominant in the middle ages) grew out of a different ontological attitudes toward the spirit/matter hierarchy than did Christianity (at least in theory); it embraced the material and did not view it as negatively as early Christians, a rabbinic stance that influenced medieval descendants. Might the new understanding of medieval Christian materiality change how we understand the medieval Jewish attitude toward the material too? How does it inform, or react to, Jewish attitudes toward holy matter?

This session invites papers that rethink medieval Judaism in light of the material turn and the new materialisms generally, either from the perspective of Christianity (how did Christians relate to Jews and materiality?), or from the Jewish perspective (how does our changing understanding of materiality in the surrounding Christian culture apply to, or contrast with, our understanding of medieval Jewish culture?). Ideally, this session will stimulate discussion between people working in diverse topics and fields. It is a chance to make use of the varied audiences and disciplinary foci of a big conference like Kalamazoo, and it seeks to make space for fruitful and unpredictable interactions.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words to by Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.