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Bynum, Caroline Walker (1941–) - Medieval History

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Caroline Walker Bynum was born on May 10, 1941, in Atlanta, Georgia, of Scotch-Irish and southern U.S. ancestry. Her father was a college professor; her mother was a college professor for nine years and then a full-time homemaker for twenty years. Bynum attended public grammar school and high school in Atlanta. Her early influences included her parents: her father as an academic, her mother as a frustrated former academic. She was also influenced by growing up in the South, “a region with an intense sense of history.” Bynum’s father came from a poor family and wanted desperately, as she puts it, “to leave southern prejudice behind.” For both parents, conversion from southern fundamentalism to Episcopalianism was important. Their intense religiosity was something Caroline both internalized and rebelled against.

Bynum attended Radcliffe College and then the University of Michigan; she earned a bachelor’s degree with high honors in 1962. She continued her studies at Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1969. Bynum was motivated to become a historian because she wanted to teach and she wanted a field with “both details and concepts.” She studied philosophy and literature before she settled on history, hoping then to work on great ideas within a social context. Bynum’s first academic appointment was at Harvard University, in the history department from 1969 to 1973, and in the Divinity School from 1973 to 1976. She then taught at the University of Washington from 1976 to 1988, as associate professor and professor. Since 1988 Bynum has been at Columbia University, where she holds the Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Chair in History. From 1993 to 1994 she was also dean of the School of General Studies and associate vice president of arts and sciences for undergraduate education at Columbia. She has taught all aspects of late antique and medieval history, including political, military, social, economic, religious, and economic history.

Caroline Walker Bynum is the author of five books, editor or co-editor of three books, and author of twenty-five articles, several of which have won prestigious awards. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women , published in 1987, won the Governor’s Award of the State of Washington in 1988 and the Philip Schaff Prize of the American Society for Church History in 1989. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion won the Trilling Prize in 1992 and the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Analytical-Descriptive Category in 1992. Bynum has written award-winning articles as well. “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” won the Berkshire Prize for Best Historical Article Written by a Woman in 1985, and “The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages: A Reply to Leo Steinberg” won the Nelson Prize, awarded by the Renaissance Society of America, for the best article of 1986. As reviewer Amy Hollywood argues, “The source of Bynum’s strength as an historian lies in her careful attention to differences and the necessity of understanding such differences, both those between the medieval world and our own and those within medieval culture itself.” Her most recent work, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200 to 1336 , links philosophy, social history, and theology and explores the dimensions of the body-soul dilemma in Christian thought.

Bynum has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, among them fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. She has served as president of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, president of the American Catholic Historical Association, president-elect of the American Historical Association, and second vice-president, and future president, of the Medieval Academy of America.

Bynum served on the boards of editors of Harvard Theological Review, Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Genders: A Journal of Gender and Society, Common Knowledge, Magistra, Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions , and Journal of the American Academy of Religion . Her professional commitments include service to the Medieval Association of the Pacific, the American Historical Association, the American Society for the Study of Religion, the American Catholic Historical Association, the National Humanities Center, and the Medieval Academy of America.

Bynum is married and has one child, an adopted daughter from South America. Her interests include travel, foreign languages, art history, reading fiction and poetry, and music, especially opera.

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