Caroline Walker Bynum

Caroline Walker BynumPresident of the Association, 1996

Presidential Address delivered at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New York on January 3, 1997. Published in American Historical Review 102, no. 1 (Feb., 1997), pp. 1-17.


Let him who does not know how to astonish go work in the stables!
Giambattista Marino (1569–1628)1

Unlikely though it may seem for a medievalist, I am a product of the 60s. I submitted my dissertation in the spring of 1969 on the very day students occupied University Hall at Harvard to protest military recruiting on campus and the war in Vietnam. During the next tumultuous years, as I struggled to become a teacher and a professional with the high (and admittedly somewhat naïve) ideals of the 60s sounding in my brain, I kept on my bulletin board a copy of a Paris wall slogan from the student rebellion of 1968: “Toute vue des choses qui n’est pas étrange est fausse” (“Every view of things that is not strange [i.e., bizarre or foreign] is false”).2 It seemed to me then that I was trying, both as a scholar and as a teacher, to jolt my listeners and readers into encounter with a past that is unexpected and strange, a past whose lineaments are not what we at first assume, whose traces in our sources answer questions we haven’t asked and deliver only silence to our initial, self-referential queries. So when I began to think about this address and about the intellectual challenges to the historian’s task that engage me most, I returned to this wall slogan. Could a penchant for the strange help us avoid what Patricia Limerick has identified as presentist flattening of the past,3 or what John Toews has diagnosed as the danger of being trapped by the multiple readings of texts open to—but, we may fear, reflective only of—us after the linguistic turn?4 In other words, could “wonder” be the special characteristic of the historian?

Those of you who are specialists in European history or literature may find this introduction to my subject somewhat disingenuous, for surely my question emerges from current scholarship as well as from out-of-date wall slogans. “Wonder” is at present a “hot topic.” But not, it would appear, a medievalist’s topic. “Wonders” and “marvels” have recently been the subject of a good deal of research on early modern Europe, some of it inspired by the cinquecentennial of 1492 and the welcome new sensitivities to its darker side.5 Moreover, some influential literary theory—above all, the ideas of Tzvetan Todorov—suggests that the “marvelous” is a particular aesthetic that emerged in the seventeenth century (or perhaps later) and is predicated on an “implicit reader” hardly present in the simpler tales that amused medieval audiences.6 Thus some of you may suspect that I am engaging in a version of that mid-twentieth-century “medievalists’ revolt” in which historians earnestly asserted the claims of the Middle Ages, over against those of early modern Europe, to phenomena no one is quite sure about today—“the Renaissance,” for example, or the origins of “the modern state.”7 Perhaps, then, I represent a rearguard action to claim back from early modernists the irrational and grotesque and to “re-enchant,” if not the world, at least the historical profession. After all, much recent work has demonstrated that the period from about 1180 to 1320 saw a great increase in stories of marvels, monsters, miracles, and ghosts;8 and the characterization of medieval Europe as “awash in wonders” has been employed by many of our century’s greatest scholars.9

No revolt or reappropriation is, however, intended. I leave “the marvelous” to literary theorists and “the age of marvels” to the Renaissance! My topic is “wonder,” not “wonders,” and what I want to do in this essay is to explore not only the different theories of wonder present in a variety of medieval discourses but also (and this is, of course, quite tricky to determine) the circumstances under which medieval men and women felt wonder, whether or not the sources use the term. In other words, I intend to explore not only wonder-talk but also wonder-behavior.10 Although I shall not come up with a medieval definition of wonder or a medieval wonder experience, I shall delineate a complex set of ideas and reactions very different from those recently studied by early modernists. Medieval theorists, I shall argue, understood wonder (admiratio) as cognitive, non-appropriative, perspectival, and particular. Not merely a physiological response, wonder was a recognition of the singularity and significance of the thing encountered. Only that which is really different from the knower can trigger wonder; yet wonder will always be in a context and from a particular point of view. To medieval thinkers, human beings cannot wonder at what is not there; but neither can we wonder at that which we fully understand. I shall thus suggest that there are analogies (not correspondences) between medieval discussions and those of late twentieth-century historians.11 For surely what characterizes historians above all else is the capacity to be shocked by the singularity of events in a way that stimulates the search for “significance” (a word that includes—but is not limited to—cause or explanation). So my topic is, first, a set of very sophisticated discourses produced by medieval thinkers and, second, the web of actual horror and delight we can decipher in medieval texts. I describe these as an antidote to recent fears that, because it is impossible to know without in some sense appropriating, it is therefore impossible to know. And as I proceed, I hope to tell you some wonderful stories.

Before I turn to the middle ages, I wish to say a bit more about recent scholarship on “wonders” in order to make clear how my emphasis will differ from it. This work has been characterized by three arguments. First, a great deal of research on the early modern European impulse to collect and explore, displayed in such phenomena as the origins of the museum in the Wunderkammer (wonder cabinet), voyages to the New World with their attendant goals of conquering and missionizing, and the use of inquisitors and questionnaires by government to assemble information for judicial proceedings and taxation, has stressed the enthusiasm for wonders as expropriative and appropriative. The collections of narwhal horns and jewels, deformed fetuses and human captives, made by rulers, missionaries, and naturalists have been understood as an early modern “orientalism”—a projection of self or construction of “other” as self.12 Columbus’s “desire to know the secrets of the world” has been glossed with José de Acosta’s praise of proselytizing curiosity: “And the high and eternal wisdom of the Creator uses this natural curiosity of men to communicate the light of His holy gospel to peoples who still live in the darkness of their errors.”13 In such interpretation, the rape of the New World seems implicit in wonder at it.

Second, natural philosophical discussions of “wonders” and “wonder” have been interpreted as moving in a more or less straight line from medieval scholastics to the Enlightenment.14 According to such analysis, philosophers between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries developed from the opening of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which associated wonder with ignorance and doubt, the idea that the goal of admiratio was its own destruction; if wonder arose from the desire to seek causes it did not understand, wonder should lead to its own replacement by knowledge (scientia) or philosophia. This understanding of wonder then combined with the development of an ontological distinction between miracula and mirabilia, in which marvels were defined as natural effects we fail to understand, whereas miracles were “unusual and difficult” (insolitum et arduum) events, “produced by God’s power alone on things that have a natural tendency to the opposite effect.”15 Thus, while preserving the possibility of objective verification of miracles as contra naturam, such definitions led to an ever-increasing sense that seemingly extraordinary events could be explained (i.e., rationalized) as ruled by the laws of nature.16

Third, work on early modern marvels has tended to begin exploration of the wonder reaction with Descartes’ famous definition from 1649: “wonder is a sudden surprise of the soul which makes it tend to consider attentively those objects which seem to it rare and extraordinary.”

When the first encounter with some object surprises us ... this makes us wonder and be astonished ... And since this can happen before we know in the least whether this object is suitable to us or not, it seems to me that Wonder is the first of all the passions. It has no opposite, because if the object presented has nothing in it that surprises us, we are not in the least moved by it and regard it without passion.17

Although in this discussion the cognitive element in wonder is in fact large,18 Descartes has been treated, in the new field of the history of the emotions, as beginning the tendency to reduce emotion to physiology.19 Such analysis has traced a unilinear development from Charles Le Brun’s drawings of the passions, published forty-nine years after Descartes’ treatise to illustrate his theories, through Burke and Kant, to Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), which equated wonder with raised eyebrows, opened and protruding lips, and a hand held up, palm out, with fingers open—reactions that, Darwin argued, increased the animal’s chances of survival by making it see and breathe better in a crisis. The wealth of new psychological, anthropological, and historical discussion that assumes the emotions to be culturally constructed thus understands itself as in opposition to an early modern psychology for which the startle response of “admiration” or “wonder” was the paradigmatic emotion.20

It is not my purpose here to suggest that current arguments about the early modern “age of the marvelous” are correct or incorrect. It will, however, be clear that none of these interpretations, complex though they be, describes a wonder-talk or wonder-behavior that is empowering (or even relevant) to what historians do. A philosophical understanding of wonder as ignorance rationalized or erased by knowledge, a wondering desire that collects and appropriates what it endeavors to know or projects its self onto an imagined other, a passion that reduces to a startle response at the unfamiliar—whether or not such interpretations are correct understandings of early modern texts and events, they have little to do with the historian’s vocation. But medieval “wonder” was not any of the above. I therefore turn to the conceptions of “wonder” current in the Middle Ages, confident that—although the past never provides answers or solutions—these ideas can nonetheless help us imagine the kind of non-appropriative, perspectival, and intensely cognitive response we must aspire to if we are to meet our responsibilities as teachers and historians.

Although medieval writers did not for the most part produce theories of wonder in the areas of psychology or poetics, where such theories would later figure so prominently, they certainly produced theoretical discussions of wonder.21 As we might expect, we find not one but many discourses, although it is difficult—as always for the Middle Ages—to know how to characterize their differences.22 I shall discuss three: a theological-philosophical understanding of wonder emanating from university intellectuals; a religious discourse about wonder found in sermons, devotional writing, and above all in the enormously popular genre of saints’ lives; and a literature of entertainment, within which I include travel accounts, history writing, and the collections of odd stories called by one author “trifles for the court.”23 In each case, I shall explain what wonder meant by identifying what authors saw as its synonyms and opposites.24 Thus for theologians and natural philosophers, the opposite of admiratio was in some sense the scientia, or knowledge, to which it led; but wonder was also associated with diversitas (diversity), and its opposite was solitum, the usual, or even in some sense the general.25 In the religious discourse of sermon and hagiography, the most frequent opposite of admiratio was imitatio (imitation), less frequently curiositas (curiosity) or disputatio (disputatiousness). Readers and audiences for saints’ lives, whether Latin or vernacular, were urged to wonder at, not imitate, the power and extravagant asceticism of holy men and women. Wonder was moreover associated with paradox, coincidence of opposites; one finds mira (wondrous) again and again in the texts alongside mixta (mixed or composite things), a word that evokes the hybrids and monsters also found in the literature of entertainment. In this entertainment literature, which is the third discourse I treat, admirari (to wonder at) is sometimes contrasted to rimari (to pry into), although it is sometimes seen as an inducement to such prying. Above all, to the authors who collected stories to amuse, instruct, and move their (usually aristocratic) listeners, the opposite of wonder was, as John of Salisbury put it, inductio exemplorum, which really means in this context “generalizing.”

The theological-philosophical discourse produced in the schools and universities of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries drew on a tradition of understanding wonder as perspectival and psychological that went back to those twin authorities for the Middle Ages: Aristotle and Augustine. Aristotle had famously suggested in the opening of the Metaphysics that

all men begin ... by wondering that things are as they are . as in the case of marionettes or of the solstices or of the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with respect to its side ... But we must end with the contrary ... for nothing would make a geometrician wonder so much as this, namely, if a diagonal were to be commensurable with the side of a square.26

Augustine had written that marvels are not “against nature but “against what we know of nature”; and one of the examples he gave—that the behavior of lime in fire would seem miraculous to us if it occurred in India and we heard of it seldom—was quoted often in the Middle Ages.27 Such a tradition, while implying that philosophy might replace wonder, also suggested that human beings wonder at the regularity, structure, and beauty of the universe, and made wonder a situated response to what is unusual or “other” to a particular viewer. Augustine, however, also made statements that seemed to lodge the wonderful-ness of things not in our reaction to them but in their ontological status. His De utilitate credendi described a miracle as “something difficult which seldom occurs, exceeding the faculty of nature and so far surpassing our hopes as to compel our astonishment.”28 Building on this contrast between nature and those wonder-inducing events that surpass it, Anselm of Canterbury in the early twelfth century distinguished between the marvelous, the natural, and the voluntary (by which he meant what we would probably call the artificial—that is, that which is made by human will).29 By the thirteenth century, these passages from Augustine and Anselm were used to argue that miracles are objectively wonderful (habentia in se admirationis causam) because produced by God’s power alone.30

Although Latin texts in the early Middle Ages used mirabilia and miracula more or less interchangeably, university intellectuals by the thirteenth century distinguished the two in terms of ontological status.31 Such theorizing might seem to flatten the impulse to marvel in two senses. First, it tends to separate out a small number of phenomena as objectively wonder‑inducing, whereas all others—no matter how odd—are wonderful only to the ignorant; moreover, by accompanying such discussion with hair-splitting distinctions concerning ontological status, it embeds even the miraculous in a forest of ratiocination that allows little room for surprise or delight. Second, such theorizing suggests that most events have natural causes.32 If philosophers are diligent enough, wonders will cease. Thus William of Auvergne observed around 1235 that people turn too quickly to God’s power, calling things miracles, when it is merely the case that they do not know how to go about investigating the cause. A little over a century later, Nicole Oresme observed:

People marvel at ... things only because they rarely happen, but the causes for these are as apparent as for others ... For example, at night a fearful man who sees a wolf in the fields, or a cat in his room, will immediately ... judge that it is an enemy or a devil ... because he fixes his imagination on these and fears them. And a [devout] person ... will judge that it is an angel ... A vigorous imagining of a retained species, then, together with a small external appearance or ... an imbalance of some internal disposition ... produces marvelous appearances in healthy as well as in sick people.

An anonymous thirteenth-century treatise, “On the Marvels of the World,” falsely attributed to Albert the Great, went so far as to assert: “A great part of philosophers and physicians believes that all marvellousness of experiences and marvels [tota mirabilitas experimentorum et mirabilium] arises from natural things.”33 Such a tradition may indeed seem anti-wonder, as some modern scholars have alleged.

In considering the discussion of marvels found in theology and natural philosophy, we must not, however, be too quick to conclude that distinguishing miracle and marvel ontologically rather than psychologically and perspectivally, or attributing marvels to natural causes, entailed the eclipse of wonder. Even Nicole Oresme, who argued that it is possible to produce general arguments for the naturalness of almost all phenomena, showed himself fascinated and enchanted by the “marvelous properties” of animals and the diversitas of human experience, especially of tastes in food and in sexual positions and partners.34 Roger Bacon attempted naturalistic explanations of saints who lived without eating and of the resurrection of the body, as well as of charms and amulets; but he spoke in remarkably heightened language of the terror and sweet wonder of the Eucharist, called the magnet one of the “miracles of nature” (miracula naturae), described the bending of cut twigs toward each other as “wonderful beyond all I have seen,” and waxed lyrical over the infinite complexity of the common fly.35 Albert the Great, like Oresme, described the physiological manifestations of admiratio as “a constriction and suspension of the heart” confronted with something “great and unusual.”36 Thomas Aquinas quoted Aristotle’s Rhetoric to connect wonder with pleasure and drew on theMetaphysics to associate it with a desire that culminates not so much in knowledge as in encounter with majesty; he argued that the angel of the Annunciation shocked the Virgin because “wonder is the best way to grab the attention of the soul” and insisted that Christ’s capacity to wonder was not an indication of discomfort but a proof of his humanity—a sign indeed that he was a teacher.37 Thus wonder as a response was not devalued or dismissed, even in a philosophical and theological tradition that (as Katharine Park has aptly put it) “de-wondered” anomalies by insisting on an increasingly ordered world, whose laws were decipherable by the wise.38

If we turn from the discourse of university intellectuals to the homiletic and hagiographical tradition, we find that the wonder-ful was contrasted not with the known, the knowable, or the usual but with the imitable.39 The phrase non imitandum sed admirandum (not to be imitated but to be marveled at) had been used since the early church to express the distance between heroes and martyrs, on the one hand, and the ordinary faithful, on the other.40 Augustine had written of the female martyrs Perpetua and Felicity: “People [are able to] wonder at sooner than imitate [their courage].”41 In the exempla collections, sermons, and saints’ lives of the high Middle Ages, the contrast was sometimes a kind of humility topos intended to express an author’s conviction that the miracle-working charisma of a saint was far beyond the capacity of author and reader alike; sometimes, it was frankly an effort to channel the attention of the faithful away from miracles and marvels and toward emulation of the ordinary virtues—that is, to control credulity, extravagant asceticism, and straining after flamboyant religiosity. Thus James of Vitry wrote of the piety of an extraordinary group of thirteenth-century women ascetics, which included Christina known as Mirabilis (i.e., the Marvelous or Astonishing): “When we read what certain saints did ..., we should wonder at rather than imitate their deeds.” Bonaventure repeated the injunction in his life of Francis of Assisi.42 Caesarius of Heisterbach’s exempla collection underscores repeatedly that works of piety are to be preferred to the miracles that follow one after the other in his flat—even boring—prose, and that the true admirandum is God’s patience and forgiveness.43 What we should also note, however, is the way in which elaborate word plays on the imitatio/admiratio contrast stress the non-appropriative nature of wonder.

I illustrate this from the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux. A master of rhetoric, Bernard made much use of opposition: thus he contrasted wonder with curiosity (prying into the affairs of others or the secrets of the universe) and even fulminated against the mira quaedam defonnis formositas (“wonderful, deformed beauty”) of Romanesque sculpture—a beauty to which he was, as many historians have noticed, seductively drawn.44 But Bernard’s most complex rhetorical contrast is admiratio/imitatio, and he meant something more subtle than the standard message that the saints were to be imitated in their virtues rather than wondered at in their miracles, although he says this, too.

Imitatio, to Bernard, is appropriation; it is, he says, “being in society with,” “experiencing,” “learning,” “taking into oneself,” “consuming.”45 Its semantic field includes words such as pattern, mirror, example, model, image, and nourishment. In order to understand fully what such imitation means, we must remember that in medieval piety, imitatio could be as literal as Henry Suso’s carving of Jesus’ name into his chest with a stylus or St. Francis’s stigmata; it could be as inner and invisible as the approach to God expressed by Hugh of St. Victor when he said:

[T]he shape of the seal presents to the present matter another consideration ... For the figure that is raised in the seal, when imprinted appears concave ..., and that which appears sculpted inward in the seal is ... shaped convexly in the wax ... Therefore ... we, when we take the deeds [of others] for imitation, ought to make the lofty things hidden and the humble ones manifest.46

What is encountered in such imitation is an “other,” of course, but the encounter is made possible because an ontological similarity to that other (expressed by monastic writers in the biblical phrase “image and likeness”) is built into the experiencing self.47

To all this, admiratio was in emphatic contrast. As Bernard explained: when we are offered a golden goblet, we consume, absorb, incorporate the drink (that is, imitate the virtues), but we give back (that is, we wonder at) the goblet.48 Thus we wonder at what we cannot in any sense incorporate, or consume, or encompass in our mental categories; we wonder at mystery, at paradox, at admirabiles mixturae. The ecstasy and stupor Bernard calls admiratio is triggered above all, he says, by three hybrids beyond nature and comprehension: the mixture of God and man, of woman and virgin, of belief with falsity in our hearts.49

The third group of texts that provide a medieval theory of wonder are the history writing, travel accounts, and story collections I have called the literature of entertainment. Such literature drew on the encyclopaedic tradition of the ancient world known as paradoxology—the collection of oddities (including monsters or hybrids, distant races, marvelous lands)—and on antique notions of portents or omens—that is, unusual events that foreshadowed the (usually catastrophic) future and were accompanied by a vague sense of dread.

This entertainment literature sometimes includes what came to be the separate ontological category of miracle, about which authors tended to be increasingly skeptical, even cynical. For example, Walter Map concluded an account of a failed exorcism by Bernard of Clairvaux with the following story, placed in the mouth of a twelfth-century contemporary:

“[A] certain man from the borders of Burgundy asked him to come and heal his son; ... so Bernard ordered that the body be carried into a private room, and after sending everybody out he lay upon the boy, and arose again after praying; but the boy did not arise, for he lay there dead.” Thereupon I [Walter] remarked: “This was surely the most unlucky of monks; for never have I heard of a monk lying down upon a boy without the boy rising up immediately after him.” The abbot [who was listening] blushed, and many people went outside for a laugh.50

Such literature also included fabulae (stories), which came increasingly to be contrasted to historia and told without claims to their ontological status.51

When we consider not the categories of events but the theory of wonder itself found in such writings, we note that wonder here has three characteristics: it is a response to facticity; it is a response to the singular; it is deeply perspectival. Although William of Newburgh, for example, tends to contrast rimari (probe or pry into) with admirari (to wonder at), most such literature tends to assume that some sort of probatio (testing or evidence) is the basis for admiratio.52 Gervais of Tilbury, for instance, groups marvels with res gestae (deeds or historical accounts) and opposes them to stories (fabulae) or lies. He asserts that only facts can induce wonder: although you will wonder only at what you cannot explain, you cannot be amazed by what you don’t believe.53 Gervais recounts as “marvelous” not only stories of ghosts and vampires but also details of the migration of quail and the flight of squirrels; and he explains in detail how he “proved from his own experience” the marvel of a refectory in Arles in which no fly could survive. Gervais tells us:

I made myself an assiduous investigator to see if the flies would light, as they are accustomed to, on bowls smeared with honey and grease. Discovering that the truth actually went beyond what was rumored, I wanted to uncover by force this ruse by which the mind was tricked. I made myself into a hunter of flies and placed a prize of honey and grease and milk in the refectory. My amazement [admiratio] grew the more I saw that the effort of mind and the physical constraint I tried were in vain. [The flies did not light.] So my stupefaction [stupor] grew with the proof I made of what I had heard.54

If admiratio is a response to credible though deeply unusual events, it is also a response to singular events, what John of Salisbury calls “marvelous singularity.” In his collection of advice for courtiers and princes, John tends to naturalize miracles (arguing that many—for example, changing water into wine—are only a speed-up of natural processes) and states explicitly that reason (in the sense of understanding cause) removes wonder. But John also sees wonder as a response to “majesty,” to “hidden wisdom” or significance, and contrasts the activity of generalizing or moralizing (inductio exemplorum—that is, the citing of instructive general cases) with the emotion or experience of wonder.55

In such tales and accounts, wonder is, moreover, deeply perspectival. It is a reaction of a particular “us” to an “other” that is “other” only relative to the particular “us.” James of Vitry commented, shortly after 1200: “perhaps the Cyclopses, who all have one eye, marvel as much at those who have two eyes as we marvel at them,” and similar statements are found in the later and immensely popular works of Gosswin of Metz and John Mandeville.56 Moreover, medieval authors were capable of turning such perspectivalism into gently ironic comments on themselves. The thirteenth-century Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck wrote, in what many scholars consider to be the most informed of early travel accounts, “the men there [at the Chan’s dwelling] surrounded us and gazed at us as if we were monsters [tam quam monstra], especially because we were bare-footed, and [inquired] if we had no need of our feet since they supposed we should lose them straightway.”57 Thus William suggests that the barefoot travel through harsh terrain and climate required by Franciscan asceticism seems as monstrous a practice in the East as certain Eastern customs appear when reported “back home.”


When we turn from the theoretical statements about wonder made by historians and travelers, theologians and philosophers, preachers and devotional writers, to the behavior of medieval men and women, what do we find? The question is an extremely difficult one. We cannot simply study medieval emotion. The traces of emotion that survive are mediated through texts, pictures, and artifacts; we are not entitled either to assume a sort of Darwinian universal emotion that we might find simply by looking for depictions of people with open mouths and raised eyebrows or to think that emotion-behavior is so culturally constructed as to exist only where we find words for it.58 Indeed, in European texts from the ancient and medieval past, emotion-terms (particularly terms for negative emotions, such as anger, pride, or fear) are more likely to occur in discussions of how to regulate or erase the phenomenon in question than in places where it seems clearly to occur. (For example, a key-word search for “anger” will tend to turn up set pieces on how to control it—that is, discussions of where it is not.) Moreover, reactions such as wonder, delight, or terror do not simply occur; they are evoked, sometimes even staged; we can explore what evokes them. Thus texts may give us access to reactions less through adjectives attached to nouns (that is, by calling something “wonderful,” “dreadful,” etc.) than by indicating the responses of an implicit reader or viewer, or by describing acts and objects intended to provoke responses. Finding wonder-words is easy; finding wonder is far more complicated. Nevertheless, basing my conclusions on broad reading in chronicles, saints’ lives, scholastic treatises, entertainment literature, and sermons, I should like to venture some suggestions about where medieval texts give us access to wonder-reactions and about what the components of such reactions are.

The question of what components constitute the wonder-response is the easier one, and I begin with it. Examination of the complex semantic fields for “wonder” and “the wonderful” suggests that the wonder-reaction ranges from terror and disgust to solemn astonishment and playful delight. Wonder often has a mischievous quality in medieval accounts. Bernard of Clairvaux refers to it as a “spice” for stories;59 an eleventh-century miracle collection regularly calls the deeds of its impish girl saint “jokes.”60 Gerald of Wales speaks of “nature’s pranks,” when discussing the geography of twelfth-century Ireland, and says of the bearded woman he describes that she “makes people laugh.” Clearly using a moralizing bestiary tradition, Gerald makes his analogies between animals and humans anything but solemn and didactic: when he draws parallels between the incorruptible flesh of kingfishers and of holy men, between grasshoppers who sing after their heads are cut off and the holy martyrs, between storks and resurrection, he appears to take more pleasure in the animal tales than in the theology.61

But wonder was also dread. When the early fourteenth-century rhetorician Robert of Basevorn came, in his treatise on preaching, to the topic of winning over the audience, he used Gerald of Wales as an example but not an example of amusement or delight. Robert wrote:

The preacher ... ought to attract the mind of the listeners ... This can be done in many ways. One ... is to place at the beginning something subtle and interesting, as some authentic marvel ... For instance, suppose that the theme is concerned with the Ascension or the Assumption [and the text is]: a spring rose from the earth. One could adduce that marvel which Gerald narrates in his book ... about the spring in Scicilia [where] if anyone approaches it dressed in red clothing, immediately water gushes forth ... That spring is Christ ... to Whom he ‘approaches dressed in red’ who ... finds living water, viz. graces, because His blood was of such virtue that, when it was shed, the earth quaked and the rocks were torn asunder. Much more ought our hearts to quake and be torn by the cry of God’s word ...
Another way is to frighten them by some terrifying tale or example, in the way that Jacques de Vitry talks about someone who never willingly wanted to hear the word of God; finally when he died and was brought to the church ... [the crucifix] pulled His hands from the nails ... and plugged His ears.62

Gerald himself expresses dread. Recounting some of the earliest werewolf stories to survive in European literature, he repeatedly glosses the admiratio felt by those inside the story as stupor, timor, and horror. Although I cannot explore the topic here, the question of whether and how shape-changing violates natures is highly charged for Gerald, as for others among his contemporaries; and it is surely no accident that his tales of metamorphosis are embedded in a complex discussion where the limiting cases are, on the one side, the real change of substance in the Eucharist and, on the other, the (to him) terrifying possibility that sexual intercourse between humans and animals might produce monsters.63 Whether amusement or horror, wonder was not—to Gerald, Robert, and their contemporaries—a response to the trivial or the merely odd.

Return, then, to the first and more difficult question I raised above. What in medieval accounts or artistic representations tends to trigger wonder (understood in its full range of awe and dread)? Or, to pose the question more precisely: where do the surviving sources give us access either to intensely heightened reactions or to events and objects calculated to evoke or stage such reactions?

The thing that strikes us first when we ask the question this way is where wonder is not. Miracles, for example—though routinely referred to as “marvelous”—are seldom presented as evoking or intended to evoke wonder. Indeed, the didactic purposes to which miracle collections were directed and the hair-splitting distinctions about ontological status indulged in by theologians seem to have reduced miracle accounts to rather dull enumerations of events. Arguments, such as William of Auvergne’s and Nicole Oresme’s, that natural causes can be found for marvels tend to flatten the language of some accounts of the natural world as well. Although chronicles and annals sometimes couch their descriptions of unusual natural events such as eclipses, earthquakes, and famines in terms of dread and a kind of hovering significance, these events are also sometimes merely listed in clipped, matter-of-fact prose. Thus miracles, portents, and oddities are sites and stagings of wonder less often than we might suppose.

Nonetheless, narrative accounts from the twelfth to the fourteenth century tell us of objects and events carefully constructed to elicit awe, delight, and dread. Rulers, both secular and ecclesiastical, competed in displays of power and splendor, which included intricate tricks and automata, calculated to amaze and tantalize. From the later thirteenth century, for example, we have evidence of a count of Artois who built an elaborate funhouse with distorting mirrors, rooms that simulated thunderstorms, and hidden pipes for wetting unsuspecting visitors and covering them with flour. Banquets were elegant entertainments, which featured entire puppet shows in pastry (called “sotelties” in Middle English). Indeed, cookbooks make it clear that food was often planned as an illusion or trick for the eye: for example, imitation meat concocted from fish, roast fowl sewn back into its plumage in order to appear alive, pies (like that in the nursery rhyme) with living birds baked inside.64 Changes in church architecture, in liturgy, and in the fabrication of monstrances all tended to define the moment in the Mass when the consecrated host was elevated as a sudden revelation of the unexpected and paradoxical: the divine installed in food (or flesh or matter) in the twinkling of an eye.65 Although collections of relics and their elaborate containers, or reliquaries, are not exactly the Wunderkammern of early medieval princes, there was both a similarity and a historical connection. Theologians and many of the ordinary faithful continued to value the supernatural power mediated through bone chips or dust more than the intricate workmanship or sheer novelty of the container—that is, to understand the object more as a means of access to an other (whether God or saint) than as a singularity, fascinating in itself. But some medieval prelates added natural marvels such as shells and ostrich eggs to their church treasuries; early modern rulers included reliquaries in the “wonder collections” they assembled; relic cabinets and cabinets of novelties came to resemble each other in form, suggesting that an impulse to collect underlay both.66 The twelfth-century abbot Suger of St. Denis, writing in extravagant language of the beautiful materials and workmanship used in refurbishing the reliquaries of his church, shows both the parallels and the differences between medieval and early modern accounts. In one sense far more desperate to touch, possess, and appropriate than any later collector, the crowd Suger describes is frantic over access to a power not only beyond but also in its nature other than what contains it (other because it is God and other because it is God lodged in body—decayed body, manifested and hidden behind the crystal and gold). Suger speaks of frenzied hands grasping to touch caskets until the king himself finally holds the martyrs and “mirabile visu! ... No greater joy in the world could ever have exalted [those who beheld this]!”67

As this example from Suger makes clear, narrative accounts not only described objects and events that were staged or constructed to produce wonder, they also teemed with complex wonder-reactions. Hagiographers, for example, detailed in emotional, even sensual, language the extravagant asceticism and para-mystical manifestations holy women experienced and the amazement such manifestations engendered in others. Beauty—natural, human and artistic—was not merely referred to as wonderful, it was also described, in loving and lyrical language, as signaling a deeper pattern or purpose.68 Drawing on the old Augustinian idea that the world itself is a miracle, the great Anglo-Saxon homilist Aelfric, like Bernard of Clairvaux more than a hundred years later, spoke of the wundra (marvels) of God, who has set all creation in measure, number, and weight; thus it requires no sorcery that the moon waxes and wanes, that the sea agrees with it, that the earth greens in response to its power.69 Recounting the migration of salmon upstream to spawn, Gerald of Wales said: “They leap from bottom to top with a leap that is marvelous and, except that it is proper to the nature of fish, miraculous.”70 Marco Polo, whose rather limited vocabulary for describing marvels does not seem to have undercut the popularity of his descriptions, called the peacocks of the East “larger and more beautiful,” asserted that ostriches there were “as big as donkeys” and chickens “the most beautiful in the world,” and concluded enthusiastically, “in fact everything is different!”71

Travelers’ tales also recounted as wonderful the fearsome and the ugly. To Marco Polo, almost every animal he met (the “horrible” crocodile as well as the “beautiful” giraffe) was a marvel, described with an earnest and urgent facticity. Indeed, in the later Middle Ages, stories abounded of fabulous places, of stones with marvelous powers, of monsters, mermaids, and fairies, of bizarre races with eyes in their chests or enormous umbrella feet. Strangeness appealed. Fantastical travelers’ accounts far outstripped in popularity the soberer versions.72 But even through awkward and impoverished prose such as Marco Polo’s, or credulous tale-telling such as Mandeville’s, there gleams a powerful sense that what is wonderful is not chickens and peacocks—even Cyclopses and cannibals—per se but a world that encompasses such staggering diversity. Moreover, the impulse to chronicle such things could also be a critique of the impulse to possess them. For example, Walter of Châtillon’s epic, the Alexandreis, drawn from one of the great storehouses of medieval marvel material, puts the following speech into the mouth of the Scythians:

If you [Alexander the Great] had a body that matched your greedy mind and heart that know no bounds in their desires, or if your body equaled your great cupidity, the great world itself would not suffice to contain you ... Your right hand would hold the East, the left the West. Not content with this, in all your prayers you would be consumed with desire to investigate and find out where that amazing light hid itself, and would dare to climb into the sun’s chariot and ... control its wandering beams. So, too, you desire much that you cannot possess. Having subdued the world and conquered the human race, delighting in blood, you will wage war against trees, wild beasts, rocks and mountain snows. You will not allow the strange creatures that lurk in the caves to be untouched. Even senseless elements will be compelled to experience your rages.73

Although the Alexander material on which Walter draws is centuries old, this passage is not merely a medieval retelling of traditional and titillating stories. Whether or not Walter sides with the Scythians, his powerful prose understands that marveling at diversity can be the prelude to appropriation.

Hence, in the chronicles, lives, and stories I have studied, wonder is induced by the beautiful, the horrible, and the skillfully made, by the bizarre and rare, by that which challenges or suddenly illuminates our expectations, by the range of difference, even the order and regularity, found in the world. But marveling and astonishment as reactions seem to be triggered most frequently and violently by what Bernard of Clairvaux called admirabiles mixturae: events or phenomena in which ontological and moral boundaries are crossed, confused, or erased. Singularity per se, or the absence of a “cause,” is not enough. When Roger Bacon, for example, writes in heightened language of the horror and wonder of the Eucharist, while accepting without surprise the resurrection of the body, the difference in reaction seems owing to his sense that living again is not remarkable for a human body but appearing as meat to be masticated is an awe-ful condescension (in worldly terms, an assuming of an inappropriate nature) for God. Caesarius of Heisterbach, flat-footedly recounting what to a modern reader seems a mind-dulling succession of totally improbable events, suddenly expresses genuine wonder that God does not take revenge at an insult as men would. Peter the Venerable, whose twelfth-century collection of miracle stories was intended to inspire (he said) both pleasure and fear, penned his most emotionally heightened paragraphs about those who returned from the dead, “revenants.” Peter framed one account in direct discourse in order to intensify the horror; the first-person narrator he inserted describes himself as “almost driven to madness by excessive fear.” In the other incident, recounted as Peter’s own experience, a monk who has been poisoned appears in a dream while the murder is under investigation.

When I saw him [the murdered monk], I got up full of joy and began to embrace and kiss him with much affection. Although a deep stupor [sopor] took the place of my outward senses,... I was not unaware that I was sleeping ... And what is more wonderful [mirum], it occurred to me immediately ... that the dead could not remain long with the living ... So I decided to question him quickly, for the vision seemed not a phantasm but true [non fantastica sed verax] ...
[The monk attests his faith and affirms that he has been murdered; then he disappears.]
I wondered greatly ... then rested my head again ... and immediately he reappeared ... I rushed toward him and ... began to kiss him as before ... I heard the same answers as above concerning his state, his vision of God, the certitude of the Christian faith, and his death ... [Then] I woke up and found my eyes wet and my cheeks warmed by fresh tears.74

Peter’s intense emotional and physical encounter with the dead man is triggered by his moral dilemma over how the perpetrator of the crime is to be punished. Walter Map, often cynical about miracles and given to a rather arch framing (and literary distancing) of some of his more improbable tales, speaks simply and movingly of an occasion on which Peter of Tarentaise, confronted with a deformed man, questioned him closely and sent him away unhealed but with a new sense of self-worth. It is the moral reaction that is described in heightened emotion-language: hearing of the man’s psychological suffering, “Archbishop Peter leaped back as if from a blow and gazed at him with wonder.”75 Walter does not simply inform his readers that the archbishop’s perception is a marvelous one; rather, we see the response enacted inside the story. Two hundred years later, Julian of Norwich uses her most wonder-filled language not for the “myracles” of the saints but for those “merveyles” impossible to encompass in human categories but having profound implications for salvation: first, the fact that God cannot be angry and, second, the paradox that—because of the Incarnation‑we are a marvelous mixture (“medle so mervelous”) of sin and grace.76

It is when phenomena such as eclipses or double suns are recounted in conjunction with troubled and human events such as war, crime, or corruption that they are given heightened emotion-language. Describing the “unheard-of prodigy” of green children born from the earth, the chronicler William of Newburgh finds himself forced to marvel (mirari) at what he cannot grasp (attingere or rimari). But William assumes that there must be a “reason” for the strange occurrence—by which he means not a cause but a significance or moral use (utilitas). Writing of other “marvelous, terrifying, and terrible things” (such as springs that portend scarcity, a mysterious dog discovered in a stone, a crucifix in the sky), William explains: “We call these things marvels and prodigies [mira et prodigiosa] not so much because of their rarity as because they have a secret reason [occultam rationem].”77 Thus the wonder-reaction is a significance-reaction—which is only another way of expressing the tautology that things are not signs or portents because of their natures or their causes but because they indicate or point. As every medieval schoolboy knew, monsters are named from the verb monstrare (to show)—that is, not from their ontology but from their utility.78 If, to theologians, chroniclers, and preachers, the wonderful was indeed often the strange, the rare, and the inexplicable, it was never the merely strange or the simply inexplicable. It was a strange that mattered, that pointed beyond itself to meaning.

The medieval theories and reactions I have discussed were quite different from the wonder described recently by early modern historians. Of course, not all medieval statements about wonder were synonymous or compatible, any more than early modern theories were. Nor was what we can learn about how people acted and reacted necessarily in very close synchrony with the definitions they gave or the platitudes they propounded. Nonetheless, the wonder we find in medieval texts was not an increasingly rare exception to an Enlightenment sense of unbreachable laws of nature. Neither was it the startle reflex of early modern psychology nor the appropriation practiced by early modern rulers, explorers, and conquistadors.79

Although, by the late fifteenth century, medieval artists had begun to paint wondering faces with the startle reflex later drawn by Le Brun, it is more difficult to be sure in earlier depictions whether a figure confronted with stupendous or bizarre or dread-filled news is amazed or not.80 No medieval theorist reduced wonder to the physiological reaction of the wonderer. The amazement discussed by philosophers, chroniclers, and travelers had a strong cognitive component; you could wonder only where you knew that you failed to understand. Thus wonder entailed a passionate desire for the scientia it lacked; it was a stimulus and incentive to investigation.

Nor was wonder reducible to the nature per se of the marvel that triggered it. To the scholastics, who sometimes aimed to de-wonder the rest of the world, only miracles were, objectively speaking, wonder-causing; but no one thought men and women felt stupor or admiratio only, or even primarily, at miracles. All theories of wonder saw it as a significance-reaction: a flooding with awe, pleasure, or dread owing to something deeper, lurking in the phenomenon. The wonderer was situated; wonder was perspectival (even if miracles were not). What is remarkable to one may be expected to another; as Mandeville observed, to the one-eyed, those with two eyes will seem deformed, and to those of other religions, Christians will be the cannibals. Wonder was a response to something novel and bizarre that seemed both to exceed explanation and to indicate that there might be reason (significance—not necessarily cause) behind it.

Thus medieval theories of wonder made the point that wonder is non-appropriative yet based in facticity and singularity. The opposite of admiratio is not only to investigate, it is also to imitate and to generalize. To wonder is emphatically not to consume and incorporate; it is, as Bernard of Clairvaux said, to give back the goblet after draining the potion. But, as Gervais of Tilbury also said, if you do not believe the event, you will not marvel at it. You can marvel only at something that is, at least in some sense, there. Marveling responds to the there-ness of the event, to its concreteness and specificity. Amazement is suppressed by the citing of too many cases, the formulation of general laws, the inductio exemplorum. Wonder is at the singular—both its significance and its particularity.

Am I then wrong to suggest that wonder is the special characteristic of the historian? I think not—if we understand admiratio in its medieval sense, as cognitive, perspectival, non-appropriative, and deeply respectful of the specificity of the world. There is something old-fashioned, almost absurd, in such an assertion, of course. Medieval philosophers and theologians emphasized wonder as a first step toward knowledge; we, in our postmodern anxiety, tend rather to emphasize how hard it is to know. Medieval devotional and hagiographical writers stressed wonder as the opposite of imitation or possession; we are aware that any response involves some appropriation. Medieval travelers and collectors of marvels argued that awe and dread are situated, perspectival; we share this perception and give credit to feminism and postcolonial theory for it, but we suspect that such awareness shatters the possibility of writing any coherent account of the world. Medieval chroniclers and occasional writers stressed the uniqueness of events rather than the trends they illustrated, their moral significance rather than their temporal causes; we fear that the particular is the trivial and that significance is merely the projection of our own values onto the past.

Nonetheless, I would argue, we write the best history when the specificity, the novelty, the awe-fulness, of what our sources render up bowls us over with its complexity and its significance. Our research is better when we move only cautiously to understanding, when fear that we may appropriate the “other” leads us not so much to writing about ourselves and our fears as to crafting our stories with attentive, wondering care. At our best, it is the “strange view of things” for which we strive—not least because, as Thomas Aquinas understood, admiratio has to do with teaching. I am certain my students sometimes feet that I speak to them of things as bizarre and unheard of as William of Newburgh’s green children or the barnacle geese born from trees that some medieval authors alleged they had seen.81 But surely our job as teachers is to puzzle, confuse, and amaze. We must rear a new generation of students who will gaze in wonder at texts and artifacts, quick to puzzle over a translation, slow to project or to appropriate, quick to assume there is a significance, slow to generalize about it. Not only as scholars, then, but also as teachers, we must astonish and be astonished. For the flat, generalizing, presentist view of the past encapsulates it and makes it boring, whereas amazement yearns toward an understanding, a significance, that is always just a little beyond both our theories and our fears.

Every view of things that is not wonderful is false.

Caroline Walker Bynum teaches the history of the European Middle Ages at Columbia University. Her best-known works are Jesus as Mother (1982), Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987), and The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (1995). A historian of medieval religious thought and practice with a special interest in women’s piety, Bynum has turned recently to an investigation of attitudes toward the natural world in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The present essay grows out of both her earlier research on miracles of bodily transformation and her current study of medieval conceptions of natural and psychological change.