Disaggregating the Experiences of
Medieval Female Fasting Saints

Book review: Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast.
Berkeley, California: University of California Press: 1987

Emily Candela


Female holy women of the Middle Ages who engaged in self starvation as an ascetic religious practice are at the center of a small debate concerning the suitability of applying a modern medical concept to a phenomenon of the past. These women exhibited some behaviors which are reminiscent of characteristics of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder which was defined in the 1970s. As a result, some argue that the medical term may be applied to saints of the Middle Ages. However, a sound argument can be made to the contrary also, as Caroline Bynum does in her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Many of the sources on the medieval saints can be interpreted as a support for either side of this debate, and in some cases, the sources are not satisfactory material for determining the fundamental nature of the women's practices and lives at all. These factors demonstrate the difficulty involved in taking a side in the discussion regarding the behavior of female saints.

Bynum argues that the modern concept of anorexia nervosa should not provide the foundation for a 'diagnosis' of the medieval saints because the historical context in which the holy women lived differs from the societal conditions which gave rise to the notion of the eating disorder. The cultural significance of food in medieval Europe contrasts greatly with that of modern Western society, in which food is not so much of a vital concern to many people. Additionally, Bynum maintains that the fasting practices of the saints simply had more to do with religious devotion than any preconditions believed by medical professionals to prompt an individual to become anorexic. She points out that the theological implications associated with eating and food asceticism, coupled with the prominent role that food played in the middle ages resulted in "attitudes toward food" which were "far more diverse than those implied by the modern [concept] of anorexia nervosa."1

1. Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkeley and Los Angeles California: University of California Press: 1987), 5.
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