Emily Candela, "Disaggregating the Experiences of Medieval Female Fasting Saints"


This paper will discuss Bynums point of view in further depth as I explore the various arguments for and against a diagnosis of the starving saints as anorectics. My ultimate conclusion, however, does not rest on either side of this debate. A discussion of the tenuous nature of the sources will attempt to illuminate the unfeasibility of adhering to a side (either that the starving saints were anorectics or that they were not) that categorizes a large group of women for whom the corresponding historical information is questionable in the first place. Such a generalization would imply that the women being studied were a homogenous group and that the evidence available on them allows a decisive claim to be made regarding an element of their personal psyche. This paper will show that the information on the starving saints is not reliable enough to be the basis for such a claim and that it is unlikely that all of the women discussed in Bynum's book can be relegated to a single grouping. However, before moving on the issue of the sources, it is important to examine the arguments for both sides of the debate which is addressed in Holy Feast and Holy Fast.

Many female holy women of the High Middle Ages (from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century) exhibited an extreme form of food asceticism, surpassing many male saints in their excessive abstinence. Their fasting behaviors were often performed in a compulsive manner and for extended periods of time. Some women, such as Columba of Rieti, actually died of their self-inflicted starvation.2 In drawing parallels between these fasting saints and modern anorectics, it becomes apparent that the medieval women may have had some variation of the eating disorder. Such behaviors which parallel the modern understanding of anorexia nervosa include a feeling of dissatisfaction with the results of fasting, a fear of sexual development, an attempt to exert control, and a propensity to think about or deal with food.3

2. ibid., 146.
3. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (Washington, DC: The American Psychiatric Association:1994), 540-1.
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