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


The clinical definition of anorexia nervosa characterizes it as a refusal to eat for fear of becoming fat, often despite great weight loss.4 One might argue that the fear of gaining weight or the perpetual feeling of "being fat" can be substituted for an overwhelming fear of sin or an enduring feeling of impurity despite constant devotion and pious asceticism. In the Middle Ages, and in modern times obsessive and constant fasting is adopted in order to rid the body of a perceived evil: sin and fat, respectively. There are examples of medieval women who continued to feel the burden of impurity or sin despite extreme piousness and unremitting food asceticism. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV maintains that patients with anorexia nervosa often have an "intense fear of becoming fat" which is "not alleviated by weight loss."5 While the objective of medieval saints was not to become thin, the perceived inability to achieve satisfaction with the results of abstinence from food is common to them also. For example, Margaret of Cortona renounced ordinary food but, like many female saints, exulted in the eucharist. She wished to receive it very often, but when finally allowed to, she, "abstained out of terror at her unworthiness."6 Despite constant devotion to a religious lifestyle, holy women were humbled by the unattainable model of Christ, to the point of feeling inadequate. Bynum states that several fasting holy women were plagued by "an acute sense of unworthiness."7 Comparable feelings of dissatisfaction are noted in anorectics. It is characteristic of those diagnosed with the disease to feel as if they are perpetually unable to reach their ideal body weight.8 As a result they continue to starve themselves in the same manner that medieval women did. This analogy allows us to apply the label anorexia nervosa to distinct behaviors in the past, and general framework of the disease remains intact, allowing for variations based on the circumstances of the women of the Middle Ages.

A fear of sexual development is also common both to modern anorectics and medieval fasting women. In the Middle Ages this may have been an aspect of the fear of sin because gluttony was seen as a prelude to lust. Bynum states that, "Ever since Jerome, male writers had

4. DSM IV, 539.
5. ibid., 540.
6. Bynum, 58.
7. ibid., 204.
8. DSM IV, 540.
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