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


warned religious women that food was dangerous because it excited lust."9 In Medieval Europe, women were seen as especially susceptible to indulgence in sensual pleasures, such as gluttony and sexual activity. The female saints were brought up in a moral environment which "saw women as especially afflicted with the weaknesses of the flesh."10 Therefore, they may have felt a need to avoid giving into the supposed weaknesses of their gender through fierce abstinence from food and sex.

In both cases, fasting habits begin around puberty. The onset of anorexia nervosa may result from a desire to curb sexual maturation, a process over which an individual has no control.11 The same may be argued for the practices of pious adolescent girls of the Middle Ages. Sex itself was a daunting matter for many medieval women as they were often married at a young age to a sexually demanding husband. Stunting one's sexual development may have appeared as a way to circumvent such unpleasantness.12 If one examines the causes of the fear of sexual development or feelings of inadequacy before God, it seems clear that religious and societal factors are at its base, and only the end result of not eating bears a resemblance to anorexia nervosa. It might be a meaningless coincidence that fasting behavior is common to both starving saints and modern anorectics. However, some might argue for the importance of these parallel behaviors as relevant to a diagnosis of the medieval saints. Inherent in this perspective is a judgment of outward behaviors as more significant than the sources of such behavior.

The association with manipulation of sexual development through fasting points to a larger issue, namely that of control through food. An attempt to exert some control over one's life through restraint of food intake is a central characteristic of anorectics. The realm of food was the only aspect of life that medieval females could direct for themselves, and therefore, it was their only outlet for control. Fasting to the point of illness or joining a religious order may have been a medieval girl's only way to escape marriage and a future in which she was completely dependent upon her husband.13

9. Bynum, 214.
10. ibid., 216.
11. http://www.medicover.pl/disease/anorexia.htm.
12. Bynum, 215.
13. ibid., 215.
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