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


Present society's ideal beautiful woman is very thin. It is a widely held belief that images of such an ideal compel women to diet and push themselves to meet this standard. A barrage of advertisements, movies, and magazines containing these images hit women from all sides, and for some, the desire to be as thin as the models we see in mass media outlets becomes an obsession. This is the social context in which anorexia nervosa as a concept defined by humans was born. The fear of becoming fat which is associated with the eating disorder is created by a modern social paradigm of beauty. Therefore, because of the narrowness of the disease's definition, in addition to its association with a period-specific problem (the stigma attached to those who are overweight), one may argue that it is inappropriate to diagnose women who lived a thousand years ago with anorexia nervosa. This approach to the question regarding whether medieval saints were anorectics differs from the approach discussed above in which certain fasting behaviors, rather than their origins and meanings, were held as significant, and thus supported the position that the starving saints may be considered victims of anorexia nervosa. However, many of the aspects starving saints shared with anorectics may be viewed in a different light which stresses the cultural and religious causes of their behavior and thus distinguishes them from modern anorectics.

Christian holy women of the Middle Ages seem to have been influenced by their environment much in the way that modern anorectics are believed to be products of a contemporary idea of sexual beauty. The environment that spawned the medieval saints stands in contrast to modern society of which anorexia nervosa is a part. The saints were acting in accordance with a certain pattern established in Christian tradition. They were also influenced by the central role food played in the internal and personal quest for union and imitation of Christ, in addition to the saintly drive to redeem the sins of others.

According to the Bible, Jesus taught that in order to be completely pious, one must not only obey religious laws, but also give up the material or sensual aspects of life.20 Bynum states that medieval women consigned themselves to the model provided by the Desert Fathers of antiquity whose lifestyle reflected this theme and included strict food asceticism.21 She

20. Matthew 21.19.
21. The Desert Fathers were early Christian monks whole lived in the Middle Eastern deserts beginning around the second century, A.D. Their teachings influenced later monastic traditions.
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