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


suggests that the female saints measured the piety and devotion embedded in their actions against the example provided by the Fathers, often "competing with the Desert Fathers in marathon fasts."22 One hagiographer proudly claimed that his subject "'went beyond the Fathers'" in her strict food asceticism.23 Thus their precedent was found in Christian tradition which was a prevalent force in medieval society. However, as more and more female holy women adopted fasting as a religious practice, they began to create their own pattern. The escalation in female self-starvation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries shows that women were not only looking to very early Christians, but also to their contemporaries as model ascetics. There was no steady stream of writings on fasting females either before or after this period, which shows that the practice spread and grew quickly during this time. Bynum believes that a certain "shaping of behavior by cultural expectation" took place either by the women who starved themselves or by the biographers who most likely altered their stories.24 They were emulating an archetype based in a sort of religious sensationalism which seemed to gather more followers and interested observers as it grew. This exposes fasting behavior of the period as a social phenomenon, and not purely as an individual psychological occurrence. It seems that impressionable girls were influenced both by this common pattern and traditional Christian ideology.

Many saints subjected themselves to forms of pain in order to satisfy their desire to unify themselves with Christ. Because Jesus underwent tremendous distress, holy women sought to recreate such suffering in their own lives in order to become closer to Christ. Medieval fasting may not have been a mode of self control (as it is for modern anorectics) so much as it was a "never-sated physical hunger that mirrors...in bodily agony both Christ's suffering on the cross and the soul's unquenchable thirst for mystical union."25 The central way in which holy women pursued this desire was through pain and suffering. This serves as part of the underlying meaning behind many ascetic practices such as fasting and self-mutilation. Food asceticism was merely one manifestation of a religious desire to identify closely with Christ by way of

22. Bynum, 47.
23. ibid., 138.
24. ibid., 199.
25. ibid., 33.
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