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


In order to come to a decision regarding whether or not medieval fasting women may be considered anorexic or not, it is important to ask if these differences in culture or society are significant. If the people and contexts of each era are so unique as to preclude any comparison regarding their practices or trends, then one may conclude that the similar features of fasting in both cultures are the consequences of disparate issues and also that the fact that these issues manifested themselves in food asceticism is merely a coincidence. It would follow from this argument that a modern medical concept such as anorexia nervosa cannot be applied to circumstances so far in the past. On the other hand, much evidence exists which points to the similarities between modern anorexia and medieval religious fasting. These similarities can be found in elements of the outward behavior both of medieval saints and modern anorectics. Some information regarding the starving holy women can even be construed either as evidence for or against their categorization as anorexic. However, before choosing a side on this spectrum, it is vital to acknowledge the tenuous nature of the sources on fasting holy women of the Middle Ages.

This is perhaps the most significant problem in defining medieval fasting saints as anorexic or not. Hagiographers seem to squeeze their accounts of holy women into established patterns of the saintly life and include stereotypical events involving the supernatural in order to achieve this. The patterns imposed upon the lives of these women appear to have been spawned by the writers of previous hagiographies and by the precedent for food asceticism set by the Fathers. It seems inappropriate to draw factual conclusions having to do with a medical concept from such religiously and literarily infused material. There are also more technical aspects of the sources which contribute to their questionable nature as foundations on which to base judgments. For example, many accounts were written several decades after a woman lived, which diminishes their reliability because it increases the possibility that a writer would be inclined to fill in gaps with invented or stereotypical information. After all, many of these accounts are hagiographies, which means that the authors would have been inclined to portray their subjects in the most saintly and impressive light possible.

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