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


Hagiographers often advanced stereotypes of the female saints in their biographies because they were expected to include "at least passing reference to food abstention and eucharistic piety"30 for the reason that this is what constituted an impressive holy life in the eyes of medieval society. Consequently, it is hard to determine the ways in which female saints differed from each other because their lives were often exaggerated and manipulated to fit into the conventional notion of "the saint." This model included, among other things, food asceticism, self-mutilation, extraordinary healing powers, elaborate visions, and the miraculous appearance of stigmata wounds (many holy women bled mysteriously from body parts which corresponded to those on Jesus's body which were injured during his crucifixion). It is also difficult to speculate on the degree to which pious women were actually imitating each other as opposed to merely being reported in their hagiographies as similar. And if they were similar in certain ways, to what extent were they recreating lifestyles they read about in embellished hagiographies?

The saints' biographies were written on a religious subject for a religious audience. Even though most were written for the laity, popular culture at the time was infused with Christian tradition. The significance of their subject matter and audience indicates that these sources may be somewhat unreliable. For example, the importance of food asceticism and devotion to the eucharist had a different meaning for the holy women than it did for their followers. While the former saw these activities as "merely steps towards God," their awed observers saw them as examples of the "supernatural" qualities of the saints.31 Bynum suggests that this feature of their audience led hagiographers to overstate the more paranormal aspects of these stories.

The underlying goals of hagiographies concerning religious figures seem to be religious themselves. Lidwina of Schiedam's hagiographer describes her forty-day fast as "'something that is impossible or against nature [...] but not impossible to or against God.'"32 This shows that the information is written for religious purposes. Because the female saints were popular with the general public at the time, stories which emphasize their miraculous feats and attributes in association with Christian symbols and themes serve as a sort of propaganda for the church. It is hard to draw secular conclusions about the afflictions of the saints from this kind of source. Such writings allow one to make inferences regarding the nature of the church or the prevailing ideas within religious thinking at the time, but it is difficult to distill from it solid factual information regarding the female saints.

30. ibid., 83.
31. ibid., 84.
32. ibid., 138.
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