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


It is also common for hagiographers to emphasize their subjects' superhuman physical traits. For example, many fasting saints ceased to menstruate as a result of their refusal to eat, and this amenorrhea was given a holy significance. The absence of menstruation was seen by the biographers as pure and clean, or as one hagiographer put it, "'a special grace'."39 It was frequently associated with the ability to produce healing fluids.40 The normal female body and its functions were viewed as dirty or "polluting"41 by some of the women, and many hagiographers happily stressed the idea that the holy women often did not menstruate and always smelled sweetly. Such "cleanliness" was seen by the hagiographers as saintly and miraculous for a woman, which suggests that Western adherents of Christianity were of a similar view. Extraordinary or mysterious bleeding, which is said to have been experienced by many female saints, was also portrayed as a mystical occurrence. Many received stigmata wounds purportedly by way of some otherworldly intervention, although several women inflicted them upon themselves. Accounts such as that of Jane Mary of Maille who "stuck a thorn into her head in remembrance of Christ's crown of thorns"42 serve to display the saints' religious devotion and asceticism. However, in stories where the woman is not depicted as the director of a given mystical experience, she is seen as possessing deeper supernatural attributes. For example, there are many reports of saints who "displayed full stigmata which bled in a rhythmic pattern."43 It is implied in these stories that some supernatural force is at the root of such a mysterious happening. Similar stories regarding sweet odors or supernatural secretions appear in the accounts of different women; this should raise suspicions concerning the amount of exaggeration by the authors. Claims of paranormal occurrences hinder the course of objective deduction regarding a modern secular medical concept because it is highly probable that such claims were invented or at least exaggerated by hagiographers impressing a certain stereotype of the saintly life upon the real lives of their subjects. Furthermore, the intent of many hagiographers seems to have been to portray the holy women as possessing supernatural attributes. This might have led them to stretch the truth in many instances.

39. ibid., 138.
40. ibid., 122.
41. ibid., 213.
42. ibid., 210.
43. ibid., 201.
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