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


Because the accounts of the lives of the starving saints are adapted to emphasize miraculous events and spiritual meaning, it seems that wider religious objectives in the writings ultimately overshadow an attempt to retell the actual specific lives of the saints. To a certain extent, the holy women are literary devices. Their hagiographies may display certain trends in religious thought during the high Middle Ages, but do not always provide information useful in determining whether or not specific female starving saints suffered from the eating disorder we now call anorexia nervosa.

However, the tenuous nature of the sources should not lead to the conclusion that it is beyond the scope of modern humans to discern if anorexia nervosa played a role in religious fasting in the Middle Ages. Although both sides of this debate appear defensible, it is possible to come to some final deduction. In fact, the problems with the sources and their interpretations simply point to a need to disaggregate the cases available. I have presented both sides of the argument regarding anorexia and taken somewhat of an equivocal stance largely because to take a side would be to make a generalization for a group of women which may not have been homogeneous. The sources seems to suggest a uniformity among the starving saints, but because of their unreliable nature as religious literature which had an interest in subjecting the lives of the saints to a specific "saintly" pattern, the validity of this uniformity must be questioned.

It seems that behind some of the accounts of feverish asceticism, there is a refusal to eat which exhibits less of a religious foundation than other cases of fasting do. In the cases of women who were physically unable to eat, a religious explanation may have been a rationalization for their condition. A deliberate decision to fast reads more as a religious practice than a disease, but some women found that their practice of self starvation was not by their own volition. Such a case may be better explained by the existence of some type of eating disorder, rather than pure religious devotion which would necessitate some calculated decision-making on the part of the woman. Perhaps what often started as a passionate form of religious devotion escalated into a behavior that extended beyond the reaches of an individual's control, owing to a mixture of religious and psychological causes. Whatever the sources were of a woman's refusal to eat, however, several admitted that their aversion to food was an illness. It seems that self-starvation became less than voluntary for some, because the desire to fast was occasionally referred to as a form of "temptation."44 Beatrice

44. ibid., 46.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16