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


Perhaps in some cases, the application of some medieval variety of anorexia nervosa to the "eating disorders" of women of the period is appropriate. On the other hand, there were probably many instances in which fasting was entirely a deliberate religious activity, especially since many were inspired towards asceticism themselves by the hagiographical accounts which emphasized the spiritual aspects of fasting. Undoubtedly, there were also many degrees in between the categories of "anorexic" and "not anorexic" where the majority of holy women of the Middle Ages fell. Some women were probably more religiously influenced in their desire to fast than others, indicating that their food asceticism was voluntary and merely an expression of their piety. There probably were medieval woman who embarked upon fasting practices with religious objectives in mind, but gradually lost control of their food asceticism, which then makes them a candidate for categorization as having an eating disorder. Alpaïs of Cudot did not eat because of illness and paralysis which made it difficult for her to swallow. She admitted that her inability to eat was part of her illness, but regarded it as a "spiritual gift" nonetheless.52 These are all examples which would fall into the gray area between anorexia and religious devotion unassociated with an eating disorder. If accurate and reliable depictions of the starving saints were available, the evidence would probably show that most of them were part of this 'in-between' category.

Disaggregating the pool of fasting saints in such a way would not strip any historical meaning from their existence. It merely reflects the nature of society as perpetually producing innumerable circumstances which influence people in different ways and to varying extents. Furthermore, the sources on medieval holy women impose a uniformity upon their lives which seems to be the result of a process of lumping them into a single model. By denying the possibility that a form of anorexia nervosa played a role in the lives and practices of the female saints, Bynum also places the women within a single mold. While one interpretation concentrates almost exclusively on the behavior of the fasters, Bynum takes a more holistic view, concentrating mostly on the religious significance of food and eating, but addressing issues of behavior as well. She leaves no room for variation, however, assuming that the religious and cultural meanings of food alone serve to explain the practices of fasting women.

52. ibid., 134.
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