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Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    Holy Feast and Holy Fast
    Book Description:

    In the period between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, a number of religious women gained widespread veneration and even canonization as saints for their extraordinary devotion to the Christian eucharist, supernatural multiplications of food and drink, and miracles of bodily manipulation, including stigmata and inedia (living without eating). The occurrence of such phenomena sheds much light on the nature of medieval society and medieval religion. It also forms a chapter in the history of women. Previous scholars have occasionally noted the various phenomena in isolation from each other and have sometimes applied modern medical or psychological theories to them. Using materials based on saints' lives and the religious and mystical writings of medieval women and men, Caroline Walker Bynum uncovers the pattern lying behind these aspects of women's religiosity and behind the fascination men and women felt for such miracles and devotional practices. She argues that food lies at the heart of much of women's piety. Women renounced ordinary food through fasting in order to prepare for receiving extraordinary food in the eucharist. They also offered themselves as food in miracles of feeding and bodily manipulation. Providing both functionalist and phenomenological explanations, Bynum explores the ways in which food practices enabled women to exert control within the family and to define their religious vocations. She also describes what women meant by seeing their own bodies and God's body as food and what men meant when they too associated women with food and flesh. The author's interpretation of women's piety offers a new view of the nature of medieval asceticism and, drawing upon both anthropology and feminist theory, she illuminates the distinctive features of women's use of symbols. Rejecting presentist interpretations of women as exploited or masochistic, she shows the power and creativity of women's writing and women's lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90878-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-10)

    Recent studies of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century spirituality have focused on poverty and chastity as the basic motifs of religious life. Over the past fifty years, poverty has been studied not only as the doctrinal issue that split the Franciscan order apart but also as the essential ingredient in literal “imitation of Christ” and as the basic metaphor for the renunciation of wealth and power practiced by the upper and middle classes of medieval Europe.² Chastity has been emphasized as the sine qua non of religious status‚ as the reflection on earth of the life of the angels‚ and as a...

  6. Part I The Background

    • 1 Religious women in the later middle ages
      (pp. 13-30)

      The later Middle Ages, especially the period from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century, witnessed a significant proliferation of opportunities for women to participate in specialized religious roles and of the type of roles available. The number of female saints, including married women saints, increased. Women’s piety—whether monastic or lay—took on certain distinctive characteristics that powerful males, both secular and clerical, noted, sometimes with awe and sometimes with suspicion. Indeed, for the first time in Christian history, we can identify a women’s movement (the beguines) and can speak of specifically female influences on the development of...

    • 2 Fast and feast: THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
      (pp. 31-70)

      Food symbolized many things to medieval Christians. But the most important Christian food practices were fasting and eucharist. Christians male and female paid tribute to God’s power and acknowledged their own sinfulness by renouncing food. And Christians male and female received their God most intimately in that holy meal in which he became bread and wine.

      The roots of late medieval eucharistic piety and food asceticism lie in the early church. When the medieval authors Bernard of Clairvaux, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, and John Tauler spoke of eating and being eaten by God,² their language echoed words voiced centuries before....

  7. Part II The Evidence

    • 3 Food as a female concern: THE COMPLEXITY OF THE EVIDENCE
      (pp. 73-112)

      In the spirituality of late medieval Europe, eating and not eating were powerful symbols. Both men and women fasted or adulterated what food they ate in order to destroy any pleasure they might experience in it. Both men and women adored Christ in the bread and wine on the altar, received eucharistic visions, and worked to propagate eucharistic piety. Both men and women gave alms and food to the poor. Men such as Dominic (d. 1221), Richard of Chicester (d. 1253), and Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419) and women such as Clare of Assisi, Agnes of Montepulciano (d. 1317), and...

    • 4 Food in the lives of women saints
      (pp. 113-149)

      In the high Middle Ages devout Christians fasted before communion and received their God as food. Because, in this one ritual moment, food actually became God, food was a powerful symbol. Mystics and preachers from Augustine and John Chrysostom to Bernard, Tauler, and Gerson used food as a metaphor for grace and inspiration, fast as a symbol of penance and preparation. Some holy women carried the religious significance of food much further. Not only did abstinence and eucharist lie at the heart of their practice, each took a more radical form, fast sometimes lengthening into years without eating, communion soaring...

    • [PLATES I]
      (pp. None)
    • 5 Food in the writings of women mystics
      (pp. 150-186)

      Late medieval mystics borrowed from Scripture, particularly from the Song of Songs, the notion of using images of food and eating to talk about the soul’s desire for God. When they thought about eucharist or about mystical union itself, they thought of the sweetness of the bridegroom’s breasts, of milk and the honeycomb, of flowing oil, and of the cellar of wine. Moreover, drawing on Paul’s words, they conceived of spiritual instruction, even of divine illumination, as milk offered to those not yet grown to adulthood. Thus they sometimes saw Jesus or the apostles and saints as nursing mothers or...

  8. Part III The Explanation

    • 6 Food as control of self
      (pp. 189-218)

      Why is food so central a theme in the religiosity of medieval women? The answer is complicated, and it will not do to rush to a single explanation. Indeed, the remainder of this book provides several answers and groups them into two kinds. In this chapter and the next, I describe the various functions food served for women—the manifold ways in which eating, feeding, and not eating enabled them to control their bodies and their world. In the last three chapters, I treat the symbolic meanings food held for women and the significance, for both sexes, of the notion...

    • 7 Food as control of circumstance
      (pp. 219-244)

      To stress women’s food practices and concerns as control of body is to focus too narrowly on fasting—on not eating. In fact, as we have seen, women’s fasting was part of a broader pattern of behavior in which feeding others and eating God were also central. Women’s fasting was explicitly seen, by women themselves and by their confessors and advisers, as preparation both for receiving the eucharist and for almsgiving. Women gave to the poor and sick the food they denied themselves; women cleansed their bodies of prosaic food in order to ready them for the coming of the...

    • 8 The meaning of food: food as physicality
      (pp. 245-259)

      As the writings of Catherine of Siena make clear, to eat Christ is to become Christ. The Christ one becomes, in the reception of communion and in theimitatioof asceticism, is the bleeding and suffering Christ of the cross. The flesh of Jesus—both flesh as body and flesh as food—is at the very center of female piety. And this flesh is simultaneously pleasure and pain.

      We cannot understand medieval religiosity until we realize how different such probing and embracing of body as pain-pleasure is from most modern notions of body, in which pleasure and pain are seen...

    • 9 Woman as body and as food
      (pp. 260-276)

      Late medieval theology and piety emphasized Christ as suffering and Christ’s suffering body as food. Recent scholarly work on spirituality has not ignored this emphasis; indeed, it would be impossible to do so. Yet scholars have not always noticed that such concerns were more prominent in women’s religiosity than in men’s. Where they have noticed the fact, only internalized misogyny has come to mind as an explanation. But serious misunderstandings of medieval religion are involved in such a description of women’s piety. I have argued above at length that the nature of medieval families and marriage patterns, the nature of...

    • 10 Women’s symbols
      (pp. 277-296)

      In western Europe in the Middle Ages, as in many cultures today, women cooked and men ate. One of the strongest social links between male and female lay in the fact that wife or servant cooked what husband and lord provided and in the even more consequential fact that mother’s womb and mother’s milk guaranteed survival for the next generation. As Elias Canetti says: “A mother is one who gives her own body to be eaten.” This is not, of course, to say that women never ate or that only male children were nourished from the female body. It is,...

    (pp. 297-302)

    Theresa Neumann of Konnersreuth, a Bavarian peasant woman who died in 1962, supposedly displayed both stigmata and miraculous abstinence. Like Lidwina of Schiedam, she was observed by a commission which solemnly authenticated her inedia as total and extended.³ Simone Weil, a philosopher and mystic who died in 1943, undertook fatal selfstarvation in an effort to identify with the poor and oppressed of the world. Like Catherine of Genoa, Weil spoke of gluttony as a metaphor for sin and used the notion of self becoming food as an image for personal suffering that fuses with the redemptive suffering of Christ. We...

  10. [PLATES II]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 303-306)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 307-420)
    (pp. 421-434)
    (pp. 435-444)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 445-447)