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

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

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

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


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.


Part of this book was written in a pleasant office on the top floor of the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am grateful to my colleagues at the Bunting, many of whom read portions of the manuscript or argued with me about my ideas. I would especially like to thank Linda Gordon, Ellen Bassuk, Nancy Miller, Eve Sedgwick, Marilyn Massey, Martha Ackelsberg, Bettina Friedl, Ann Bookman, and Debbie McDowell, who cared deeply about my work but never let me forget that the medieval women I studied sounded decidedly peculiar to modern ears. I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for a Fellowship for Advanced Study and Research and the University of Washington for sabbatical leave in 1983–1984.

Not all of this book was written in the scholarly leisure of the Bunting Institute nor amid the riches of Harvard University’s Widener Library. Much of it was composed in a cubbyhole on the top floor of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. Others who have struggled with the inevitably limited library resources of a relatively new institution will understand how much I owe to librarians for making my research possible. Kristi Greenfield of Suzzallo Acquisitions and Ruth Kirk and Anna McCausland of Interlibrary Borrowing Services found books for me, over and over again, with an enthusiasm that went beyond pride in a job well done and became pride in scholarship itself. Without them, this book would not exist.

The colleagues, former teachers, and friends who have influenced my ideas on the history of spirituality are a far-flung network. I would especially like to thank Giles Constable, John Boswell, Natalie Z. Davis, Lester Little, Elizabeth A. R. Brown, Richard Kieckhefer, Paul Meyvaert, Ann Freeman, Charles T. Wood, and Mark R. Silk for their inspiration and their help. Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Rachel Jacoff have . . .

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