Holy Anorexia

Holy Anorexia

By Mary Ann Weaver

In the Middle Ages, some female mystics used anorexia as a means of religious self-assertation. To understand why women gave up food to demonstrate their religiosity, it is necessary to look at the meaning of food in the lives of medieval people. "Medieval people saw food and body as sources of life, repositories of sensation . . . . Food, which must be destroyed in order to give life, and body, which must be torn in order to give birth, became synonymous; in identifying themselves with both, women managed to give meaning to a physical, human existence in which suffering was unavoidable" (Bynum, 300). Women were also associated with food because the first nourishment newborn babies received was breast milk. "[Food] was . . . a particularly obvious and accessible symbol to women, who were more inimately involved than men in the preparation and distribution of food. Women's bodies, in the acts of lactation and of giving birth, were analogous both to ordinary food and to the body of Christ, as it died on the cross and gave birth to salvation" (Bynum, 30).

Women have always been associated with the preparation and serving of food, never more so than in the Middle Ages. "Indeed, cooking was so much a woman's role that it appeared, to men, not merely arcane but threatening. When medieval men projected their hostility toward women into suspicion of what went on in the women's quarters, they frequently spoke of women's control of food" (Bynum, 191). While preparing food women had control over it, in regards to themselves and others. Because they did not have total control over anything else, such as property, money, or family, women mystics and saints found little gratification in giving these things up as a demonstration of their love for God. Food, however, was their territory, and they could physically suffer, the traditional method of showing dedication to God, by refusing it.

"Like body, food must be broken and spilled forth in order to give life. Macerated by teeth before it can be assimilated to sustain life, food mirrors and recapitulates both suffering and fertility. Thus food , by what it is, seems to symbolize sacrifice and service" (Bynum, 30). It was not uncommon for female saints to inflict horrible pain upon themselves and their vitae are filled with referrences to sundry torture devices. To suffer was to imitate Christ (imitatio Christi); self-mutilation was a plausible and respected way of doing so. "Deliberate and systematic physical punishment was part of the daily routine for many religious women. The sixteenth-century account of the life of Alda of Siena, for example, says that the saint slept on a bed of paving stones, whipped herself with chains, wore a crown of thorns, and carved for herself, as an object of devotion, a wooden nail like the one that pierced Christ's feet . . . . Ascetic practices commonly reported . . . include wearing hair shirts, binding their flesh tightly with twisted ropes, rubbing lice into self-inflicted wounds, denying oneself sleep, adulterating food with ashes or salt, performing thousands of genuflections, thrusting nettles into one's breasts and praying barefoot in the winter" (Bynum, 210).

Rudolph Bell postulates that it was hatred of her body because it was too incorrigibly corrupt to be offered to God that made the "holy anorexic" prove her devotion to God with starvation. "[Her entire body was] hopelessly corrupt and impede[d] not only her own salvation but that of the people she love[d]. The drive to destruction of her body, for the flesh cannot be tamed and therefore must be obliterated," (Bell, 115) often ended in death, as you can imagine, and only very rarely was successfully "cured." Bell also put forth the idea that the "holy anorexic" starved herself either as a means of rebelling against the patriarchal society that refused to admit/give recognition to her religiosity, or in order to free herself from demands made upon her that society. "A girl had few avenues; indeed, . . . with the possible exception of certain noble women, the only path was from parental domination to submission before a husband. Western culture reprove[d] any deviation from this . . . in ways distinctly unfavorable and psychologically guilt-ridden for women. Spinster not bachelor, whore not philanderer, prostitute not john (everyman): such gender-split words convey images of a deep historical reality which tolerates or only smirkingly disapproves the same self-expression in men that it condemns in women" (Bell, 55).

When reading the vitaeof medieval female saints and mystics, it is common to find that the way they demonstrated their religiosity was through suffering. Since they had nothing else to give up, they gave up the one thing they had absolute control over: food. The reason that this sacrifice was so powerful in the Middle Ages was because women were not only associated with food, their bodies were considered food (because they provided the first nourishment, ie, breast milk). "The redemption of all humanity lay in the fact that Christ was flesh and food. Moreover, both Christ and women were food insofar as they were bodies. God, like woman, fed his children from his own body [the Euchrist symbolizing Christ's broken body] . . . . Thus women found it very easy to identify with a deity whose flesh, like theirs, was food" (Bynum, 275).


Bell, Rudolph. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. LA: The University of California Press, 1987.

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