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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics) Paperback – January 7, 1988
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"A rich, positive and thoughtful description of the way some medieval women managed to control and develop their own subjectivities and social roles."--"Women's Review of Books
About the Author
School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.
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Bynum noted: "To religious women food was a way of controlling as well as renouncing both self and environment. . . food was flesh, and flesh was suffering and fertility. . . . food that is Christ. . . becoming the suffering and feeding humanity of the body on the cross, the food on the altar." (p. 5). This book would appeal to historians and those interested in religious studies, women's studies, food studies, spirituality - the complexity and richness of the scope of this book provides a wonderful platform for a many perspectives to have an interest in it.
It took me almost two years to get through this book. I would pick it up, read some, set it down, think about it, read something it talked about and eventually come back to it and repeat the cycle.
This book challenged me and my feelings about certain aspects of my faith probably as much or more then the bulk of my seminary classes. In reality this book could easily be broken in to two books. One book about the role and imagery of food in the Christian religion or any religion for that matter. The other book would be about women in religion. In this context women in the Christian church. Granted that this book is about Roman Catholicism in the middle ages, yet issues of food eating, abstaining, imagery of women, hierarchy, spirituality etc apply not just to all Christian churches but to almost every religious tradition across the spectrum.
As to the first aspect, the issue of food in religious faith. Food, its meaning, purpose, and symbolism are an important issue in most religious systems. Food and faith can be looked at from a theological point of view which often provides a rationalized explanation for the various regimens of food. Food and faith can also be looked at from a physic - psychological point of view. The first point of view is usually where most people start and stop buttressing or attacking based on the rationalization and explanations about food. The second point of view though is much more interesting because the physical effects of say protein restriction or removal are universal on the human body and these effects can be shaped psychologically by faith. It is for many religious an uncomfortable topic of discussion because it breaks down uniqueness.
This book does an excellent job of explaining the development, motivations, and rationalization of food in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages especially as it relates to women's spirituality and the male hierarchy's reaction to that spirituality. While not intentionally delving into the second point of view it does lead the reader to consider this aspect of food and faith by the detailed descriptions of the physical and mental process in the words of the women and their observers. While reactions to food and other forms of asceticism are universal physically and often psychologically we must be careful when looking at rational and motivation to avoid using modern clinical assignations. This book does a good job of minimizing these diagnoses's by seeking to constantly frame the context through the words and experience of the participants.
It is an endlessly fascinating topic and there are entire university courses devoted to the issue of food and faith.
The second aspect of this book has the potential to makes religious readers, especially those of a conservative nature perhaps a bit squirmy. This issue is the issue of women in religion. What is documented in this book is the evolution of a distinctive spirituality as a reaction to evolution in the church itself. This of course led to reactions and further evolutions. The fault lines seem to have been set on spiritual authenticity, the role of the Eucharist and issues of authority. There was an increasing fervency in asceticism among women in direct contrast to a loosening of ascetic norms by the church as a whole. This is where the notion of food comes in to play.
In particular the type of fasting that was practiced. Fasting was a much talked about topic at seminary but this book really made me think about fasting in a new and more spiritually mystic way. The introspection resulted not from the theological underpinnings and explanations of fasting but from the specifics of the practice. The practices of these women did not emphasize the personal aspects of fasting but rather the communal and alms aspect of fasting. This aspect is sorely missing in most theological or pastoral discussions about fasting. Food its preparation and intake was one of the few areas in society that women controlled and so it became a tool of expression and asceticism for these women. Their responses and actions are worthy of study and reflection. In certain aspects they are definitely worthy of emulation. They tapped into a trueness and practice which is sadly lacking in modern Christianity which tends towards an individualized focus.
Besides fasting there were discussion about feasting and the meaning of the Eucharist and the symbology which surrounds it. One of the interesting images was of the priest as mother who gives birth to God in the Eucharist. That was one of the images that stayed with me as I kept plodding through this book. Gender role and gender bending based on actions and role not on biology. There is an undercurrent of this throughout the text which challenges and surprises. It is worth the effort.
The book is a slow read due to the detail, the academic style of the writing and for me the need to go and read some of the referenced works. It is in the end a book well worth the time and effort.
Bynum is concerned mostly with refuting modern interpretation of the behavior of religious medieval women and their food practices. Some psychologists have suggested that the lives of female saints in that period presented the first known cases of anorexia nervosa; feminists on the other hand have argued that their self-inflicted pain and fasting reflected masochism, resulting from repressed feelings about their subservient role in society; others also have claimed that they were acting bizarrely for obscure reasons. What modern interpretations hold in common is that they were affected by illness resulting from practices that came out of control. Bynum makes important points regarding these modern currents to define behavior, trends she calls "secularization" and "medicalization": Firstly, medieval women consciously engaged in extreme food practices for spiritual ends; they were not a byproduct of some uncontrolled disorder. As Bynum points out, "extreme asceticism and literalism of women's spirituality were not, at the deepest level, masochism or dualism but, rather, efforts to give power and to give meaning. Secondly, the proper analysis of such behavior and practices must be put into the cultural context of the times, for which modern concepts are not applicable. In all, Bynum argues that to understand female spirituality of the late Medieval period, it is necessary to scrutinize the theology, the common precepts of Christianity among clergy and laity, and most importantly, the religious significance of food in this period.
Bynum explains that the transition from the Eucharist being a communal experience in the Early Church period, to becoming a sacred object, the incarnation of God and Christ himself, in the late Middle Ages, transformed the attitudes of devotees, laymen, and clergy alike toward food and the sacred. It was during this period of heightened importance of food in religious piety that women seize on the symbol of food to express their spirituality. It was a conscious effort on their part to renounce food, just as men renounced wealth and status to experience God. This new asceticism took the form of fasting and feasting, the idea of rejecting food as a way to take the spiritual food that is God, and taking the body of Christ during the consecration of the host, and feeding the poor. Bynum maintains that ascetic women's practices reflected common beliefs. Such beliefs were that the host itself was God incarnated and the resulting cult of the Eucharist, therefore women served the dual purpose of fasting and becoming food. Cultural preoccupations to fast and other food-related behavior were rooted in theological ideas of serving others. It was a pattern that repeated itself among the documented vita, despites particularities of individual cases that may have prompted the "medicalization" approach of modern analysts. Food was flesh, flesh is suffering, and suffering is fasting. It was imitatio Christi. because Christ had undergone all these conditions. In this context, miracles, fasting, and giving food to the poor were more a result of a deliberate effort by these women practitioners to experience God than the symptoms of a physical or mental disorder.
There were functional purposes for this asceticism as well, according to Bynum. In the worldly sphere, women could control their environment, their sexuality. They could reject an unwanted suitor, or simply to jeopardize family status and reputation by refusing to eat and give away food. On the other hand, it had the religious implication that a direct experience of the divine through fasting bypassed the priestly role of mediation between laity and God. At the time, a woman's refusing to take a host from a priest could seriously question the spiritual legitimacy of that priest in the act of consecration of the host. This was often associated with sexual immorality. Given the realities of the period, Bynum's explanation for the functions of asceticism strengthen the argument of women's voluntary behavior to fast and feast.
Bynum also brings up the intriguing argument that food asceticism by women was a sort of medieval counter-culture to the new, positivistic attitude of the Church toward the body. The clergy and ascetics alike were concerned about heresies that over-emphasized the duality between body and spirit as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. But female spirituality rejected this call for moderation. The core of their belief was that Christ was cloaked in a female body, born out of a woman, and that he had suffered in flesh and blood. It was not only the power of the symbolism that was at stake, which even brought the practitioners and their gender identity closer to God, but more importantly, the imitatio Christi aspect of their spirituality. To give up this asceticism meant to give up their own sense of purpose in the quest to experience God. This rejection of moderation is also key to understand why female ascetics were more likely to have Eucharistic visions and other mystical experiences than their male counterparts.
Bynum does not ignore that male spirituality also emphasized fasting and feast, as was the case of St. Francis of Assisi and Richard Rolle, the men who came closest to express food piety as did their women counterparts of the same age. Their emphasis on food, however unusual and mystical their experiences, were not at the core of their spiritual goals. It was poverty and preaching, practices embraced by the mendicant orders of the day. Most religious experiences dealing with Eucharistic miracles and fasting were more prominent among women. The number of cases proved that women were more closely associated with food than men in defining their spirituality.
In view of the evidence presented in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, the extracts from hagiographies, testimonies of the saints themselves, and the imagery, some of the most immediate questions are: Was there a corpus of writings that more or less delineated this particular mode of spirituality? In other words, was there a Benedict Rule for women, or a female counterpart of Bernard of Clairvoux's "On Loving God"? The experiences of woman mystics and saints across Western Europe that Bynum describes suggest that there was at least a tacit effort to consciously follow a set of guidelines, based on a reformed theology making food and body the central tenets of the order, to attain spiritual union with God. As we have seen, the identification of food and female, and food with Christ not only gave women a channel through which they could approach God, after renouncing what they controlled in society. Beyond this, and equally consequential, was the evolution of a new form of theology and spirituality that could have seriously challenge the conventional precepts of Christianity at the time. Was this female exceptionalism in receiving God through mystical experience a prelude to the witch hunts of later centuries?
Bynum also often mentions that food practices linked to female symbols had also their root in the pre-Christian world of Europe. The author would have given Holy Feast a whole new dimension to the subject had she taken the step further of tracing female food practices to the pagan era. Were there cultural traits from the Pagan world, still existing in Medieval Europe, that made women inclined to identify their body with food and the suffering Christ? It must have been extremely difficult to internalize the patrilineal Christian theology, even after centuries of conversion, in a world where female and male deities often had similar prominence, and where fertility goddess cults abounded. After all, the mystics described by Bynum lived in an extremely misogynistic society, which reflected in both, the secular and religious spheres. Once they found refuge in religion, they had to deal with the fact that the main deity of their devotion, and his son incarnate, were both male. It would, of course, take an ambitious anthropological work to try to understand the process of female religious adaptation to the body of Christ and identification with his body. However, I believe that a review on the pre-Christian female religious practices regarding food may be helpful to understand the rapid adaptation that connected women spirituality and food with God and Christ.
Bynum's work refutes traditional views on women's behavior in the late Medieval Era. They were consciously trying to unite with God through ascetic practices that bordered on the bizarre to a modern mind, but was full of meaning, as Bynum illustrates. Her argument throughout the book is highly persuasive, organized, and also fully documented with biographies and contemporary writings that reflect the mindset of the period. Often Bynum lets the women themselves speak through their own testimonies, lending their own voice and showing us their depth of spiritual experience, from which we can also discern the religious preoccupations and priorities of their day. Equally helpful are the visual material consisting of more than twenty pages with Medieval imagery showing food and female religious motifs. The poignancy and explicitness of these images also lends credence to the arguments expressed here, and familiarizes the readers with a subject in which symbols and representation of complex theologies could prove sometimes confusing, especially among the non-Catholic readership. Holy Fast and Holy Feast gives us an unorthodox, yet highly elaborate interpretation of female spirituality in the Middle Ages, and also makes a valuable contribution to the history of religion, theology, and asceticism in this crucial period of Western Christianity.