Eating at the Table of the Cross: Holy Anorexia, Medieval Spirituality and Female Sanctity

Article by Liz Goodwin. Edited by Tom Hartley

In the differences between medieval and modern mentality, society’s relationship towards food remains one of the starkest in cultural contrast. The rejection of food in particular – the causes of what modern medicine calls anorexia nervosa – can be, and has been, blamed on everything from hormone imbalance to pressure from the catwalk; the desire to be thin to fit within accepted Western aesthetics is the reason most often prescribed for the development of eating disorders within (generally, though not always) young women. Yet for medieval societies, the rejection of food held far more than a psychological or biological significance.

Self-starvation was a religious act, a manifestation and demonstration of the most sincere and hardened faith. It had connotations that could change the political world and herald salvation. It could define oneself in ways that no other act had the power to do. Anorexia is not, of course, new, however great the iconic imagery of early ‘90s ‘Heroin Chic’ or raging ‘Size 0’ debates loom in our twenty-first-century imaginations. The motivation for and the reaction towards it, however, remains one of the most obvious cultural markers between the ever-changing understanding of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

The understanding of ‘holy’ anorexia is most clearly established in the lives of the sainted female mystics of the thirteenth and fourteenth century.  These hagiographies, the greatest demonstration of idealism held by the Church and within popular understanding, often showed their beloved subjects as all the holier for rejecting food, or all the more special for being sustained by God’s love alone. Catherine of Siena, arguably one of the most prominent, influential and revered saints of late medieval Europe, famously lived on nothing but the Eucharist for much of her holy life. It is through her religious experiences that the ritual rejection of food can truly be explored and understood.

In the renunciation of food and eating only the body of Christ, Catherine engaged most clearly in the imitatio Christi so commonly invoked in the undertaking of a religious life. Through self-starvation, she was physically suffering, and in taking Communion, she partook in the suffering of God. Hers might have been a passive act of simply not eating, but in terms of mystical imagery and experience, she could not have been more closely and actively connected to Christ. Her rejection of any food but God’s food is the clearest manifestation of the saintly asceticism she, and so many others, aspired to.

Yet it was not simply a desire to feel the pain of Christ that she intended. In controlling their eating, women could also explicitly control their sexuality, marital status (or rather, spinster status) and assert their bodily identities. In Church ideology, gluttony was not only a sin, but food was also associated firmly with the incitement of lust – the fate of Adam and Eve, linked as firmly as it is with the prohibited eating of the famous apple, is the most obvious example. Lester links holy anorexia to a strategic rejection of the sensuality and physicality of femininity, asserting emptiness as control over one’s womanly body against the pollution of a husband’s advances. Furthermore, the rejection of food could invoke the most active of protesting forces against parents set on marriage. Catherine’s older sister died in childbirth – the correlation between the obvious dangers of a sexually active, demonstrably female life and the rejection what was seen to have such treacherous implications could not be clearer.

Nor was holy anorexia simply an internal, self-serving tool of resistance. In denying oneself food, women in particular felt that they could affect serious political events and circumstances. By eating only the body of Christ, they became an empty vessel for God’s message and love, acquiring self-discipline so pure that could, by extension, provoke change and provide salvation. The Christendom in which Catherine of Siena and other celebrated female mystics lived was fractured and disordered; in taking upon suffering so profound, and having all the crises of society inflicted upon them, they could somehow effect the salvation of not just themselves, but of all. Crippling hunger was punishment for everyone, and in undertaking self-starvation, female medieval mystics paid penance for the world.

Yet if the medieval relationship to food can reveal so much in it’s multi-faceted cultural insights, one might wonder why study of it has been so sparsely undertaken. In contrast to other markers of piety, the assertion of life-long virginity and rejection of wealth, especially in female contexts, the ritualised rejection of food seems to offer the same level of incredibly cultural insight without the historiographical interest. Caroline Walker Bynum suggests that historian’s fascination with the racier subjects of celibacy and poverty reflect our own society’s obsessions with sex and money. For modern societies that have never experienced famine, felt guilt over gluttonous acts or even seen the most ordinary of food as a particular luxury, the medieval response to food, and the rituals, symbolism and meanings associated with it, appear remarkably alien.

The glorification of Delia, Nigella, Gordon, Jamie, Michel et al and the TV event that is Masterchef attest to the centrality of food and eating, embraced as a past-time, as entertainment and as a main source of pleasure. The cultural parallels of food within modern and medieval societies only stretches as far as to say that both place it at the very centre of life, even if cultural associations and reactions to it differ dramatically. Yet despite the enormously wide-ranging differences, the rejection of food has a single common theme. An accepted underlying cause remains stated as a struggle for power – power to assert oneself. Whether through a desire for thinness, a way to emphasise internal feeling or to demonstrate altogether loftier ambition, the passive act of not eating remains the most active way of asserting ones own body. The flight for Catherine of Siena and modern anorexics is not from physicality, but rather, very much into it.

Leave a Reply