Good day. I feel it’s time for another blog post, especially because I just, as of a few minutes ago, finished reading a book that really inspired me, and would like to share. That book is Caroline Walker Bynum’s 1987 Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. This is a book that I had encountered a number of times throughout my undergrad career, mainly during the research stage of essay-writing in medieval history courses. It had always intrigued me. However, it is a book that I had only ever read selectively from. Now that I am home from my Italy research trip and back into the full swing of trying to get through my secondary source reading list, I finally had the opportunity to sit down and read Bynum’s book in its entirety – giving it the attention it deserves. I was not disappointed.
To begin, this is a book that, on a basic level, is about the centrality of food in female piety during the late Middle Ages (roughly 1200-1500). It begins with a quick explanation of historical context, namely, some of women’s opportunities for spiritual living in the time period in question. In the early Middle Ages, Bynum explains, women mainly found a spiritual vocation in the life of a nun. The necessary vows would need to be taken, and the women (who, at this time, were almost exclusively of aristocratic provenance) would then adopt a life of prayer, fasting, and penance in a convent. By the late Middle Ages, the opportunities for women, as well as the types of women that could lead a spiritual life, began to increase. Indeed, this was a time that, parallel to the eleventh- and twelfth-century urban revival and subsequent rise of Europe’s merchant class, the opportunities for “lay spirituality” began to increase. Thanks in part to a newly-dignified theological formulation of marriage and sex, ordinary people, including lower-class women, could now enjoy a relative spiritual dignity (albeit still viewed as inferior) that was denied to them in earlier centuries. Now women of all socioeconomic levels could lead a holy life, if they so pleased. Many women (and as Bynum points out, this number could rise as high as 15% of the total adult female population in a city) now chose to take up a holy life “in the world” as either a beguine (in the north of Europe) or a tertiary (in the south). The life of a beguine or tertiary differed from that of a nun because women were allowed to remain living in their homes with their families. They also did not take any monastic vows. They were, however, set apart from their neighbors by a life devoted to frequent prayer, manual labour, and charitable work. The new popularity of the beguine or tertiary lifestyle can be, according to Bynum, explained in part by the movement of itinerant preaching that characterized Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At this time, people like Arnold of Brescia (d. 1155) and Henry of Lausanne (d. 1148) travelled from town to town, preaching a life of penitence and apostolic poverty that inspired many men and women to live a holy life.
But the new religious enthusiasm of women in the late Middle Ages was not always accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities. Some women were drawn to what was then considered “heresy”, either in the form of the dualist Cathar religion, anti-sacerdotal reforming groups like the Waldensians, or as aberrant mystics. Women whose response to the call for penitence and apostolic poverty led them to one of these lifestyles were very much in danger of harassment from the Inquisition, if not arrest, and in rare cases, execution. Yet the line between “heresy” and “orthodoxy” was not always so clear. Bynum reminds us that the writings of women deemed heretical and orthodox respectively, sometimes appear to a modern reader identical, and could indeed be interpreted, even by medieval people themselves, in both ways.
In fact, this similarity in the writings of both heretics and orthodox women is representative of what Bynum argues was a sort of pan-female late medieval spirituality. Her book’s argument is that, despite apparent regional and socioeconomic differences, the women of the late Middle Ages adhered to a common spiritual culture – one in which food was central. She is able to make her case quite convincingly with a number of examples taken from both hagiography and the writings of female mystics themselves. Food was important to holy women in many ways. First, food was important insofar as it was renounced. Fasting was hugely popular among holy women in the late Middle Ages. It could mean simply abstaining from all foods except bread, water, and a few vegetables, or it could mean denying all food and drink save for the eucharist. Indeed, women like Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) often reported being physically unable to swallow and digest any food except for the consecrated host. Eucharistic devotion is the second way that food was central to women’s piety. It was women, not men, whose devotions to the literal body and blood of Christ, transubstantiated in the communion wafer and chalice wine at the moment of consecration, were the most important to their spiritual life. It was a woman, Julianna of Cornillon (d. 1258), that pushed for the introduction of the feast of Corpus Christi; women, who wrote most exuberantly of the body of Christ tasting like meat or sweet honey as it entered their mouth, bringing them into mystical union with the Crucified Christ, who is truly God-man. Women spoke lovingly of their eating, digesting, and thus assimilating with Christ. For, to eat, in the spirituality of the late Middle Ages, meant much more than metaphor, it meant to literally become that which was eaten. Thus, women, in their (sometimes daily) taking of the eucharist truly became more and more like Christ, indeed they could accomplish imitatio Christi, the imitation, or more accurately, true becoming of Christ, a hallmark of late medieval devotion. These women ate, and thus became, Christ to such an extent that they even began to show signs of his own bleeding wounds in stigmata. So food was renounced, but it was also used as a means of becoming God.
But food was more. It was also service, it was fertility itself. For, just as food needs to be broken and spilled forth in order to be digested and to sustain life, so did women’s bodies by their very suffering, feed others as well as bring them to salvation. In fact, as much as women denied themselves food, as much as stories circulated of their bodies ceasing to excrete, sweat, or give off dandruff, the more women produced divine food, often in the form of mysterious bodily fluids, that healed people of their illnesses. They also gave the food they refused to eat to the poor, turning their abstinence into service. Moreover, women’s breast milk too, was seen in countless visions as spiritually nourishing, and was indeed (due partly to the natural philosophy at the time that held breast milk to be a product of blood) associated with Christ’s nourishing blood. But it is also abundantly clear from the writings of these women that it was believed that their becoming of Christ was in fact saving souls from the torments of purgatory. Like Christ, these women offered their suffering in service of the salvation of the world. They became the God-man themselves, in all his suffering, and thus fertility. Late medieval women used food as their means to fulfilling the two greatest impulses of late medieval spirituality: renunciation and service.
This leads me to one of Bynum’s most fascinating and important arguments. Traditionally, the self-inflicted suffering of late medieval piety was viewed by historians as essentially dualistic. It was believed that medieval people punished their bodies because they drew a sharp distinction between flesh, which was inherently evil, and spirit, which was divine. Not the case, says Bynum. In fact, Europeans from the years 1200-1500, viewed human flesh in the most positive terms in all of Christian history. Rather than deny the flesh, medieval people, and women in particular, sought to probe all of the flesh’s possibilities, divinely transfiguring it, yet in such a way that glorified its very fleshliness as the key to salvation. For, as Bynum says, late medieval people saw the Incarnation as the Gospel’s central fact. Humankind is saved precisely because God became human. Because he took on human suffering. Such an emphasis on Christ’s humanity could hardly be reconciled with notions of flesh as evil. On the contrary, flesh was to be affirmed and exulted as an access point to the divine.
But why, according to Bynum, does devotion to Christ’s humanity (and thus, body, which is food) concern, for the most part, women in the late Middle Ages? Why not equally men? In this time period, she explains, the flesh of Christ was held to be synonymous with “woman”. After all, Christ had no earthly father, meaning that his flesh must have come exclusively from Mary, his mother. Indeed, there was a conceptual dichotomy between matter and spirit that mirrored that of woman and man, respectively. Woman was held to correspond to everything to do with flesh, with irrationality. Man was connected with spirit and reason. To be sure, it was not uncommon for male spiritual writers at this time to assert an inherent moral weakness (especially pertaining to sexuality) on the part of women simply due to this apparent “heightened fleshliness”. And as Bynum reminds us, it is true that many holy women, for example Catherine of Siena, of this time period reflect a similar belief, in what can be seen as internalized misogyny. The only difference however, is that women were much more likely to embrace the reality of their particular fleshliness. In fact, as stated above, Christ’s flesh itself was woman’s flesh. Women then, in a stunning reversal of the implications of dualist misogyny, are seen as especially fortunate to reflect the saving humanity of Christ himself. Thus, we get stories of spiritual men at this time who refer to themselves as females, and who describe their spiritual progression as a climb towards increasing femininity. Bonaventure, for example, referred to Francis of Assisi as a woman. Moreover, priests sometimes saw themselves as pregnant women, because like the pregnant Mary who had brought about the Incarnation, God became flesh in the eucharist at the priest’s command. In order to become Christ, men had to enter into ever-deeper fleshliness, and since fleshliness was by definition feminine, this required a symbolic reversal of gender. And the theme of reversal, more generally, lay at the heart of men’s piety in the late Middle Ages (think of Francis of Assisi, stripping naked in the piazza of Assisi in that dramatic display of total renunciation of wealth and status). This comes as no surprise, Bynum argues: “Such reversal seemed necessary in a religion at whose heart lay contradiction and Incarnation: God-become-man.” (284).
Yet women had no such need of the symbol of reversal, or inversion. Instead, they drew upon their ordinary female experiences in describing their spiritual journeys. Thus, for Catherine of Siena, all women were children, drinking the milk of suffering “from the breast of Christ’s humanity,” becoming one with that same mother (the human Christ), whose feeding was suffering, suffering that saved the world (292). Women’s lives, through the experiences of suffering and feeding (through lactation and as primary household cook), recapitulated the basic truth of Christianity, that Christ saved humanity by becoming one with it, by becoming one with the suffering of the flesh, in order to feed and sustain fallen mankind with his saving blood-milk.
All together, I think Bynum’s book is a beautifully evocative and instructive piece of historical scholarship. She reminds us of the complexities that lay behind something as simple as food to the medieval mind. In a world in which suffering and starvation were common, there is something very eerily sad about the tendency to associate suffering with regeneration. But at the same time, as Bynum’s epilogue suggests, perhaps medieval people were on to something in the sense that they affirmed and exulted that which weighed the most heavily on their lives, that which was out of their control.
As someone working on the history of late medieval religion myself, Bynum’s work reorients my thinking in a couple ways. First, it causes me to take seriously differences between male and female piety that I would not have necessarily otherwise. But it also begs the question of how, given all of what Bynum has described about the complexities of medieval food symbols and its associated theology, does this relate to the cult of saints in this same time period? I think the two topics are connected in a significant way. Indeed, Bynum herself reminds us that the cult of saints is really the first and most influential development in Christian theology and practice to advocate the idea of the possibility of divine matter, in clear contrast to ideas of dualism. After all, the saints’ bodies themselves were from a very early date (as early as the third century) held to be made of divine stuff, and this belief by no means slowed down into the late Middle Ages and early modern period.
One thing that I am left wondering, however, is the role of the debate, or tension, if you will, between ideas of interiority and exteriority in Christian belief and practice. This is one thing that I believe Bynum does not do enough time exploring. For, surely the kind of matter-affirming Christianity that became popular in the late Middle Ages was by no means universally-accepted; Bynum herself mentions, if only briefly, the increasing push for moderation in fasting and a reorientation toward “spiritual” fasting. Yet she does not elaborate on this very much. This is a question, I believe, that will be important for me to answer going forward in my research, and I think a revisit to Bynum’s work Christian Materiality will help me here.
But, all in all, Bynum’s book Holy Feast and Holy Fast is an important re-interpretation of the asceticism of the late Middle Ages that I do not think can be ignored. Her emphasis on the complexities of food and body symbols remind us of the need to be open to heterogeneity in our analyses. That said, I do believe that much of what Bynum describes needs to be investigated on a more local level (as well as within a shorter chronology) in order to fully fish out what may be even further complexity in her model. The importance of outlier cases is something that is overlooked in her work.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.