Holy Feast and Holy Fast Essay - Critical Essays

Caroline Walker Bynum


According to Bynum, food and food metaphors were featured prominently in thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. Food divided rich from poor and informed a key cultural ethic: Overeating was a mark of privilege, and sharing food with the hungry was a primary symbol of benevolence. Food also had religious significance. Christians believed that those who luxuriated in food paid the penalty for the sin of gluttonly; those who renounced food through regular fasting obtained salvation. Moreover, in late medieval piety, Christians linked salvation with the individual reception of God in the Eucharist, which they described by appeal to graphic metaphors of nourishment. Tasting the broken body of Christ in the Eucharist, Christians became one with the suffering flesh crucified on the cross and obtained their salvation.

Notable among those for whom the Eucharist was central to faith were women who, in saintly asceticism, deliberately abstained from all food but God’s food: the Eucharist. Hagiographic records which Bynum examines indicate that, although women were only 18 percent of those canonized as saints between 1000 and 1700, they comprised 23 percent of those who died from asceticism and 53 percent of those for whom illness was central to their sanctity. Moreover, the majority of Eucharistic visions and miracles were attributed to women: Of the twenty types identified by Bynum, only two were performed exclusively by men and those were linked to consecration of the Eucharist, which was a male prerogative in any case. Eight other types of miracles featured women primarily, and four were associated exclusively with women’s spirituality.

Because hagiography is not entirely reliable in the reconstruction of history, Bynum supplements her argument with evidence drawn from the...

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