Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Focusing on the lives of several hundred Christian women in Europe between 1200 and 1500 who were noted for their religious devotion, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women is a groundbreaking exploration of their lives. These women’s religious practices centered on the Eucharist: a rite of communion by which, in partaking of bread and wine, they received into their bodies the body and blood of Christ in all of its redemptive power. According to author Caroline Walker Bynum, in their elaboration of Eucharistic practices these women created distinct forms of spirituality with deep personal meaning and broad cultural influence.

Bynum’s portrait of the lives of medieval holy women, marking a clear departure from previous studies of their lives, has inspired broad reassessments among historians about women of that era. Before Bynum, scholars who studied medieval women focused on their marginalization in society. While Bynum grants that women were subjugated, she argues forcefully that, generating their own distinct spirituality, numbers of women in the late Middle Ages exercised considerable power in relation to families, church authorities, and communities.

Bynum locates women’s power in a piety centered on food: food from their tables that sustained the poor, food from their bodies (milk or other fluids) that healed others, and food of the Eucharist that united them with God. She establishes...

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Holy Feast and Holy Fast Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bynum uses gender in Holy Feast and Holy Fast as a basic grid on which to lay out her research findings and deploys food, with all of its mystical and sacred potential, as a unifying theme on that grid. As a result, she brings the lives of late medieval women to visibility in ways that have required historians to recast their presentation of religious and cultural life in the late Middle Ages. Although the increased attention given by historians of the Middle Ages to issues of gender cannot be traced solely to Bynum’s influence, she has played and continues to play a central role in these ongoing developments. That so many new assessments of medieval asceticism and/or the lives of medieval women bear the mark of her influence confirms that Bynum, more than other historians, is responsible for breaking the mold in which previous scholarship about women and the society of late medieval Christendom was produced.

Bynum’s influence on the way in which gender is examined in the fields of history, literature, and the academic study of religion also has exceeded the boundaries of her own specialization in the late Middle Ages. That Holy Feast and Holy Fast has been received so positively in academic circles as a work of exceptional scholarship has energized an entire generation of women scholars who, conducting research on gender in a variety of fields in the wake of Bynum’s intellectual achievements, have found that their efforts are taken more seriously by their colleagues. Because Bynum blazed such a broad trail with this work, the road traveled since by women scholars who study gender has been less rocky: They have consolidated earlier gains in scholarship on gender and have forged ahead in new directions, often using Bynum as a model for their own explorations of gender.

Holy Feast and Holy Fast Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bell, Rudolph. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Using autobiographies, letters, confessors’ testimonies, and canonization records, Bell examines the lives of more than 250 Italian holy women for signs of anorexia. He argues that these women, like some modern teenagers who engage in self-starvation, fasted as part of a larger struggle for liberation from a patriarchal family and society. Bell’s quantitative data (enhanced by helpful charts) augments Bynum’s research; however, Bynum’s cultural analysis of the significance of food for medieval women is richer and more nuanced than Bell’s, which focuses primarily on the psychology of women’s fasting.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991. Written before and, in some cases, after Holy Feast and Holy Fast, these essays clarify the major themes of that larger work. Confirming Bynum’s status as a preeminent historian of the late Middle Ages are her reflections on theological debates concerning the resurrection of the body.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. These early essays established Bynum’s profile as an historian. Attentive to lay...

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