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Resisting bodily urges: extreme asceticism in medieval female saints’ lives

The modern-day 'anorexia memoir' has its origin in the genre of medieval saints' lives

Warning: this article contains references to eating disorders and self-harm.

For many world religions, the body and the soul have seldom gotten along well. Their uneasy relationship is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by – and, in the west, most heavily associated with – some of the foundational texts of the Christian Church. In his epistle to the Romans, for example, St. Paul the Apostle writes that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit […] for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). In the centuries since those words were written, putting to death the deeds of the body has played a central role in the teachings of virtually all churches and denominations.

Suppression of carnal urges – for food, sex, sleep, and so on – has formed an important aspect of religious practices for many faiths, but it is a theme to which the devotional literature of Christianity has returned over and over again, often in conjunction with the valorisation of suffering. This is peculiar to a religion whose central image is of a broken, bleeding body hanging from what was originally designed as an instrument for torture.

In mid-medieval Europe, there was a remarkable increase in hagiographic literature emphasising the virtues of fasting above and beyond the prescriptions of the church, in spite – or perhaps because – of chronic food shortages that characterised the lives of so many. The striking thing about this intensification of ascetic practices over the 12th and 13th Centuries was how many of its adherents were women, and how many did so in defiance of male authorities.

The monk who wrote the life of the 13th-century Blessed Alpaïs of Cudot described a vision in which the Virgin Mary tells her that, because she “bore long starvation in humility and patience”, henceforth “corporeal food and drink will not be necessary for the sustaining of your body, nor will you hunger for bread or any other food.” It is a typical example of the period, but it reads suspiciously like a wish fulfilment fantasy; the vitae of holy women often present fasting, especially the particular practice of fasting on nothing but the Eucharist, as a kind of euphoric experience. “Thus,” it continues, “rejoicing as if possessed, [Alpaïs] frequently vomited from too much food, as if her drunkenness and inebriation were increased… and this was… how God underlined her merits and virtues.” St. Catherine of Siena, according to the Vita by her spiritual director Raymond of Capua, fasted until she was unable to keep down any food or drink, and regarded her asceticism as an infirmity. Eustochia of Messina, whose biography was written by her female companions, was one of many anchoresses who confined themselves to cells to subsist on bread and water.

She went further, however, by whipping and burning her skin. In addition to extreme self-deprivation, many of these women outdid male ascetics in their commitment to stomach-churning displays of active self-harm. Jacques de Vitry, who wrote a Vita of Marie of Oignies, commends his subject’s imitation of the Desert Fathers in her commitment to fasting and mortification of the flesh, even eating hardened stale bread to tear the skin of her mouth. The same St. Catherine of Siena who ate nothing but communion wafers in the last years of her short life would also, while tending the sick, drink the pus of her patients’ sores (a habit she shared with St. Columba of Rieti). Seeking to keep herself ‘spiritually pure’ after her father rejected her desire to become a nun and married her off, the teenaged St. Frances of Rome would pour molten fat and wax onto her vulva before fulfilling her conjugal duties, ensuring she never derived anything but pain from the act. She was terrified, it is recorded, by demons who took the forms of naked men and women in her dreams, and stuffed food into her mouth.

Profoundly disturbing though it is, the satisfaction these women derived from pain, restriction and purgation, has more parallels in our society than we might initially recognise. The anorexia memoir (by both sufferers of the disease and their carers) remains a distinctly lucrative literary genre, fuelling the same morbid fascination that drew flocks of pilgrims to observe medieval fasting women.

In her novel Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel writes, “as I am a woman, I am the means by which sin enters this world. I am the devil’s gateway, the cursed ingress.” Eating, as well as sex, still holds greater cultural stigma for women in spite of the advance of feminism; suffering and deprivation are the natural expectations of a patriarchal culture for those bodies it regards with suspicion. It is true, of course, that many male saints are also written as devoted ascetics, and modern eating disorders also affect men, but it has seldom inspired quite as much horror or veneration.

We should be wary of straightforward interpretations of medieval saints’ lives as manifesting patriarchy in the gruesome panegyrising of women who, in effect, starved themselves to death. Most of these texts were written by men, though Eustochia’s collaborative biography stands out as a notable exception. The consecration of a fertile uterus-owning body to God also deprived the patriarchal family unit of one of its most valuable economic assets, as Frances of Rome’s father knew. Some of these women abused their own bodies even after leading churchmen begged them to show moderation. But there was a fine line, an often-indiscernible boundary, between this and the kind of suffering of which they wholeheartedly approved, between what was embarrassing excess and what constituted a case for canonisation. Our attitudes have changed significantly since the days of pre-Reformation Europe, and even the most conservative 21st-century priests would struggle to vindicate some of the practices discussed by medieval mystics. But this same contradiction is still with us, in the modern magazines carrying hard-hitting stories of the horrors of anorexia and listicles of dieting tips in the same issue. In the name of achieving an unblemished, unattainable ideal of perfection – whether that of Christ or the bikini body – patriarchal structures will always find a pretext for imposing control on female flesh.

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