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Book Review : Waste Not: Piety Through Starvation

June 05, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum (University of California: $29.95; 444 pp.; illustrated)

There are at least 10 other literary works buried in the depths of this impeccable study, waiting to be discovered and written. Despite the intimidating academic double title, suggesting a book of interest only to historians and religious philosophers, "Holy Feast and Holy Fast" is a valuable resource for novelists, biographers, dramatists, poets; certainly psychologists, and perhaps composers and librettists as well. While the author immediately warns readers that "this is a scholarly, not a popular book," her crisp, lucid prose is a model of expository writing, far more direct and to the point than the pretentious acrobatics of many journalists.

Her fundamental premise is that "Medieval people often saw gluttony as the major form of lust, fasting as the most painful renunciation, and eating as the most basic and literal way of encountering God." In a world with virtually no means of preserving food, plenty was interpreted as a sign of God's favor; famine seen as an indication of divine displeasure. As a result of elaborate sophistry, denying oneself food became "the most basic asceticism, requiring the kind of courage and holy foolishness that marked the saints." Greed was regarded as depravity, while sharing food with the hungry and poor was considered an act of immense benevolence.

As Caroline Walker Bynum reminds us, sex and money are symbols of power and success only when the food supply is reliable. In medieval Europe and in desolate drought-stricken areas of the world today, the ancient law still applies. "For the hungry, food forces itself forward as an insistent fact and insistent symbol," the only one with genuine meaning.

The author devotes several chapters to explaining the enormous significance of food in medieval religious observances, proposing and enlarging upon the reasons why food became more central to the spiritual experience of women than men. If one could serve God by feeding the starving, one might become even more holy by depriving oneself of that particular solace. Toward the end of the medieval era, fasting became a virtual mania, frequently leading to the paranormal experiences and visions familiar from the lives of the saints. Inspired by these examples, hundreds of others attempted to emulate them.

For many, the consecrated wafer and wine became the only nourishment they would accept. Ordinary food symbolized the base appetites of the flesh, which in turn led directly to suffering and fertility. By renouncing food and drink, one approached God; by eating only the host one partook directly. Though Bynum has chosen her examples to show the central role of food in various religious observances, carefully selecting those women about whom the most dependable material exists, the biographical illustrations demonstrating her theories are often not only melodramatic but lurid.

Bitter Herbs and Water

Consider St. Catherine of Siena, who was reported to have shoved twigs down her throat to induce vomiting, surviving entirely on the Eucharist, cold water and what nourishment she could extract from chewing bitter herbs without swallowing them. Eventually refusing even water in order to atone for certain irregularities in the church, she died at 33. Though St. Catherine acknowledged her behavior as "an infirmity," she made no effort to change it, persuading herself that eating was "homicide by greed," and therefore a sin more dreadful than suicide. As she grew weaker, her labors on behalf of the poor and suffering became increasingly strenuous, inspired and miraculous. By no means the most extraordinary case, St. Catherine of Siena was only typical, one of a long list of holy women who believed that extreme self-abnegation saved souls.

Because the parallels are inescapable, Bynum compares this behavior to anorexia and bulimia, finding crucial social and cultural differences but agreeing that an intense and desperate desire for self-control is shared by the medieval martyrs and modern victims of the disorder. The author's provocative speculations on the relevance of her study to contemporary dilemmas are confined to her epilogue, the text proper concentrating almost exclusively upon the myriad ways in which food, by default, became one of the few areas in which medieval women could express their piety.

Bynum's work not only provides new insights into the asceticism of both men and women, but explicitly illuminates the recurring food symbolism in medieval art and literature. Not meant as a book to take on a summer holiday, "Holy Feast and Holy Fast" deserves a prominent and permanent place on any writer's reference shelf.

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