Analysis of Caroline Walker Bynum´s Holy Feast and Holy Fast

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Holy Feast and Holy Fast emerged as a pivotal work during the mid-1980s in response to a prevalent trend among scholars which placed apostolic poverty and chastity at the very core of the Western European vita religiosa at the expense of attention toward the forms of austerity, some of which were more common to women. Bynum builds up her narrative by exploring how, although the renunciation of money and sex had a shared significance to both genders, the chief metaphor governing the spiritual life of women specifically concerned food. Bynum weaves her monograph together through a careful analysis of both food symbolism and food-related religious practices as described in the works of female mystics themselves and in the hagiographical…show more content…
What Bynum demonstrates is that late medieval piety had become heavily idiosyncratic: the emphasis of spirituality was increasingly placed on the primacy of experience: on seeing, meeting, and most importantly for women, on eating and tasting God. Section II lays out ‘The Evidence’ supporting Bynum’s theory that fasting and food related symbolism played such a central role to women’s spirituality that it ultimately became a literary trope in the vitae of female saints and mystics. From the very outset of the chapter, the author proves her argument from a purely quantitative analysis of 864 saints from 1000-1700: although only 17.5% of those canonized as saints were women, women accounted for almost 29% of saints who practiced rigorous austerities which include extreme fasting. The lives of these women and their relationship with food are then laid out in detail. Hunger, thirst, desire, nourishment and satiety developed into quintessential symbols describing women’s relationships to God. Finally, in order to demonstrate comparatively how the role of Eucharistic devotion and extreme fasting was not nearly as prominent a theme among men as it was with women, Bynum also explores the presence (or lack thereof) of food-related motifs in the vitae of male saints. The third and final section, ‘The Explanation,’ wherein rests the chapter this review is most concerned with, is used by Bynum to draw out a handful of

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