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Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women is a dense work that is broad in scope and deep in academic impact.  Written as a refutation of previous medieval scholarship, Holy Feast and Holy Fast was a work that shocked and enthralled the field of medieval studies.  Bynum’s major argument is that the standard interpretation of medieval history, namely those medieval efforts to discipline and manipulate the body should be interpreted more as the possibilities of fleshliness rather than escaping from fleshiness.   Bynum proposes a shift in focus from masculine methods of self-denial, wealth and possessions, to more feminine roles, chiefly eating and fasting. Holy feast, Holy Fast is a work that challenged traditional interpretations of, medieval gender, sexuality, and religious expression.

The bulk of Bynum’s text focuses on the relationship between the cultural context of medieval food and female religiosity.  Bynum explained this link by exploring the traditional roles of medieval women in food preparation, distribution, and denial; and the religious experiences of female mystics.   According to Bynum women experienced religion through food, because that was the only cultural aspect that women controlled.  Women, who rejected food, were rejecting the single facet of control they had in the lay world. Like males who rejected wealth and power, women gave up food.  Bynum also focuses on the relationship between female figures and food.   Bynum cited examples of women existing only on the divine nourishment of the Eucharist, the consumption of diseased matter, and the bodily rejection of mundane food as support.

Holy Feast, Holy Fast is a dense work of significant length.  Thankfully, Bynum divided the work into smaller sections which function both as individual essays and as part of a cohesive theme.  The first two chapters function as introductory essays, presenting the religious and cultural background necessary to understand as well as utilize Bynum’s later arguments. The following three chapters offer supporting evidence; here Bynum presented the bulk of her findings utilizing sources written by and about female mystics.  Bynum continues and closes with the presentation of her central arguments, chiefly the nature of women’s symbols, and bodies, as well as the role of functions food and eating imagery played in the spiritual experience.

While food imagery plays an important part in Bynum’s work, female imagery is also prevalent.  According to Bynum food and fasting were feminine behaviors. When priests gave the Eucharist they were taking on the female role of food provider.  According to Bynum various aspects of Christian mysticism were feminine, specifically those related to Christ.  Bynum argues that the character of Christ was a combination of both male and female behaviors. Just as Christ was the perfect balance of fleshliness and spirits so too was Christ a balance of male and female aspects.   Through his suffering and sacrifice Christ took on female aspects.  Christ’s earthly suffering was feminine and his physical body was linked to the flesh of Mary. Christ’s spear wound often functioned as a breast which suckled those seeking spiritual nourishment. Bynum argues that mystics utilized female metaphors represent humanity.  Bynum supports this claim with material from female theologians and mystics such Hildegard of Bingen.

One of Bynum’s most compelling arguments in Holy Feast, Holy Fast, is the role modern interpretations of medieval concepts have offered a false view of the period.  Bynum argues that the meaning of food has changed since the middle ages.  Currently food is much more available and control over the production and preparation of food is less gendered than previously.  Modern society views food differently than the women of the medieval period. Unfortunately scholars often extended modern interpretation to the past.  Bynum dismisses this practice urging scholars to looks beyond modern concept.  Holy Feast, Holy Fast presents a different view of the middle ages.  Bynum allows the source material to speak for itself. Rather than simply reacting to a patriarchal system, medieval women were attempting to control their world. Manipulation of food, whether through denial or multiplication miracles, allowed women influence in families and communities.  Bynum also dismisses the modern issues of anorexia and bulimia, finding their application dismissive of the spiritual experiences of medieval women.

Bynum utilizes a variety of source material in her research.  The bulk of Bynum’s source materials are stories by and about spiritually active women. She utilizes several hagiographies, such as the Life of Walburga.  Using these sources Bynum allows women to speak for themselves.  While many of these written accounts went through a patriarchal filter, they still maintain a great deal of information of and from the women herself.  The information in these sources supported Bynum’s argument that food was a female experience as very few male sources made any mention of food in their experiences. Bynum also makes use of visual media in her work.  Combing the spiritual imagery from visions with the imagery found in religious artwork offer Bynum excellent support. In addition to the plethora of primary sources Bynum includes several secondary works. Many of these works are included in the first two chapters, providing a solid foundation of research for Bynum’s historical background.

One question that Bynum’s research raises is what factors of the medieval period caused food images to become so common place. Western civilization has traditionally linked women with food production and distribution. Why did this traditional role become so central to female spirituality in the middle ages?  Bynum’s research does an excellent job of supporting her claims for the practice during the medieval period but offers no understanding of why this practice arose when it did?  Had European women always been linked spirituality with food? Was food centered spirituality featured in Pagan cultures which carried the practice over during conversion?

Holy Feast, Holy Fast is a masterful work. An interdisciplinary study that combines religious history, women’s history, and the fine arts Holy Feast, Holy Fast is a work that is not only stunning in its scope but in it effect.  Holy Feast, Holy Fast encourages historians to approach women, Catholicism, and medieval culture in different manner.  Bynum’s accomplishments in Holy Feast, Holy Fast are too numerous for a single review.  This is work should be considered a go-to text for all medievalist, as well as religious and feminist historians.

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