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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  596 Ratings  ·  41 Reviews
In the period between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, a number of religious women gained widespread veneration and even canonization as saints for their extraordinary devotion to the Christian eucharist, supernatural multiplications of food and drink, and miracles of bodily manipulation, including stigmata and inedia (living without eating). The occurrence of such phenome ...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published January 7th 1988 by University of California Press (first published 1987)
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Mar 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
An extremely interesting and absorbing look at female religiosity and food in medieval western Europe from three angles: the religious meaning of food for women; the forms of medieval asceticism for them; and the significance of gender roles within religious experience. I agree with a lot of her conclusions, though not perhaps how she reaches them. I don't quite buy her final conclusion on male vs female use of symbolism, which seems too universalising for me, and her discussion of anorexia nerv ...more
Mar 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Bynum's close re-reading of her texts, including several I'd read and more I'd never heard of, finds a previously overlooked common theme: Medieval women mystics can feed others; they can become food themselves; and they can eat, provided the food is also God. From there, she builds a multi-part, theoretically and theologically informed interpretation. If the masculine is culture/spirit and the feminine is nature/body, then Christ, in the Incarnation, is ipso facto fully feminine as well as masc ...more
May 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
You don't have to be interested in history or in the history of the Catholic Church. Just the interest of the history of western mysticism or if you are just looking for something offbeat and interesting: This is an interesting book!

A famous modern interpretation of the behavior of religious medieval women is that all the female saints in that period presented the first known cases of anorexia nervosa; and psychologists have more theories like visions of Jesus or Virgin Mary are results of sever
I love books where scholars take seriously the words and experiences of women. So of course I was going to swoon over this. Walker Bynum manages to corral a vast amount of fragmentary documentation into something resembling a coherent shape, while making a damn persuasive case that modern understanding of female religious experience and symbols ignores the social and cultural context of those experiences and symbols. I think she understates the extent, depth, and breadth of medieval misogyny, bu ...more
While male scholastics were debating in Latin, holy women (and their male advisors) were using vernacular poetry and their own bodies to create an alternative model of saintliness. This book, which broke open the world of medieval religious women to modern audiences, features a great introduction to the roles of medieval women in the Church before focusing more specifically on what made a few standout women particularly holy--and why.
Jan 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-nonfiction
This is definitely a good read for you if you want new point of view to women's life in the Middle Ages, especially centering around food and spirituality. Holy Feast and Holy Fast is definitely one of the most important and best written books I have read for university; even though it is for my thesis, I didn't want to stop reading it. Will be dipping in and out of it in the future while I write my undergraduate thesis. Definitely pick this up instead of Rudolph Bell's Holy Anorexia if you are ...more
Laura Hellsten
Sep 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Great work and important knowledge on the history of a lost female spirituality!
Lynn Evans
Jan 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
If I had to credit one experience for moving me toward research into medieval history, it would be that of reading this book. Bynum did not, in researching and writing this book, cover new sources. Much of what she worked with is available in edited and published accounts, and those who have even a little background in medieval women's spirituality will recognize the figures who appear in her text. What is extraordinary, though, is the way she progressively wove these disparate vita into one ove ...more
Gayle Noble
Sep 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
"In the period between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, a number of religious women gained widespread veneration and even canonization as saints for their extraordinary devotion to the Christian eucharist, supernatural multiplications of food and drink, and miracles of bodily manipulation, including stigmata and inedia (living without eating). The occurrence of such phenomena sheds much light on the nature of medieval society and medieval religion."

An absolutely fascinating look at the importanc
Feb 07, 2013 added it
It's been a while since I read an academic (as opposed to popular) history book, so this took some work to get into. While most of my familiarity with the subject is a few decades old, this was published when I was in college.

I would have liked a bit more background on some of the persons and phenomena, but again I assumed that this was aimed at those more familiar with the field.

But even so I was able to follow most of what was discussed - the variety of ways that women (and by extension the me
Mar 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book will make you remember that the Middle Ages was a very different time and place. It's full of things that make you squirm - the common conceptualization of Jesus as food to religious women, and depictions of them nursing on his wounds, etc. But it's REALLY interesting, and was a completely new way to understand medieval women when it came out. It refutes Holy Anorexia, by Rudolph Bell, which sees medieval holy women as a bunch of anorexics, and completely passive to their fate as women ...more
Apr 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
this was fascinating. i kept reading bits aloud to my roommates, or tweeting them (why won't you let me copy/paste, kindle cloud reader? i mean, i know why, but still), and i'm definitely going to come back to it again and again. i especially liked how, in the conclusion, she didn't shy away from drawing connections to the modern world or from saying that nobody should want to go back in time. (people ask me that all the time. maybe i'd time travel to the middle ages to visit, but definitely not ...more
Quyen Hoang
Feb 25, 2014 rated it liked it
This hugely influential book made a critical breakthrough in the scholarship on medieval piety and brought the focus to women's religious life and the role of food and gender in medieval Christianity. Interesting topic, and the author clearly did a lot of research. However, her discursive and inconclusive analytical method is rather resistant, and I personally view it as a habit of her field rather than a beneficial factor in the book.
Kathryn Mattern
This is an unusual book, an historically scholarly yet highly readable study of the medieval phenomenon of those 'saints' who lived on nothing but the eucharist (the consecrated host of the roman catholic mass). Some really amazing stories that have not seen the light of day for centuries, and some interesting reflection on the subject from a modern perspective. I read this probably about 25 years ago.
"Compared to the range of meanings in medieval poetry and piety, our use of body and food as symbols is narrow and negative…we may, more than we realize, need positive symbols for generativity and suffering. If [medieval women's] images and values cannot become our answers, they can nonetheless teach us that we need richer images and values."
Sep 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
I can't imagine approaching the Middle Ages or any research on church history concerning expressions of piety or religious practice without consulting this wonderful work. Extremely well written and fascinating.
Apr 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An utterly stunning work of scholarship -- and not only that, but it is lucidly written and suitable for the interested layperson. Bynum does a tremendous job of elucidating women's religiosity in the medieval world and the ways in which they claimed religion and piety for themselves.
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book was fascinating and well-written until the conclusion, when the author begins making statements about modern day anorexics and women's lib. It seemed jarring and out of place in an otherwise well-supported argument.
Jan 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is awesome. It is very much a school textbook, but it doesn't read like one. Bynum explains how women used food as a way to exert power and control, since they had very little in other realms.
Nov 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Any medievalist
Shelves: history
This book was fascinating on so many levels: on a historical level, on a feminist level, and on a theological level. A must read if you're into the history of women in the middle ages or the history of eucharistic devotions.
Andee Nero
Jun 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
I liked Bynum's sarcasm, although the text feels a bit repetitive about halfway through. I suppose this is in part because she chose to write a history book that is not a popular history work but that can still be read by a large audience with a variety of educational backgrounds.
Brent Lambell
Jan 16, 2008 rated it liked it
This was perhaps the most difficult book I have ever read. By the time I was done I felt I had covered an enormous amount of material and even remembered a bit of it, but I was also overloaded. I recommend it for those already familiar with or interested in religious studies. NOT a casual read.
Nov 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medieval
Excellent book, engaging and valuable.
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Extremely detailed book in a scholarly level of writing that focuses on the topic of the usage of food and fasting in Christianity, etc.
Abby Ang
May 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
So much about breast milk
Oct 21, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I find this thesis preposterous (Medieval nuns were all anorexics, really??), but I did manage to learn quite a bit from the book when it stuck to facts.
Jan 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely amazing, this book is absolutely amazing.
Aug 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
The parts I read were excellent and included two of my favorite subjects: historical women and food. Hopefully someday I will be able to read the rest of this one.
Mar 12, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, nonfiction, class
An absolute brick of a book. I could have clubbed a man to death with my copy. Interesting, yes, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is not actually a scholar of medieval women.
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Caroline Walker Bynum is Professor emerita of Medieval European History at the Institute for Advanced Study, and University Professor emerita at Columbia University in the City of New York. She studies the religious ideas and practices of the European Middle Ages from late antiquity to the sixteenth century.
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