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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good read but rather long-winded, 23 Oct. 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics) (Paperback)
Caroline Bynum's book, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, examines the importance of food for religious women in the Middle Ages. Although there has been other recent research into the lives of women saints and the way they dealt with food and fasting, for instance by scholars like Weinstein and Bell, as she mentions in the introduction, Bynum promises that in her book she will treat evidence in a different way, most importantly by focusing on the women's point of view. The first two chapters are an introduction to religious women in the Middle Ages and religious food practices of both women and men. Then Bynum turns specifically to women's religious food practices and in the next four chapters she gives a multitude of examples of different women and their different habits or even rituals concerning food. As she says in the introduction, Bynum uses examples from the lives of well known saints, like Elizabeth of Hungary, Lidwina of Schiedam, Columba of Rieti and Catherine of Siena, not because these stories reflect what were normal fasting habits in the Middle Ages, but because their lives are well documented and they would serve as role models for Medieval women. She gives detailed examples of (extreme) food asceticism, cases of inedia, women's devotion of the eucharist and not being able to eat anything but the consecrated host, eucharistic visions, food miracles and some very graphic examples of women eating and drinking the filth of the sick: Several of [Catherine of Siena's] hagiographers report that she twice forced herself to overcome nausea by thrusting her mouth into the putrifying breast of a dying woman or by drinking pus... She told Raymond: "Never in my life have I tasted any food and drink sweeter or more exquisite than this pus." (171-2). Bynum identifies the reasons for this fasting as being, among other things, ways to get closer to God by imitating the lifestyle and suffering of Christ. They would do penance for their sins and suffer to save themselves and other people from Purgatory. The reason why especially women fasted was because food and their own bodies were the only things women had control over and through that control they could manipulate their surroundings. Despite the promising title of the last part of the book: "The Explanation", the first chapter and a good part of the second and third chapters of this section are rather disappointing and cause some confusion. Chapter 6 deals with the parallels between modern eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, and fasting or inedia in medieval women, even though Bynum states her reluctance to make this connection in the introduction. This reluctance is clearly present throughout the chapter, resulting in a narrative that skips from one subject to another. The second and third chapters of "The Explanation" consist mainly of a repetition of things that were said earlier in the book. However, in the two remaining chapters, Bynum raises some interesting issues of the meaning of the body, women as food and Symbolic Reversal. On the whole, the presentation of the book is excellent and the impressive amount of footnotes that take up more than one hundred pages shows it to be a carefully researched book. Apart from the mentioned 'problem areas' the book makes enjoyable reading and provides the reader with plenty of food for thought and further research.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent study of female hagiography, 20 Jan. 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics) (Paperback)
This book is truly an exciting text in the field of hagiography studies. It looks at the stories of female vitae and reads the themes behind them with regard to the issues of denial and spirituality. While in the end, Bynum might lean a bit too far towards a feminist self-image reading, nonetheless, for the most part the book is valuable, well-reasoned and shows the potentialities for scholars of ways to approach the large and somewhat heterogeneous corpus of vitae.
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