Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
by Caroline Walker Bynum
University of California Press, 444 pp., $29.95
Holy feast, in Professor Bynum’s title, means exclusively the Eucharist—the sacrament of Holy Communion—and the attitude of late-medieval religious women to the mass and to the Host especially is the first main theme of her study. In a prefatory section which is a model of lucidity and perception, she reviews the history of the Eucharist and of the shifting emphases on different aspects of the sacrament in Church history. Early Christian writers saw the Eucharist as spiritual refreshment and as a pledge of the Church’s unity: they stressed commensality, the gathering of the faithful in the communion of a liturgical repast. Though none doubted Christ’s presence at the mass, the question of how he was present in the bread and wine did not raise much discussion.
Later, however, from the eleventh century on, that question did come more and more to animate theologians. There was a growing commitment to the doctrine of transubstantiation—the doctrine that in the Eucharist the substances of the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ—which was finally given the status of a dogma in 1215. This, and the claim that Christ’s body was present in every particular particle of the Host, shifted attention away from communion and toward the priestly act of consecration of the bread and wine. The change of attitude encouraged the cult of the Eucharistic Host, and liturgical practices such as its elevation during the mass and “reservation,” by keeping it in the church or sacristy. It also encouraged a stronger emphasis on the humanity of Christ, reflected in the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, which became rapidly more popular and central in Christian observance from the end of the thirteenth century.
This is the background of Church teaching and practice against which the lives and the attitudes of the religious women who are Professor Bynum’s subjects have to be set. For them the consecrated Host was more than just spiritual food; it nourished the body as well as the soul, and became for them the medium of ecstatic union with Christ in his humanity. Columba of Rieti was said to be sustained in the rigors of her asceticism by the Eucharistic Host alone. The biography of Beatrice of Nazareth wrote of how “refreshed by this most health-giving communion, in the marvelous embrace of the same divinity, she suddenly felt her whole soul, diffused through all the members of her body, so violently caught up that the same little body felt itself…strongly gathered into the embrace.” The physicality of this sense of union with Christ, and of hunger for frequent, daily communion are recurring themes in the ascetic religiosity of the late-medieval women mystics of whom Professor Bynum writes, and so become recurring themes in her book.
The women of whom she writes were all ascetics as well as mystics, extravagant in their bodily self-denial and self-immolation, and their craving for the Eucharist, the Holy Feast …