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, was the complement to their extreme fasting practice, their Holy Fast. Here again Professor Bynum sets observance against a background of Christian attitudes that had altered with the centuries. The importance of fasting as a significant aspect of religious behavior was firmly founded in scriptural tradition, in both the Old and New Testaments. In early Christian practice its relevance was accepted both as a practice meritorious in itself and in penance, and as prefatory to the keeping of liturgical feasts. In collective practice, fasting and feast kept pace with the round of the seasons, of dearth followed by plenty; and the abstinence of the wealthy was seen as freeing alms for distribution to the needy.

But as time went by, this corporate fasting came to be more carefully and legalistically regulated, more of a routine and in consequence more relaxed. In part, Professor Bynum suggests, the extravagance of the privations of the late-medieval women mystics may be explained as a reaction against this spirit of moderation and compromise. More essentially, and in view of the new emphasis on Christ’s humanity, she argues (I think convincingly) that such fasting reflects the desire to identify through physical suffering and privation with the bodily suffering of Christ, through which the world was redeemed. “We must attach ourselves to the breast of the crucified Christ…and draw from there by means of his flesh (that is, the humanity) the milk that nourishes our soul,” wrote Catherine of Siena, “for it is Christ’s humanity that suffered, not his divinity; and, without suffering, we cannot nourish ourselves with this milk which we draw from charity.”

Abstention from food was central to these women’s asceticism, and in this book we are told a great deal about it. Literary descriptions of people eating meals can be quite entertaining (in recent times, Ian Fleming used this device quite shamelessly in recounting the antics of James Bond), but they tend to pall after a while. Descriptions of people not eating have a greater monotony, and, in this instance at any rate, they lead on to descriptions of side effects that can be testing to the strength of the stomach. “If she took any corporeal food it was only a little and never without weeping or wailing,” James of Vitry wrote of Mary of Oignies. Elizabeth of Spalbeek “condescended, with obvious reluctance, to lap up a little milk, but she abhorred food.” Alpaïs of Cudot reputedly lived for forty years on the Eucharist alone. Columba of Rieti ate a grape and drank water before visitors to prove that her diet was not quite so monotonous, but later, in response to a vision, she resolved to eat only the sacrament—and died. Catherine of Gerona in Advent lived only on water, vinegar, and salt, and could not keep down solid food without vomiting. Catherine of Siena shoved twigs down her throat so as to bring up the food that she could not bear to hold in her stomach. In order to overcome nausea she thrust her mouth into the putrid breast of a dying woman, and drank pus. Catherine of Gerona in a like effort to conquer nausea rubbed her nose in pus and ate scabs and lice. Angela of Foligno drank water that had washed the sores of lepers, with scabs floating in it. Self-starvation and fever contagion were, scarcely surprisingly, the direct causes of the deaths of a number of these women. Their abstinence also induced other biological symptoms, the most commonly recorded being ceasing to excrete and to menstruate.


In the light of this last symptom, in particular, it is natural to wonder whether these women, who carried inedia to extreme lengths rather more commonly than did male ascetics, were not suffering from a form of anorexia nervosa. Professor Bynum, rightly I think, scouts this suggestion. Though certain physiological effects are common to both affections, the cultural circumstances are quite different, she points out. Modern anorexia is a psychological condition that has been related both to a desire to conform to a fashionable ideal of female slenderness and to the disturbance of oncoming puberty, but the inedia of the late medieval women mystics was related to something totally different, to ecstatic religious experience. That experience, moreover, was not the only religious aspect of their abstinence. It was also related, for instance, to almsgiving. Columba of Rieti gave away so much from the family larder that there was nothing left to eat. Elizabeth of Hungary gave away food (always purchased from her own dowry) compulsively, throughout her life. Lidwina of Schiedam would not eat herself, but charged her nurse to buy fine fish and fragrant sauces and to distribute them to the poor. Religious abstinence had a Christian and charitable function that has no parallel in anorexia.

Sometimes the alms that Lidwina distributed went much further than anyone had expected. Food multiplication miracles, reported of many of these holy women, reinforce the direct connection that was seen, by others and no doubt by them too, between their abstinence and the tending of the needy. When, for instance, Catherine of Siena angered her father by giving away the best wine, God made the cask flow again. Alda of Siena twice changed water into wine. Columba of Rieti cooked a mountain of bread from a handful of flour; and Agnes of Montepulciano brought down by her prayers a rain of heavenly manna. Professor Bynum stresses in these stories of almsgiving and of miracles of plenty an association with woman’s role as preparer and distributor of food. She insufficiently emphasizes, in my opinion, their scriptural echoes—of the feeding of Israel with manna in the wilderness, of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the miracle of the water turned to wine at the marriage of Cana in Galilee. Whichever way one chooses to take them, however, there is no doubt about her contention that one is leagues away here from the conditions in which modern anorexia develops.

The other point that she makes—and tellingly—in this connection is equally remote from modern conditions. This is that the marked emphasis on inedia in the stories of women ascetics reflects what, to women, was most accessible of renunciation. Men could renounce power, or money, or the inheritance of land or wealth. Contemporary legal conventions deprived women of independent control in these matters, but domestic economy was their province: its fruits they could renounce. And they could use their control of such matters (naturally or miraculously) in the interest of others, with an altruism that stands in sharp contrast to anorexic self-absorption.


Professor Bynum is skilled at re-creating the experiences, nearly always extravagant, sometimes moving, and at times weird and even repellent, of the remarkable subjects that she studies. There is a strongly physical and biological strain running through the record. It is marked, as I have said, in these women’s sense of Christ’s physical humanity. Sometimes this takes a straight-forward form, as in Catherine of Siena’s description of the Eucharist, that “the taste of blood was wonderfully present to her mouth and bodily taste” for several days after receiving the Host, or in Angela of Foligno’s vision of the friars putting their mouths into Christ’s side, and of their lips being “rosy with blood” as they raised their heads. This sort of physicality blends easily into nuptial imagery, as when Catherine of Siena writes that the ring with which we marry Christ is not of gold or silver, but is the foreskin given in His Circumcision in pain and with blood. The nuptial imagery blends into eroticism. “We see his mouth brought close to us to kiss [us],” wrote Hadewijch of Flanders. “His arms are outstretched: He who wishes to be embraced may throw himself [sic] into them,” or again, “He gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament…. He came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him.”

But taste, nursing, and lactation are themes equally strong (stronger, Professor Bynum implies) in these strange records of half-visionary, half-tactile experiences. “Your mouth tastes like roses and your body like violets,” wrote Adelheid Langmann of Engelthal. Gertrude of Helfta in a vision took the Christ Child to her own breast. The spectrum stretches wide, all the way from the sublime, with its echoes in the Song of Songs and in Hebrew metaphor, to the more or less ridiculous, in (say) Lidwina’s vision of Mary with a heavenly host of virgins, with open tunics and milk pouring from their breasts, so that it “filled the sky.” But there is no doubt about the constant recurrence of the themes and images of nourishment, of heavenly food and heavenly taste.

From her vivid evocation of these experiences Professor Bynum draws two important conclusions. Both, though they have necessarily to be presented in negative form, are based on perceptions that seem to me positive and helpful. The first is that there is little or nothing “dualistic” about the asceticism of these women. “Dualism” here implies the endeavor, by ascetic control of bodily impulses, to free the incorporeal rational spirit from the enslavement of the flesh, and to reach union with the divine by transcending the corporeal in asceticism. This was the express purpose of the “Perfect” among the Southern French Cathar heretics of the twelfth century, and the struggle of the orthodox against their heresy had much to do with the emphasis laid by the former on the corporeal presence of Christ in the Host, and with the assertion of transubstantiation as a Catholic dogma. The women mystics with whom Professor Bynum is concerned, in line with this orthodoxy, made for the opposite end to that of the Cathars in their asceticism; they strove for an identification with Christ in his humanity that was directly physical in the language of its presentation. Flesh in its suffering, and food—Eucharistic food—as nourishment, were the media of their relationship to the divine. Their longing for God was expressed in the pangs of hunger, not in control of hunger, and in the redemption of the soul with and through the body, not by the freeing of spirit from fleshly enclosure; and this was one of the identifying features of their religiosity.

Professor Bynum’s second point is that the asceticism of the women mystics had nothing to do with what she calls “internalized misogyny.” It was not in any self-conscious way directed by their being female. It was not an attempt to atone for the shortcomings of Eve or an exaggerated reaction to the charges of vanity and sexual voracity that popular antifeminism brought against women. Professor Bynum’s subjects generally accepted, as did most people at the time, the Aristotelian explanation of procreation, that the mother provides the stuff (or matter) of the fetus, the father the animating principle (the form); but they did not interpret this as implying that women were consequently more “fleshly” or less capable of virtue than men (and nor did many others). It led them instead toward an identification of the flesh that the mother provides with humanity (as opposed to femininity specifically), and to use woman as their symbol of humankind.

In this mode Margaret of Oingt wrote of the flesh of the Virgin Mary as the “clothing of humanity” that Christ put on, and Julian of Norwich that “our substance is the higher part, which we have in Our Father, God almighty, and the second person of the Trinity is our mother in nature in which we are founded and rooted, and he is our mother of mercy in taking on our sensuality.” Thus, as Professor Bynum explains, “the reverence for Mary that we find in the women mystics is less a reverence for a representative woman than a reverence for body, for the bearer and conduit of the Incarnation.” Female symbols and metaphors in their writing and in that of their biographers are not a sign of preoccupation with gender, but with relations more cosmic than the dichotomy of male and female.

Yet Professor Bynum does attach great significance to female symbolism, and to the feminine associations that she sees in metaphors of food and nourishment that abound in the writings of and about these women mystics; that is the whole point of her book. She clearly wishes to distinguish these women mystics as representatives of a specifically female spirituality. But here, it seems to me, her subtlety begins to be oversubtle and in particular to get entangled in the perennial problem with metaphor, of distinguishing between the sign and the thing signified. Food metaphors, after all, are common in religious writing; the Bible talks of heavenly manna and of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is natural that such metaphors should come especially easily to the lips of women, given their biological role in motherhood and nursing, and their traditional concern with domestic economy, but that is not enough to create an exclusive province in religious language or to define in itself a specifically female spiritual attitude.

It seems to me that Professor Bynum understates the degree to which the language of her subjects was derivative, and that she understates, though she does not ignore, the degree to which their spiritual approach is really part of a broader mystical and emotional strain in late-medieval religion. Too little, it seems to me, is said of the literature that nourished the mystical movement, and inspired both male and female religious, of the influence of Bonaventura’s Life of Christ (his human life), of the influence on women of such as Suso, Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, and Groote (not to mention Walter Hilton or Rolle). In short I think she makes too much of the vocabulary of female mysticism, and too little of a general as opposed to a specifically female concern with mystical union and with the humanity of Christ that is characteristic of late medieval religion.

Professor Bynum’s book also seems to me to present female spirituality in the late Middle Ages as more monolithic than it really was. In this age, which saw a growing degree of literacy among lay people of both sexes, the piety of women, as of men, flowed in many channels. Cecily, Duchess of York read Catherine of Siena (and the Golden Legend, and Walter Hilton) but her living and her religiosity were a far cry from those of the saint:

She is accustomed to arise at seven o’clock, and has ready her chaplain to sing matins…. When she is fully ready she has a low mass in her chamber, and after mass she takes something to recreate nature…. After supper, she disposes herself to be familiar with her gentlewomen, to the following of honest mirth: and one hour before going to bed, she takes a cup of wine, and after that goes to her private chamber, and takes her leave of God for the night.

It is a still further cry—almost beyond the range of echo—from Professor Bynum’s mystics to the Lollard women whom Bishop Pecock castigated, who “make themselves so wise by the Bible, that they will allow no deed to be virtuous, save what they can find expressly in the Bible…and vaunt and advance themselves when they are in merriment in their houses to argue and dispute with clerks.” The aristocratic piety of Duchess Cecely and the garrulous, housewifely piety of the Lollard ladies had of course their male analogues—but so did the mystical piety of Julian of Norwich or Columba of Rieti. In her single-minded concentration on her mystical ascetics Professor Bynum tends, I think, to imply too easily that their spirituality was the type of female spirituality. Female piety in the late Middle Ages, like male piety, and because it was subject to the same influences, did not present a single face, but was multifaceted.

To conclude, Professor Bynum seems to me to put more weight on female use of food metaphors and on female asceticism than they will really bear, and to try to bind them too tightly into the category “women’s history.” Reading her richly written book has nevertheless helped to bring home to me and to reinforce a point which, though she does not make it expressly, seems to me more important. This is that among the great world religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the one that, throughout its history, has always made the most room for articulate female piety and spirituality. Why this should be so by comparison with Mohammedanism needs no explanation. It is less easy to explain why it should be so by comparison with Hinduism, given that female figures such as Sita and Kali have such important roles in Vedic tradition and myth; but again there is no comparably strong tradition of articulate, human, feminine piety. And the same is true of Buddhism. Perhaps in this case it is because, at the point when we really begin to know the story, the Buddha had already cut himself off from the familial world, whereas the background of so much of the story of Christ’s ministry is essentially domestic, that of the Holy Family, of the household of Martha and Mary, of the marriage feast of Cana. From the Gospel beginnings of its history, women have had a very striking part, though in different ways in the different ages, in the life of the Christian Church, and this is one of the distinctive features of its story. I am very grateful to Professor Bynum for reminding me so forcibly about a group of very remarkable women, whose lives and writings illustrate vividly the way in which that Christian tradition was alive in their age.

This Issue

October 8, 1987