Thursday, April 3, 2008

Female Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages and the Search for a Feminine Christianity (Part II)

Rudolph Bell: Holy Anorexia

In Holy Anorexia Rudolph Bell offers a psychoanalytical analysis of the phenomenon of extreme fasting in the vita of Christian holy women. This work is based on the case studies of 170 women recognized as saints, blessed, venerables or servants of God who lived from 1200 to the present in Italy. More than half of them displayed what Bell would classify as anorexia. Bell makes the highly provocative comparison between medieval women fasting, holy anorexia, and the relatively modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa.[1] Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder disproportionally affecting upper class teenage and young adult white women. Its chief symptoms are that the affected person takes an extreme interest in dieting and losing weight. This results in the person abhorring food and refusing to eat. When forced to eat the person will simply regurgitate what they ate. If not treated, the person is likely to starve to death.

While Bell makes use of Freud, who understood anorexia nervosa as a food/sex oral fixation, Bell’s understanding of anorexia is based primarily on the work of Hilde Bruch. According to Bruch, anorexia nervosa gives women autonomy and a sense of identity. The act of engaging in anorexic behavior can be seen as a dialectic between the desire for control and the meekness in which the girl was raised. The girl has a desire for control but feels guilty about it. The result is that she acts out her desire for control through the construction of meekness and obedience:

Now she will excel, in an intensely personal contest of her choice, over her feelings and drives. She will be an individual, not a daughter or a pupil. She does not seek to goad her parents into opposing her and resorts to silence, deception, secretiveness, and outright lying to avoid having them enter her contest, her world. Good girl that she is, she goes willingly to the doctor, very calmly explains that nothing is wrong, and dutifully agrees to do just as he says. She refuses rewards for eating heartily and willingly accepts punishments for leaving too much on her plate. In the bathroom she practices sticking her fingers down her throat and regurgitating quietly, so that no one will be disturbed.[2]

Bell wishes to draw certain parallels to female ascetics. He portrays Catherine of Siena as a young virginal anorectic whose behavior eventually killed her. Veronica Giuliani is the recovered anorectic and Angela of Foligno is the anorectic who married and had children:

In both instances [holy anorexia and anorexia nervosa] anorexia begins as the girl fastens onto a highly valued societal goal (bodily health, thinness, self-control in the twentieth century/spiritual health, fasting, and self-denial in medieval Christendom). Her peers, and especially her parents, pursue this goal with only marginal success, more often than not honoring it only in the breach. She, by contrast, emerges from a frightened, insecure, psychic world superficially veiled by her outwardly pleasant disposition to become a champion in the race for (bodily/spiritual) perfection. Her newly won self-esteem and confidence initially receive the approbation of those she depends upon – parents, teachers, counselors – causing her to deepen her self-denial pattern until it takes over as the only source of her sense of self. Anorexia becomes her identity, and ultimately the self-starvation pattern continues beyond her conscious control.[3]

For Bell the moral, in the cases of both medieval holy anorexics and modern suffers of anorexia nervosa, is that ultimately these women are not in control of their lives. The very act of fasting is itself a submission to the demands of the outside world. For modern anorexics that outside world is that of a secular middle class. For medieval women that outside world was the Christian patriarchy of the Church.

One could argue that several of the people that Bell refers to were older than the usual age for anorexics. For example, Angela of Foligno was nearly forty when she began her career as a visionary. Also Bell seems to automatically assume that whenever any of these women died young it was because of anorexia. It was quite common for people, during the Middle Ages, to die young. There were lots of ways for this to happen without the recourse to anorexia. My real problem with Bell is that his work is built on the assumption that it is possible to understand extreme asceticism amongst European women in the later Middle Ages outside of the context of late medieval Catholicism. If these women really were no different than modern day anorexics then the fact that they, or the men who wrote their vitas, chose to formulate their situation within the context of late medieval Catholic theology is of incidental interest at best. In this sense Bell’s work is highly ahistorical.

Despite the basic flaws inherent within the very premise of the book, Bell manages to produce a credible work of scholarship. This is a line of scholarship that probably had to be pursued, if for no other reason then so it could be put to rest. I do not believe that anyone could have framed this issue in a better way than how Bell did it.

[1] The first recording case is from late the seventeenth century.
[2] Bell, Holy Anorexia pg. 18.
[3] Ibid pg. 20.

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