Friday, April 4, 2008

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

Caroline Walker Bynum: Holy Feast and Holy Fast.

In contrast to Bell’s psychoanalytical explanation for the attitude toward food displayed by certain medieval women, Bynum attempts to approach the issue from the perspective of the medieval world view. Clearly the women who starved themselves did not see themselves as merely trying to gain more control over their lives in the face of a patriarchal existence; they saw themselves as good Christians, acting in accordance with Christian theology or at least their understanding of Christian theology. This then becomes an opportunity for Bynum to reconstruct the theology of women in the late Middle Ages; one built around food, fasting and the Eucharist.

Unlike Bell, who views asceticism as being separate from food, Bynum views food and fasting as being intrinsically linked to each other, rejecting the dichotomy between eating and fasting; they are all part of one continual narrative, Christ suffering in order to bring about the salvation of the world. Of course men, during this time period, also identified themselves with Christ’s humanity and enacted his suffering. Women, though, approached the issue differently from men in that women viewed this through the particular lens of their experience as women. Women, unlike men, give birth to children and nurse them. Their bodies bring forth life and sustain it; their very bodies are food. Women in the later Middle Ages saw the narrative of Christ’s birth and death in this light. The human Christ came out of the body of Mary. He is the food which the faithful literally eat. The priest bringing forth the Eucharist could be a woman bringing forth a child. Christ bleeding from the lance in his side could be a woman giving forth milk from her breast.

Since women represent the flesh, women could represent the human side of Christ particularly since Christ’s physical side came from Mary. By doing this women could turn the traditional “misogynistic” paradigm on its head. Women might be carnal, sinful and irrational, but these very attributes could give them a special relationship to God, unattainable even by priests. If women are carnal then so much the better for identifying with Christ’s humanity. If they are sinful then so much the better for identifying with Christ’s redemption. If they are irrational than so much the better for transcending the bounds of reason and comprehending God.

The other side of the image of Christ as the food that nourishes the world is his suffering on the Cross. According to Christian theology, Christ gave his very flesh to bring nourishment to the world. Women imitated this by giving over their bodies. Bynum argues that, while men also fasted, it is in the vitae of female saints that food becomes a central motif. You see women who become saints because of their fasts or because they live off of the Eucharist. With men fasting is incidental. Francis of Assisi fasted, but his fasting is seen in terms of his embodiment of the poor and naked Christ. For women the issue was food. Saints such as Christina the Astonishing and Lutgard, because of their fasting, exuded oil, in one case from her breasts and in the other case from her fingertips.[1] Catherine of Siena nourished herself by drinking the puss from the body of a sick woman.[2] Bynum makes a big deal out of the fact that the main manifestation of women abstaining from food was their living solely off of the Eucharist. This is crucial to her attack on Bell. Bell does not deal with the issue of the Eucharist. For Bynum the whole issue of fasting is linked to Eucharist devotion and makes no sense without it.

While Bynum criticizes Bell for reading the problem of anorexia nervosa back onto medieval women, she believes that the fasting of medieval women may shed light on how to handle anorexia nervosa. As Bynum sees it, the problem with modern psychological views of anorexia nervosa is that:

… they do not take seriously the symbols used in women’s experience or the ideologies formulated about it, they have cut the phenomenon of refusal to eat off from its context of food-related behavior. Moreover, they have neglected female attitudes toward suffering and generativity. Yet one suspects such attitudes to be part of the context in which modern girls, as well as medieval ones, view both bodies and food.[3]

While Bynum states quite emphatically that she does not wish to return to the Middle Ages or bring back medieval notions of piety, she believes the medieval world as possessed a far richer understanding of symbols:

Medieval people saw food and body as sources of life, repositories of sensation. Thus food and body signified generativity and suffering. Food, which must be destroyed in order to give life, and body, which must be torn in order to give birth, became synonymous; in identifying themselves with both, women managed to give meaning to a physical, human existence in which suffering was unavoidable. …
In contrast, modern people see food and body as resources to be controlled. Thus food and body signify that which threatens human mastery. They signify the untamed, the rebellious, the excessive, the proliferating. … Breasts are not, to modern people, symbols of food. The onset of puberty is not an occasion for rejoicing by an adolescent girl or her parents. Menstruation is less a prelude to creativity and affectivity than a frightening sign of vulnerability. Body and food are thus symbols of the failure of our efforts to control our selves.

Underlying Bynum’s work is a desire to save the Middle Ages, or at least the female part of it, from being dismissed by moderns as a dark pit of patriarchy, misogyny and sexism. In dealing with medieval patriarchy one can all too easily be led into the simplistic assumption that men had power and were viewed as the superior ones while women lacked power and were viewed as inferior. Traditional scholarship has assumed that women in the Middle-Ages, having accepted the misogyny of the patriarchal society around them, hated their bodies and punished them through fasting and self mutilation. In contrast to prevailing views, Bynum argues that women were not aping clerical power; rather they were creating an alternative role for themselves. Inspiration served as a counterweight to clerical ordination. The focus on the suffering of Christ countered Christ the High Priest.

Women’s adoration of the Eucharist could be used as a form of female power. Take the example of Lidwina, who, so her vita claims, could tell that her priest was offering her unconsecrated communion.[5] What we have here is a model for women to be able to challenge the male priesthood from within the paradigm of Christian theology itself.

Bynum’s attempt to rehabilitate medieval women and give them their own voices is dependent on the assumption that these women really were creating their own religious vision and not simply internalizing the views of male theologians. Bynum seeks to accomplish this by arguing that this trend toward fasting found amongst women went against the general trend within the church toward moderation. I find this description of the later Middle Ages to be too simplistic. Furthermore her need to claim that the female spirituality she deals with was something feminine does not allow her to fully explore the context in which this spirituality occurred. While this is a fascinating work, which I find to be completely convincing in its overall argument, I believe that this book would have been even stronger if Bynum had made a serious attempt to integrate the theology of her holy women into general late medieval views on the humanity of Christ. This female spirituality could be seen as another dimension of the veneration of Christ’s humanity, one that cannot be ignored by scholarship.

[1] See Bynum, Holy Feast Holy Fast pg. 122-23.
[2] Ibid pg. 171-72.
[3] Ibid pg. 207.
[4] Ibid pg. 300.
[5] Ibid 127-28.

No comments: