Mystics refused food and drink in a bid to mimic Christ’s suffering
The phrase ‘holy anorexics’, coined by the historian Rudolph Bell in the 1980s, describes Christian women – including a number of mystics – who starved themselves into meditative, even ecstatic states where they might experience visions of God. This was partly a severe form of imitatio Christi, which involved imitating Christ and his suffering during the Passion in order to feel a deeper connection with him. Some understood this practice as a restitution for the sins of others: by punishing their bodies, they could do penance on the behalf of weaker sinners.
More recently, it’s been suggested that the visions starving mystics claimed to experience were caused by the physical impact of denying their bodies food for extended periods of time.
However, the visions were also seen as a sign of potential sainthood. If a mystic was apparently surviving on little, or no food at all, then their very bodies were a kind of miracle. According to legend, Catherine of Siena survived for years on nothing but the Eucharist, while Marie of Oignies and her fellow mystic Beatrice of Nazareth claimed that the smell of food repulsed them entirely.
Many of these women were celebrated, even – as in the case of Catherine of Siena – canonised. However, by the 15th century, the church had started to prescribe moderation. It feared that their practices had gone too far and were having a detrimental effect on the devoted. The medieval mystics’ extraordinary displays of self-sacrifice would soon fade into history.
A manuscript shows the death of the emaciated mystic Marie of Oignies, who ate barely any food and refused meat and wine completely