Di­vine anorex­ics

Mys­tics re­fused food and drink in a bid to mimic Christ’s suf­fer­ing

BBC History Magazine - - Medieval Mystics -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.