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Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious…

Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval… (original 1987; edition 1988)

by Caroline Walker Bynum

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367629,545 (4.19)10
Title:Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (The New Historicism : Studies in Cu
Authors:Caroline Walker Bynum
Info:University of California Press (1988), Paperback
Collections:Your library

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Holy Feast and Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum (1987)



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The nature of Bynum’s analysis in Holy Feast and Holy Fast is decidedly synchronic. She both compares and contrasts medieval sensibilities regarding food with those of the twentieth century, tending to emphasize the extent to which modern readers will find the medieval perspectives “alien” (246). But her concern is not to demonstrate any causes or mechanisms by which the earlier state was transformed to the later one. Even within the relatively broad time-frame that she has chosen—three centuries or more during the later Middle Ages—she emphasizes a relatively uniform set of ideas governing consistent expressions of female religiosity (6-7). While she provides explicit disclaimers admitting the reality of historical change and difference, she seems only to demonstrate the process by which European religious culture, like the exceptional women whom she studies, does not change through reversal or disruption, but only intensifies its own given character.

In contrast with her critique of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Bynum elsewhere praises his proposals regarding “dominant symbols,” with “their many facets.” Although it is more understated here, the metaphor is the same as the one that she employs in the “crystalline structure” in her female saints’ lives. And the nature of that gem may actually be most clearly explained by Turner's predecessor Clifford Geertz, who had written,

"Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the 'said' of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior." (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973, p. 27)

These “conceptual structures” are the “dominant symbols,” arrayed and anchored in such a fashion as to create what Geertz with his own natural and geometric metaphor calls “webs of significance.” Their exposure and explication can create an assurance of integrated meaning sufficiently compelling as to make a specific cultural matrix seem not only lucid, but inevitable. The theoretical danger and difficulty for the historian lies in becoming frozen in the crystal or trapped in the web. There is a hazard of being confined by a “synchronic” sensibility, which, if it has the virtue of avoiding stereotyped storylines, may not be able to accommodate or account for the transformative events of history.

(excerpted from my brief 2006 paper on "The Concept of Structure in Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast")
1 vote paradoxosalpha | Sep 29, 2016 |
I love books where scholars take seriously the words and experiences of women. So of course I was going to swoon over this. Walker Bynum manages to corral a vast amount of fragmentary documentation into something resembling a coherent shape, while making a damn persuasive case that modern understanding of female religious experience and symbols ignores the social and cultural context of those experiences and symbols. I think she understates the extent, depth, and breadth of medieval misogyny, but that does not materially change the point that women managed to make themselves a religious world in which their needs were paramount.

Also, the epilogue, in which Walker Bynum briefly discusses some implications of her study on modern ideas about food, damn near made me cry. ( )
  cricketbats | Mar 30, 2013 |
An extremely interesting and absorbing look at female religiosity and food in medieval western Europe from three angles: the religious meaning of food for women; the forms of medieval asceticism for them; and the significance of gender roles within religious experience. I agree with a lot of her conclusions, though not perhaps how she reaches them. I don't quite buy her final conclusion on male vs female use of symbolism, which seems too universalising for me, and her discussion of anorexia nervosa as we understand it has dated badly in the twenty years since the book was first published. Overall, though, I thought her point about viewing asceticism not as a flight out of the body, but further into it, was well made, particularly with regards to how we as moderns view medieval expressions/denial of sexuality. Scholarship in the field has built a lot on this since it was first written, but it is still worth the read to see what its origins are—though perhaps not if you have an aversion to tales of saints drinking pus or eating lice. ( )
1 vote siriaeve | Jun 13, 2009 |
Great reference book on Medieval Church and Food. ( )
  SeraSolig | Feb 18, 2009 |
Bynum looks at the kinship medieval women felt with Jesus Christ, through the medium of both giving of their bodies to provide food. Examining the writings of many hitherto neglected medieval female mystics, she explores how food became a point of connection that brought women into a deeper and more personal understanding of Christianity. ( )
1 vote klg19 | Jan 25, 2008 |
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Examines the role of food in the religion of women in the Middle Ages and argues that food practices enabled women to exert power in the family and define their religious vocations.

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