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The "Bynum thesis", about the suffering of the female body in religious/mystical practice, and its reception: criticism, qualification, substantiation


by Katrien Vander Straeten


The following is the term paper for the course RN713/TH813, "Gender in Medieval Christian Mysticism", with Prof. Deeana Klepper, Spring 2001.


I. Introduction

This paper will investigate a narrow issue, namely the reception of the thesis brought forward by Caroline Walker Bynum in her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast and in some other of her works: the “Bynum-thesis”. A large part of this paper will be devoted to explaining this thesis, or rather complex of theses. It was and is tremendously influential and – as will also be shown – dominant in the research into the role of the female body and suffering in religious practice, and far beyond that. Still there have been voices of dissent, of varying discord, which speak of a “fault-line” in the Bynum-thesis. The most important voice is that of Amy Hollywood, who was the first to point to a problem with Bynum’s thesis, and who proffers a corrective. We shall see that Hollywood’s criticism of Bynum has to do with the sources of the information about the women involved, that this criticism is quite well-founded but that it is more a qualification of the Bynum-thesis than a criticism, and also that it comes with provisos of its own. I will follow Hollywood’s (qualified) argument with Bynum through a couple of revisions, refinements and re-qualifications. I will then turn to other scholars that have, in different ways, taken up Hollywood’s thread: Garay and Pedersen. At the end though I will briefly show that the majority of the reception of the Bynum-thesis, even after Hollywood, is rather uncritical. Still this is not contrary, but indeed consistent with Hollywood’s work, because – as I will argue in the conclusion – Hollywood leaves the Bynum-thesis standing: she only qualifies it, and by that qualification may even substantiate it.  

II. The Bynum-thesis

1) Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987): two main hypotheses (food and pain)

In 1987 Caroline Walker Bynum published the groundbreaking and influential Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. As the title suggests, Bynum’s project is first of all to show that food figured prominently in late medieval religious devotion and spirituality – throughout she limits her research to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Food, eating and fasting were, she writes, “the most basic and literal way of encountering God” (2). Furthermore, her first key hypothesis, which is (roughly) about food, is that food was “a more important motif in women’s piety than in men’s” (4; my italic). In Part I on background, she brings these two elements together: an general overview of the opportunities and spirituality of religious women in that time period (Ch. 1), and the historical background of fasting and feasting in general (Ch. 2). In Part II she then provides the evidence for her first hypothesis. First she proves that food in general was primarily a woman’s concern, and backs this up with comparative evidence about men’s concerns (Ch. 3). Then (Ch. 4) she treats the religious importance of food in the lives of women saints (in several regions). Then she concentrates even further upon the role of “Food in the writings of women mystics” (Ch. 5). In these chapters Bynum zooms in on such acts as food preparation and consumption, fasting and feeding others as (part of) women’s devotional practice. She also looks at the many meanings of ordinary food and of food-images, and points to its association with the extra-ordinary food that is the Eucharist.

This leads her to expand her field if interest to other “devotions, such as those to the body, wounds, heart, and blood of Christ [as being] were at the very center of women’s piety” (4). From there on it is a short step to the body and especially suffering of the devotee herself. This involves investigating firstly the effects of eating, primarily of the Eucharist, on the body, i.e., paramystical, mostly psycho-somatic phenomena, and secondly the preparations, by the devotee, of her body for devotion by fasting and extreme asceticism. Also “such ordinary biological and social experiences as giving birth, lactating, suffering”, besides “preparing and distribution food” come into focus. This leads Bynum to posit a second hypothesis, which is the explanation for the first and bears down primarily on pain. This explanation is complex (189) and has a negative and a positive part. Positively, Bynum suggests two groups of answers (189): practices such as fasting and giving away food were ways for women to manipulate their bodies, their families and even religious authorities (Chs. 6-7). Secondly, especially painful practices as fasting, extreme asceticism, and physical suffering were ways for women to identify with the suffering Christ (Ch.8). “Food most basically meant flesh; flesh meant suffering […]; and suffering meant redemption” (250). So “women moved closer to God not merely by abandoning their flawed physicality”, but also “by becoming the suffering and feeding humanity of the body on the cross, the food on the altar” (5; my italic), i.e., by being food themselves (Ch. 9). Negatively, the asceticism and suffering this involved was not simply a matter of renouncing the flesh and the world, nor a self-hatred springing from an internalization of the misogyny of their time. Bynum spends quite some effort on this part (Chs. 6-9), as it involves some “very large revisions of what has always been assumed” (208). Bynum wants to demonstrate “the opportunity of physicality” (246) for these women: their fleshliness was not an obstacle, but indeed the locus of possibilities (6; original italic) for religious practice and union with God.

It is not my intention to enter further into all these issues, or into the complex relations between them. The focus of this paper concerns only part of Bynum’s message and particularly one part of her second hypothesis: that extreme asceticism, physical pain and suffering, and “abstinence [become] an important characteristic of women’s piety in the same period that sees an increase in several types of female miracles of bodily manipulation” (201; my italics), such psychosomatic effects as stigmata, etc. Let us have a look at the sources Bynum relies on to make this conclusion.

2) Holy Feast: case-studies and their source material

In her Introduction, Bynum admits that many of the women she turns to for evidence were exceptional: they were, after all, most of them saints. Bynum treats quite a large amount of these exceptional women – which made Holy Feast into a vast collection of anecdotes and quotes from material that in 1987 hadn’t yet been made available to the wider public. Still the “Medieval Women” in the title is legitimate, first of all because, if we put these exceptional women in their religious and social contexts, we see that some of these saintly practices were found in ordinary religious women as well. Secondly, the fact that these women were chosen as examples shows that they fulfilled – though to a higher degree – certain common assumptions about religious practice and spirituality (7-8). With concern to our theme, the case-studies are beyond question, but which sources did Bynum consult for information about them?

These case-studies are advanced in the two key chapters of the “Evidence”- Part of the book: Chapter 4, “Food in the Lives of Women Saints” and Chapter 5, “Food in the writings of Women Mystics” – though these chapters are in the “Evidence”, not in the “Explanation” Part, we will see that they also provide evidence for the second hypothesis (about pain). The sources were therefore (A) vitae and (B) women’s own writings. Thus four of the women whose vitae were mined in the fourth Chapter reappear in “the words that [they] themselves wrote or spoke” (152) in the fifth Chapter. Chapter 5 is important, Bynum writes, because “it is necessary to listen with some care to their voices” (152), and this because “hagiography – no matter how elegant its structure – is notoriously stereotypical and exaggerated […they] sometimes express more clearly the expectations of authors and readers than the hopes and fears of their retiring and earnest subjects. We must therefore ask whether women’s own writings suggest the same fixation on food […] they do” (149). This shows that Bynum is sensitive to our theme, which she mentions several times at crucial points in her book, like in the last chapter, where she considers it “mistaken to take the ideas of male theologians and biographers about women as the notions of women about themselves” (295), and finds it important to “consider the pain of asceticism [without] ignoring the explicit words of its practitioners” (298). Bynum thus sees the importance of “direct” sources, but if we have a closer look at which they are and what they say, we see that, against all appearances, our topic does not receive the consideration it demands, and that therefore a fault line as it were, appears in Bynum’s thesis.

The crucial case-studies are the writings of Hadewijch and Beatrice of Nazareth, and the “two Italian Catherines”, of Siena and of Genoa. These are chosen because they make for two couples of “a woman whose own writing survives […] with a woman whose ideas were partially mediated but by no means entirely masked by those who recorded them” (152; my italics). This alerts us to the fact that a lot, in fact half, of the material of Chapter 5 is still taken from “recordings” by others, and furthermore that the “recorders” are deemed reliable enough. The case in point is Beatrice of Nazareth[1], for a quick glance at the notes shows that Bynum bases her conclusions nearly exclusively on the recording, i.e., the male-authored Vita Beatricis, this while the only surviving text of Beatrice’s own hand, The Seven Manners, is available – I will show this presently. Bynum’s belief in the reliability of the Vita is based on the uncritical acceptance of it the “translation” of Beatrice’s “spiritual autobiography”, “into Latin that, when we compare it to her Flemish original, appears both florid and essentially truthful” (161; my italics). But the “comparison” that is to substantiate that claim is lacking, and Bynum ends up relying nearly exclusively on the Vita per se. E.g., in the 19 relevant notes, approximately[2] 22 references are to the Vita, only 6 are to Beatrice’s own writing – and these are to the literal Latin translation of the original Seven Manners and the (indirect) English translation of that Latin translation, both to be found in Roger De Ganck’s English translation of the Vita (369, n.42, cf. also n.44). Of the three extensive quotes, only one (164) is from the Seven Manners, and this from the “Fifth Manner” which is the most “insane” Manner and the one which mentions the body the most, but (in my view) metaphorically[3]. Bynum though uses this quote as evidence for Beatrice’s factual physical experiences, and here, as well as throughout this section, Bynum’s uncritical reliance on the hagiographer’s interpretation is apparent – illustrated already by the fact that she names the original the “Seven Steps of Love”.[4] Therefore Bynum’s conclusions are based on the hagiography. These conclusions are no longer about the meaning of food but about the meaning of suffering, pain and illness for Beatrice: “In Beatrice, the frenzy becomes illness, ‘insanity’, in image and in fact”, and “about Beatrice’s life we know enough to see that asceticism and eucharistic devotion were central  to her actual piety, that she sought hysteria as a means of fusing with Christ’s cross”, “illness […] is chiefly insanity (orewoet) […] For this illness, however, food/drinking/blood is a major image; and both food/drinking/blood and frenzy/hysteria/insanity are, to Beatrice, images of physicality” (both 161; all italics mine).

Only once in Holy Feast does Bynum address the problem of relying on hagiography: “Tabulating references to piety in hagiographical literature can […] be misleading”, and she names a few issue (the repetition of clichés, the borrowing from other saints’ lives). But she quickly concludes that “Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion” that she has been drawing. (87). The vitae are, to Bynum, reliable enough. This is where the “fault line” appears in the Bynum thesis.

3) Bynum’s other work on this topic: Fragmentation and Redemption – and its sources

Bynum repeated and refined her theses in several articles, which originally appeared before Amy Hollywood’s criticism, and even before Holy Feast and Holy Fast – so we can treat them at this point – and which were collected in Fragmentation and Redemption. Essays on Gender and the Human body in Medieval Religion (1992). Several of these essays “describe women’s surprisingly ‘experiential’ literary voices; all underline the somatic quality of women’s piety” (16). It also seems that Bynum has become more sensitive to the issue of channels through which we learn about women’s experiences, especially hagiography. Thus she writes that each essay also acknowledges that “female creativity must be facilitated by men” (17). But again, we need to inspect the essays before we corroborate this.

Most relevant to our theme is the article “The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages” (first published in 1989). This article rehearses the second hypothesis of Holy Feast, both its positive and negative sides: that “control, discipline, even torture of the flesh” were “not so much the rejection of physicality as the elevation of it […] into a means of access into the divine”, and that “female spirituality was especially somatic” (182). Here Bynum is a lot more concerned with the female body and suffering than she was in Holy Feast. For instance, nowhere in the latter did she use the words “somatic” or “somatizing”[5], and in the conclusion she even wrote that “the two wider issues: the nature of medieval asceticism, and the significance of gender in medieval religion” were no more than raised (Holy Feast, 294). Here the “peculiar” or “intense bodily quality” of women’s spirituality (183) has become the center of attention. And besides focus on bodily suffering, she has also added nuance to that old thesis: while both women and men “manipulated their bodies from the outside, so to speak, by flagellation and other forms of self-inflicted suffering, cases of psychosomatic manipulation (or manipulation from within) are almost exclusively female” (186).

As to the question of case-studies and sources, there is overall more attention to women’s own writings: Bynum mentions especially those of Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch, Catherine of Siena, Margery Kempe (222). To give an indication, Beatrice is mentioned only twice (though again it is the Vita that is the source of information). There is also a brief passage where the role of the hagiographer is at issue: that they made extravagant claims about their subjects being “rosy and beautiful despite flagellation and self-starvation, excruciating disease and death itself” (231). But as a whole, all nuances, focusing and innovations  aside, there is no change with regard to our “fault-line” theme.


III. Reactions to the Bynum thesis


1) Amy Hollywood (i), “Suffering Transformed” (1994): qualification with provisos

That fault-line was first indicated by Amy Hollywood, at first some 7 years after the publication of Holy Feast. In 1994, she published an article in Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics (ed. Bernard McGinn), titled “Suffering Transformed. Marguerite Porète, Meister Eckhart, and the Problem of Women’s Spirituality”. In this article Hollywood shows her penchant for saving mystics – here Porète and Eckhart – from the expectations and prescriptions, influences and conditionings of their environment, and especially from what is at their center: the suffering mainly of the female body. No wonder that she is one of the scholars who is concerned about, or at least feels the need to qualify, the Bynum thesis. This article, though an “overture” as it were, to the real work, sets much of the agenda.

Hollywood starts her article by identifying “A certain narrative concerning late medieval piety [that] is becoming increasingly familiar”: “The association is of women with bodiliness” is “the means by which women achieve sanctification”, mainly by “[aligning] themselves with the humanity of Christ” (87). She identifies this as (part of) the Bynum-thesis, and in a note writes that “this account is problematized,” – as is done in the article – “particularly with regard to Bynum’s attempt to revaluate medieval women’s somatic sanctity, but basically remains intact in much current work on medieval women’s spirituality” (87, n.1). The latter fact we will ascertain at the end of this part of the paper. Though the Bynum-thesis was an essential and accurate “corrective to the false picture of medieval Christianity as unqualified in its denunciation of the body and of femaleness insofar as it is tied to bodily nature” (87), Hollywood feels that “the picture requires shading in order to capture the complexities” (88). Her main target is the differences between “male and male-defined understandings of women’s religiosity and women’s own texts” (88). Thus she wants to demonstrate how some medievals directly protested the descriptions and prescriptions of a certain form of spirituality, especially a suffering one, as feminine, and this crucially by male-authored hagiographical traditions. Hollywood ascribes this attitude to “the Beguine writers”, but immediately narrows her population to Marguerite Porète and Meister Eckhart. They “sought to subvert the association of women with the body, suffering, and Christ’s suffering humanity” (88), i.e., the Bynum-thesis! Hollywood thus sets out to take something back from that thesis.

But here I will not be concerned with what exactly she takes back, i.e., with Porète or Eckhart. I would rather immediately focus on Hollywood’s indication of the major flaw in Bynum’s thesis: the sources she mined for information on the mystical women and their attitudes towards bodiliness and suffering. She perceives that Bynum (as we saw) distinguished female from male spirituality with regard to harsh asceticism, paramystical physical (psychosomatic or “hysterical”) phenomena and bodily metaphors. But the diagnosis is that (as we also saw) the first two “specialties” of women “are central to the predominantly male-authored hagiographical traditions”, and that “only the third occurs in the female-authored mystical texts of the thirteenth century” (89-90). There is no doubt, she writes, “that thirteenth-century male hagiographers […] view women’s sanctity as peculiarly somatic” (90)… And that – we could take her, or this, to imply – may be the only conclusion that is borne out by Bynum’s evidence.

Hollywood turns to the evidence of the importance of the body and of illness to Beatrice of Nazareth: it is the hagiographer who “translates” into perceptibility and externality what for Beatrice were merely internal experiences, sometimes described with the help of bodily metaphors. Hollywood actually uses the same quote from the “Fifth Manner” that Bynum used, but to support the exact opposite conclusion: “Beatrice does not wish to (re)instate the body as the sole or prime arena of divine action” (92; my italic). Not only a source-conscious reading of Beatrice, but of others too, leads to such a conclusion. Porète’s (and Eckhart’s) “de-emphasis and even vilification of the role of bodily religious experience and practice (108), and its suffering, is thus only the completion of “a movement begun in the Beguine authors Hadewijch and Mechthild of Magdeburg, who “stress the internal suffering of the soul”[6], and whose “refusal or bypassing of physical suffering is remarkable in the context of thirteenth-century hagiographical traditions in which externally marked bodies are a paramount sign of sanctity” (93-4).

In short, a closer look at the source-texts, with their authors in mind, would thus lead one to qualify the Bynum-thesis. But also the qualification itself needs two provisos, which Hollywood brings up at the end of her article. First of all, Porète and Eckhart failed in their attempts to deliver women from having to suffer in order to legitimate their sanctity, and “The suffering of the female body becomes more necessary as a mark of suffering humanity, and hence of sanctity, in the fourteenth century” (110-111). Among these later women Marguerite Porète is therefore the exception. But, secondly and even more crucially, those earlier women who escaped the hagiographical harness, Beatrice (and Clare of Assisi), are “rare exceptions” (112). And also they failed to bring their resistance to physical suffering into the mainstream: after their deaths “hagiographers immediately […] provided an ascetic and visionary setting”, and none of their writings were influential (112). Thus Hollywood’s qualification took something away from the Bynum-thesis: women like Beatrice for instance. But these proviso’s, stressing the exceptionality of these women, proceed to give a lot back to it: the “mainstream”, women and men to whom  the Bynum-thesis does apply. In her next publication Hollywood will somewhat characterize that mainstream.

2) Hollywood (ii), The Soul as Virgin Wife. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porète, and Meister Eckhart (1995)

The focus stays on the connection between the beguine mystics and Meister Eckhart in The Soul as Virgin Wife, which is based on Hollywood’s dissertation under Bernard McGinn. The main project here is twofold: to demonstrate the influence of the beguine mystics, especially Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porète, on Meister Eckhart (and later German mystics), and to show how these three mystics “all work to subvert discourses on and practices concerned with, gender and subjectivity”, to effect a “desomatizing transformation of ‘female spirituality’” (5). But most importantly for our purposes, Hollywood reasserts that “although much recent work on women’s spirituality in the later Middle Ages has focused on hagiographical and legendary texts” – and here she is again referring to Bynum, but also to others who have followed Bynum’s suit, but who rely even more on hagiographical material (212, n.22) – “the writings of women must be the basis for any account of their self-understanding and the route to God that they saw open for themselves” (5). She calls this a renewed attention for the genre of the source-material of one’s information. Thus, “the distinction made by Bynum – at least with regard to asceticism and paramystical phenomena – is not one between men’s and women’s religiosity, but between hagiographical and mystical writings” (28).

But again, throughout these arguments which are, so to speak, anti-Bynum, Hollywood allows for her provisos and the limitations of her anti-thesis. Thus, she writes, the “definitions of female sanctity expressed in the hagiographical literature” that they reject, also occur in “some female-authored mystical writings” (6). I.e., we must recognize the three protagonists of the argument as exceptions to the mainstream. In the end, then, the Bynum-thesis remains intact, but so do the earlier qualifications of it: the thesis does apply to late medieval female spirituality, but to the mainstream female spirituality, and there are exceptions that escape the application. Moreover Bynum’s mainstream is male-dominated: when we look at Mechthild’s and Marguerite’s writings, it is “despite the recognition that women’s writings themselves internalize and are mediated through male-dominated culture” (6) – about this presently.

Hollywood treats her give-and-take with Bynum in extensive detail early on in her book, in a section called “Gender and Genre: Hagiographical Bodies” (27-39). As this section mainly returns to the material covered in “Suffering Transformed” – e.g., to the case of Beatrice of Nazareth, which receives a much more extensive treatment here –, I will mention only one refinement of Hollywood’s earlier position. With regard to the difference in the cases of earlier (thirteenth century) and later (fourteenth century) medieval women, Hollywood writes that “The degree to which such legitimating strategies were internalized by medieval women can be gauged by the repetition of similar tropes within female-authored hagiographies and their incorporation within other female-authored texts. While there is evidence that women hagiographers submit to genre expectations in the thirteenth century, bodily asceticism and paramystical phenomena do not begin to emerge in women’s mystical writings until the fourteenth century” (38). Unfortunately this extremely interesting thought is not elaborated, nor is it taken up again in Hollywood’s last article on the subject. Presumably her forthcoming book, titled (as yet) Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (2001?) will be even more relevant, but it is as yet unavailable.

3) Hollywood (iii), “Inside Out. Beatrice of Nazareth and Her Hagiographer” (1999)

In 1999 Catherine Mooney edited the volume Gendered Voices. Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters. The problem dealt with by the authors is nicely summed up by none other than Caroline Walker Bynum herself: “Some sensitive and alert medievalists began to wonder whether the hagiographical and mystical treatises  by and about women that had seemed our best hope for recovering their particular and intimate experiences might not be too opaque, too constructed by high-status make authors to give any window on women’s lives. It is to this problem that Catherine Mooney and her collaborators address this wonderful set of essays” (x). It is, on other words, the problem at the heart of the Bynum thesis.

Hollywood’s contribution, “Inside Out”, again addresses the case of Beatrice. This case is particularly rewarding for Hollywood’s project because the contrast is not (as in Marguerite’s and Eckhart’s cases) between their writing/preaching and the more general influences of society, but a much more specific and pronounced contrast between Beatrice’s writing and a “translation” of it by a male hagiographer and, indirectly, by his audience. Beatrice’s case thus allows Hollywood to sharpen her old arguments against Bynum – she also addresses Sarah Beckwith (95-6) – that, for one, “we cannot take male-authored texts as our primary source of information for women’s relations to cultural representations and discourse, particularly when writings by women are available to us” (79). And, secondly, “some of these women-authored texts suggest studied resistance to the forms of female religiosity and subjectivity prescribed for them within male-authored texts. This resistance centers around the suffering body and the interplay of interiority and exteriority within religious life” (79). Again I will skip the niceties of her conclusions, e.g., her treatment of the “inside out” Beatrice that emerges from her hagiographer’s handy-work, of the interaction (in the Vita) between body and the visible signs of sanctity marked upon it, the hiding of these signs, and the ultimate interiorization of them by the saint herself  (84), etc.[7]

More interesting for us instead is Hollywood’s renewed intention to women’s adoption of male prescriptions, i.e., to the provisos of her qualification of the Bynum-thesis. Beatrice now very clearly comes forward as an exception: “she implicitly attempts to avoid the fate described by Beckwith [and Bynum]: her text suggests a desire to avoid becoming a spectacle of ambiguity, transcience, and bodiliness through which her contemporaries can find their wholeness” (96, my italics). These contemporaries are not just the hagiographers, but most of the mystics and religious women: Beatrice defies the “predominant prescriptions and norms” (96).

 4)  Garay (1997) and Pedersen (1999) on the Bynum-thesis: criticism, qualification, or substantiation?

In her article of 1997, “’A Naked Intent unto God’: Ungendered Discourse in Some Late Medieval Mystical Texts”, Kathleen E. Garay begins by writing that Bynum “meticulously revealed […] the presence of a distinct form of female discourse” (36). She also makes it clear from the outset that “it is not the intention of this paper to offer any challenge to these observations” and indeed the language employed by Angela of Foligno, Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa “offers solid support for Walker Bynum’s argument” (37). And indeed it does not do so if we already take for granted the above qualification of the Bynum-thesis by Amy Hollywood: that there is “less difference between female and male writers than might be expected” and that there are thus exceptions to the rule. Garay’s attempt is exactly to find some more exceptions, and she finds them among women and men: Marguerite Porète, Julian of Norwich,  Marguerite d’Oignt, Margery Kempe, and Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing. All of Garay’s sources are these mystics’ own writers, and her point is not to address the issue of the problem of hagiography as a source. Still she makes a point about the Bynum-thesis that is relevant to us.

Her general conclusion about these mystics is that, counter to Bynum’s thesis, the male writers did not see genders as dichotomous, and themselves as “power, judgment, discipline and reason” (44; Garay is here referring to Bynum’s Fragmentation and Redemption, 175). Indeed, the male mystics treated in her article “abandoned the authoritarian and dogmatic voice, more typical of their gender, and adopted instead the emotive, inclusive, more conversational style of discourse more usually associated with women’s writing” (44; my italic), and speaking, in effect, in an “essentially undifferentiated voice [that] may be identified as a female one” (37, my italic; cf. also 48). What we have here is another qualification of the Bynum-thesis, but as it were from the side of the men. Still, though qualified, Bynum’s thesis is also substantiated: Garray points out exceptions to Bynum’s rule.

And speaking of exceptions: we return to Beatrice of Nazareth. She is exceptional first of all because she affords us the unique opportunity for a one-to-one comparison between female self-understanding (Seven Manners) and male-authored “translation” of it (Vita Beatricis). Beatrice is thus the test-case for our matter at hand, and it was seized with both hands also by Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen – this in 1999 when Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne edited the volume New Trends in Feminine Spirituality. The Holy Women of Liege and their Impact. In her article “The In-carnation of Beatrice of Nazareth’s Theology” Pedersen tries to show here that “many of the assumptions and allegations about holy women as extremely self-abnegating figures can be ascribed to their hagiographers” (61). Pedersen explicitly points at Bynum as the source of these assumptions: “following Bynum’s ground-breaking study of European mulieres sanctae in her Holy Feast and Holy Fast, the vitae of medieval holy women are sometimes read as literal transcriptions of ascetic and self-abnegating feats of bodily suffering” (62-3) This quite specific criticism of “this line of historization (Historisierung) of medieval vitae and psychologization of their protagonists’ (63), is perhaps the most outspoken and straightforward criticism of the Bynum-thesis that one can find in the literature. Still, though this is left unsaid by Pedersen herself, we know by now that, however counter to the Bynum-theses Beatrice’s case turns out to be, Beatrice is an exception. And so also Pedersen’s criticism only really means a qualification of the Bynum-thesis.

5) Voices in accord (uncritical voices): Petroff (1994), McNamara (1996), McGinn (1998), Elliott (1997)

After having shown the critical voices, the task remains to give a hearing to those voices that are in accord with the Bynum-thesis. This however would be an enormous task, for Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast was and still is an extremely influential book which serves the purposes of most scholars without needing qualifications and provisos. I will very briefly treat only a couple of works that can be said to be quite representative of the reception of Bynum. They are either general works on mysticism or religious women, or quite specifically concerned with the female body. As a gauge to their agreement, I will see whether and how they mention Hollywood’s work, because she is the main representative of the (qualified) criticism of Bynum. In many cases also Beatrice of Nazareth can serve as such a gauge.

Elizabeth Avilda Petroff published Body and Soul, Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism in 1994, so before having made acquaintance with Hollywood’s work. In her book we find her in complete accord with, or perhaps quite uncritical of Bynum. She takes for granted that in Holy Feast Bynum is concerned with “real medieval women – unlike the unreal women portrayed by the male authors of the hagiographic romances”, and that she “shows us autobiographical texts by women that make body visible as an imitatio Christi, proving the suffering body to be an instrument of transcendence” (164; my italics).

One of two more general studies is Jo Ann McNamara in her book “Sisters in Arms. Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia” (1996) mention Bynum only in her Bibliography, and she does not mention Hollywood). The other is McGinn’s Flowering of Mysticism, published in 1998. Although Bernard McGinn shows sensitivity to the problem of hagiography as a source for information on “what women thought about themselves” (xiii; in a footnote he refers to Hollywood), he never makes the connection with Bynum, on whose work he relies throughout. E.g., there is only one and very brief mention of Hollywood’s (his student’s) work in the body of the work – all other references are in footnotes and are no more revealing of her qualification of Bynum. That one time he mentions Hollywood is in the section on Beatrice, but with regard to the latter he betrays the same trust in the Vita as Bynum did (cf. 167ff). More specifically within the field then, Dyan Elliott’s “The Physiology of Rapture and Female Spirituality” in the 1997 collection Medieval Theology and the Natural Body, also relies on Bynum’s findings without criticism or qualification.


IV. Conclusion

What we have presented, in a nutshell, the Bynum-thesis on the roles of food and especially of the female body in religious practice. We have also seen that the association of women with bodiliness and somatic religious experiences and sanctity was popular from the moment of the publication of Holy Feast and Holy Fast, and that it is still the accepted theory. However, a “fault-line” has been discovered: Bynum’s rather uncritical reliance on hagiography as the source for her research. This poses the problem – first addressed by Amy Hollywood – that Bynum’s conclusion are perhaps more applicable to what medieval men thought women’s religious practices and experiences were, or should have been, and less applicable to how women understood themselves and actually practiced their religion. Hollywood therefore saw that “the picture required shading in order to capture the complexities raised by the fact that we see the majority of medieval women through the eyes of medieval men. 

But, I have tried to argue, this criticism does not undermine the Bynum thesis, and those who bring it forward – Hollywood, Garay, and to a lesser extent Pedersen – see it more as just that, a “shading”, a qualification. Through a source-and genre sensitive reading of the case of Beatrice of Nazareth, Hollywood demonstrates that the Bynum-thesis does not apply to all medieval women. But Hollywood is also sensitive to the fact that Beatrice – and Marguerite Porète and Mesiter Eckhart, she also names Clare of Assisi – are exceptions that, indeed, prove the rule, the “Bynum rule”. They broke with what were the predominant contemporary expectations, of men and women, about female sanctity and about the role of the body and suffering in it. Also, even if the association of women with somatic experience and practice was at first mainly a male interpretation of things, then as the thirteenth century progressed these hagiographical expectations were internalized by holy women, and thus actually lived. In short, the Bynum-thesis is qualified: there were, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, exceptions. But these were just that: exceptions. The way I put it is that the qualification takes some women away from the Bynum-thesis, but it confirms the thesis for the mainstream of medieval women.


Select Bibliography

Caroline Walker Bynum. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1987.

---. Fragmentation and Redemption. Essays on Gender and the Human body in Medieval Religion. New York, Zone Books, 1992.

            Most relevant in this collection:

---. “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century”. In: Fragmentation, pp.119-150. (originally published in 1984)

---. “The Mysticism and Asceticism of Medieval Women: Some Comments on the Typologies of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch”. In: Fragmentation, pp.53-78. (originally published in 1988)

            and especially:

---. “The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages”. In: Fragmentation, pp.181-238. (originally published in 1989)


Dyan Elliott. “The Physiology of Rapture and Female Spirituality”. In: Peter Biller and A.J. Minnis, eds. Medieval Theology and the Natural Body, York, York Medieval Press, 1997, pp.141-174.


Kathleen E. Garay. “’A Naked Intent unto God’: Ungendered Discourse in Some Late Medieval Mystical Texts”. In: Mystic Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2, March 1997, pp.36-51.

Amy Hollywood. “Suffering Transformed. Marguerite Porète, Meister Eckhart, and the Problem of Women’s Spirituality”. In: Bernard McGinn, ed., Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics, New York, Continuum, 1994., pp. 87-113.

---. , The Soul as Virgin Wife. Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porète, and Meister Eckhart. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.

---. “Inside Out. Beatrice of Nazareth and Her Hagiographer”. In: Catherine M. Mooney, ed., Gendered Voices. Medieval Saints and their Interpreters, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, pp. 78-98.

--- Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Forthcoming, 2001.


Bernard McGinn. The Flowering of Mysticism. Men and Women in the New Mysticism – 1200-1350. New York, Crossroad Herder, 1998. (vol. III of The Presence of God. A History of Western Christian Mysticism)


Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen. “The In-carnation of Beatrice of Nazareth’s Theology”. In: Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, eds., New Trends in Feminine Spirituality. The Holy Women of Liege and their Impact. Antwerp, Brepols, 1999, pp.61-80.


Elizabeth Avilda Petroff. Body and Soul. Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.


Ute Stargardt. “Review of Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife”. In: Envoi, vol.6, nr.1, Spring 1997, pp.79-84.

[1] I will not look at the other case-studies, as they were not the occasion for the criticism that is our topic here, cf. III.

[2] Approximately because some references are very general and indicate many places in the Vita at once. But again also all these general references are to the Vita per se.

[3] cf. next note.

[4] I refer to my study of Beatrice’s original “Seven Manners of Holy Loving” and its thorough-going adaptation in the hagiographer’s version (“translation”) of it in his Vita – an adaptation that is in my view a complete rewriting according to standards, intentions and expectations wholly different from the original ones.

[5] except for “psychosomatic”. Perhaps this means nothing at all, but on the other hand the use of these words may indicate that she is more explicit and focused on this matter.

[6] Hollywood goes even further: all these women have “the desire to spare the suffering body” but also “the suffering soul” (94, also 104).


[7] Again I refer to my other paper (cf. n.4 in this paper).