Anorexia and the Holiness of Saint Catherine of Siena

Anorexia and the Holiness of Saint Catherine of Siena

By Mario Reda and Giuseppe Sacco

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, Vol.8:1 (2001)

Introduction: In the medieval period, the control, renunciation, and torture of the body were understood not so much as a rejection of the physical, but as a way of achieving the divine. Gradually, the manifestations of this renunciation of the body came to apply peculiarly to women, for whom this state may be defined as “holy anorexia,” identified by the following features.

The Female Body as an Expression of Sexuality. The body of the woman was seen as an expression of sexuality, curvaceous with prominent breasts, and was thought to be the product of the woman herself, whereas the male body was formed by God. This supposition was confirmed by the extremely changeable nature of the female body, particularly in terms of control. Thus, the female easily slipped into a trance, into levitation, into catatonic states, leading rapidly to asceticism or anorexia. She displayed spontaneous lactation and bleeding, manifestations that sometimes were accompanied by stigmata. Indeed, at least fifteen medieval saints bled at the moment they received the Eucharist. In contrast, of saints in other periods of history, only Padre Pio and San Francesco displayed stigmata that were preserved on their bodies after death. If we are to consider specifically anorexia as a characteristic of sanctity, we must examine the periods of 1200 and the end of 1500 when Theresa of Avila (a Spanish saint who joined with a mystic force and spirit to reform Catholicism, resulting in the reinvigoration of all religious orders) began frequently to use twigs of olives to induce vomiting and completely empty her stomach. In this way she was able to truly take into herself the Host, which became her unique source of sustenance. From an investigation of the conduct of 170 Italian medieval saints by Rudolph Bell, fully one half of them exhibited symptoms of anorexia.

The Emotions of Women. Also, the lifestyles and emotional expressions of women have been assessed. The emotions were considered by medieval saints as mystical experiences, deriving from a meeting with God. Margaret of Faenza, Angela of Foligno, and Margaret of Oingt were likened to a slender bush with five branches representing the five senses, which were able to bloom only in a brook (representing Christ), bringing to life their feelings of sensation, including the awakening of sexuality.

Bodily Manifestations as Affirmation of Mystico-Religious Rules. Anorexia and other manifestations of the body provided the medieval woman a unique opportunity to affirm the true power of mystico-religious rules. A woman was destined to get married with whomever was designated according to family origin; otherwise, she entered a convent closed to the outside. In the latter case, however, the medieval woman was not allowed to study or acquire clerical power nor to speak in public or to preach. However, the complete renunciation of the body made it possible for a woman to foster, express, and experience her sensations and desires as manifestations of faith and religious expression. “Holy anorexia” was a confirmation of the role of mystical power, providing the woman with a way to convincingly affirm her sanctity to her confessors in whom she placed her trust and gave her charge. In fact, she placed her trust in her confessors in the same way that trust was placed in the family, which guaranteed in return to nurture her. Anorexia, together with flagellation and other bodily suffering, became the way for a woman to achieve holiness. Her body became the symbol of lust, of weakness, and irrationality.

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