Unholy Restraint: Medieval Christian Male Piety and Self-Starvation

January 16, 2017 in General

In History Today (January 2017), Katherine Harvey tells the alarming story of dietary withdrawal (“fasting”) and its significance for medieval male clerics, much as Caroline Walker Bynum did for their female counterparts twenty years ago. Rigorous fasting could lead to debility and death. In the case of St. Thomas a Becket, he was enjoined by his confessor at the Burgundian Cistercian monastery of Pontigny to relent, and an increased food intake brought him back to full health. Harvey notes that clerics lived within a religious subculture that stressed the health of the body and ‘soul,’ as well as control over the emotions, which required submission to strict behavioural ideals. An ascetic regime of severe self-discipline was held to be a hallmark of spiritual excellence and a ‘holy’ life. Many medieval Archbishops of Canterbury, such as Anselm of Bec (1093-1100) and Edmund of Abingdon (1233-1240) may have inadvertently gone past the point of bodily non-return and succumbed to what we might now call anorexia or self-starvation. Emaciated bodies, fainting, headaches and possible brain damage could result from prolonged fasting, as could constricted digestive systems unable to process ‘excessive’ amounts of food. In addition, others practiced nocturnal vigils that interfered with their sleeping patterns and which may have further shortened their lives. Ironically enough, masturbation was recommended as a remedy to male clerics in this situation! Other signs of exhaustion and ‘devotion’ were excessive tears and hallucinatory visions regarding Christ, the Virgin Mary or saints.


Katherine Harvey: “The Perils of Piety” History Today: 67:1 (January 2017): 11-16

Linda Kalof (ed) A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age: London: Bloomsbury: 2014.

Andrew Jotischky: A Hermits Cookbook: Monks, Food and Fasting in the Middle Ages: New York: Continuum: 2011.

Robert Bartlett: Why can the dead do such great things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2013.

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