Holy Feast, Holy Fast: Gender and Religion in Medieval Times

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Caroline Walker Bynum is a medieval historian with a particular focus on issues of gender and religion in the Middle Ages. Her work has been recognized with many distinguished awards: among them, the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and the Governor's Award of the State of Washington.

Bynum joined the UW history department in 1976 from Harvard University where she had been an assistant professor. She served on the UW faculty from 1976 to 1988, where she was also adjunct professor in religious studies and in women's studies. Currently, she is professor of history at Columbia University in New York.

"It was really while I was at the UW that my research took off," recalls Bynum. "In the congenial environment of the history department and the program on comparative religion, with which I was very involved, I found my true 'voice,'" she reflects.

It was in the fall after arriving at the UW that Bynum wrote the article "Jesus as Mother," which became a part of, and provided the title for, her second book.footnote 1small comma footnote 2 It was this article, coming as it did at the beginning of feminist scholarship in the areas of religion and history, that established Bynum as a scholar of importance outside the narrow circles of medievalists.

"In the early 1980s, I was working on women's spirituality in the late Middle Ages and was one of the first scholars to take seriously the extreme bodily asceticism of women mystics and the bizarre physical imagery found in spiritual writing by both sexes, but especially by women," she recounts. As part of that study, she led a faculty seminar on gender and religion with Stevan Harrell of the UW anthropology department and Paula Richman at Oberlin College, and with funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Out of this seminar came the volume, Gender and Religion, published by Beacon Press in 1986.footnote 3 "The introduction to that volume is still widely used in religion classes at the college level to raise questions not only about women's religiosity but also about why and how religious symbols are gendered," notes Bynum.

Bynum's article on "Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion" footnote 4 won the Berkshire Prize in 1985. The conclusions of this study were published in 1987 under the title Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women,footnote 5 which won the Governor's Award of the State of Washington in 1988 and the Philip Schaff Prize of the American Society for Church History in 1989. The book is an analysis of female piety that focuses on the importance of food and physicality in women's religious experience.

In 1986, Bynum received one of the famed "genius grants"--a five-year fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "It was actually announced while I was traveling in Spain, and I found out about it by reading it in the New York Herald Tribune while sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Madrid," she recalls. It came as a "whopping surprise," she notes.

Bynum left the UW shortly thereafter, but she had already begun to work on her next project: a study of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body in medieval religion. That study grew out of the recognition that behind the odd pious practices of both men and women in the Middle Ages--practices such as extreme fasting, self-mutilation, trances and levitations--lay an intense emphasis on the importance of body to selfhood.

"This awareness led me to argue against a long tradition of scholarship that saw medieval religion as body-hating and dualistic," she notes. Working on the doctrine of bodily resurrection led her to study burial practices and the cult of the saints, as well as high level theology. This study became the subject of the History of Religions Lectures of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1992-93, given at Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Sarah Lawrence, and Oberlin. The lectures were published in 1995 by Columbia University Press as The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. The book won the Ralph Waldo Emerson prize of Phi Beta Kappa in 1995 for the best book of the year on the "cultural and intellectual condition of humankind." And in 1996 it won the Jacques Barzun Prize for Cultural History, given by the American Philosophical Society.

While at the UW, Bynum taught a large number of courses about the Western European Middle Ages. She taught specialized courses in intellectual and religious history, a three-quarter chronological sequence, a course on the history of medieval women, and a special-topics course on the early Middle Ages that sometimes focused on her own research on saint's lives, but sometimes focused on questions such as feudal institutions or the history of the family. She created a freshman-level introductory course called "Medieval People" that introduced a thousand years of history through topics in social history. Bynum directed several undergraduate and graduate theses in cultural and intellectual history and occasionally in American women's history.

Bynum won the UW Distinguished Teacher Award in 1981 and was Solomon Katz Distinguished Lecturer in the Humanities during winter quarter, 1984. She served as president of the Medieval Association of the Pacific from 1986 to 1988, which she considers "both the friendliest and the finest of medievalist professional associations." In 1996, Bynum served as president of the American Historical Association.

  1. "Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing," Harvard Theological Review, 70.3/4, 257-284 (1977).
  2. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Caroline Bynum, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982.
  3. Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, ed. C. Bynum, S. Harrell, and P. Richman, Beacon Press, Boston, 1986.
  4. "Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century," Women's Studies, 11, 179-214 (1984).
  5. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987.

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