Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast Explorations


  1. According to Bynum, food and, in particular, the decision to abstain from eating, was central to the religious practices of a significant number of women during the latter Middle Ages. What evidence does Bynum find in support of her argument? Why do these women choose food as a means to express their religious belief?
  2. In this chapter, Bynum analyzes the argument put forth by several modern scholars that the fasting that Bynum describes is actually a manifestation of anorexia nervosa. First, summarize the evidence for this argument. Next, summarize Bynum’s response and counter argument. Who has the better argument? Write an essay arguing for one of these opposing viewpoints.
  3. Bynum finds an elaborate pattern of religious women in the late middle ages who express their spirituality by limiting their intake of food. As Bynum notes, their lifestyles were not only intended to bring them closer to God, but to affect the behavior of their community. Consider other examples of fasting undertaken to effect social change, such as the Suffragettes, or Mahatma Gandhi, or the IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, among many others. Compare their actions and their intended consequences to the women Bynum describes. This compilation of articles in The New York Times will provide a list of many modern hunger strikes: You might also consider exploring the differences in the spiritually driven behavior of the women Bynum analyzes with the hunger protests that
  4. The modernist Czech writer Franz Kafka wrote a short story entitled “A Hunger Artist.”

It depicts a man whose art consists of heroic and public fasting. The story is often analyzed as depicting a suffering artist; however, many         readers also find a rich pattern of religious imagery in the story. Use Bynum’s discussion of spiritual fasting as a critical lens to analyze the meaning of Kaka’s Hunger Artist. As part of your analysis, you might also consider the differences in the religious culture of Fourteenth Century Europe versus the secular Nineteenth Century depicted by Kafka. Is he using religious imagery, in part, to critique his secular culture?