Video Interview, More History

16 December 10

And a little more on Fasting Girls.

There is always more to say about Fasting Girls and other expressions of “spiritual athleticism.” (See my article on Fasting Girls ) I get a start on this subject in Part One of the video interview, but in Part Three, released today, I get to talk about it a little more. I also get to address what writers call ‘The Hero’s Journey’ a little bit (very little. I should post another blog on this…remind me.)

For a direct link to this video on my youtube page, click here.

I really like this opportunity to talk more about Fasting Girls because they are a whole kind of subset of what was known from earliest Christianity. From the earliest there was this idea of the ‘Spiritual Athlete,’ people who could defy the needs of their physical bodies in order to strengthen their ties to the divine. The idea was that the more you denied yourself—but were holy—the more the spirit would sustain you. People, then, how didn’t eat (or claimed not to), defied one of the most primary needs of human existence in order to reap the benefits of spiritual nourishment through physical deprivation.

This is extremely odd to us today! We live in an age of mind and science and technology and ‘concrete proofs.’ We scoff at deprivation and instead go to the mall and purchase items marked “you deserve it,” and “indulge yourself”! :-) Personally, I’m glad to live in a time when we recognize the value of taking care of ones self. But there is value in self-denial too, if we recognize the very real problems that come with self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. In the early Christian period (well before Medieval bishops and archbishops adorned themselves in gold and jewels) it was believed that you could either invest in the physical world (of stuff and riches) or you could invest in the spiritual world (of divinity and eternity). These ‘spiritual athletes’ chose the spiritual world and turned their backs on the worldly realm.

So the earliest people who denied themselves food in order to be sustained by the spirit belonged to the deserts of the middle east and Egypt as well as the Greco-Roman world. But by 500 CE or so there was a monk by the name of St. Benedict. St. Benedict formed this groups of spiritual athletes into ‘houses.’ These ‘houses’ became monasteries or convents for monks and nuns. St. Benedict wasn’t the first or only one to do this. But he was perhaps the most successful and is best known today. He tried to ease the extremes of the movement, encouraging people to eat. Eat! And to worship God as a practice of the whole life, which included life here on earth.

Fasting Girls were another manifestation of this movement of ‘Spiritual Athletes’ but they come later in the Middle Ages. We see women who are caught up in the ecstasies of worship and spirit and who do things we could call miraculous in that it is hard of science to explain them. These were women who ate little or nothing and instead of being physically nourished by food to stay alive, they claimed it was spiritual nourishment from the divine that kept them living. The abilities of these women to stay alive and well (and even be fat) when they ate little was well documented and included some of the most well known and powerful (mostly female) saints of the later middle ages. At first, lack of food was just another sign of spiritual prowess and divine favor. But later it coalesced into a kind of particular ability, and it was then, about 1500s and 1600s that you started to see a particular kind of girl that would be known in Reformation pamphlets as Fasting Girls.

One characteristic of females who, in looking back, could be called Fasting Girls was the ability to live on the sacrament of bread and wine alone. They ate a small bit of bread and drank a small amount of wine usually once a week but sometimes once a day and that was supposed to be enough to sustain their bodies. Even more miraculous was that some of these women were said to be able to distinguish between eating regular bread and the bread that was consecrated by the priest. They would claim not to be able to swallow regular bread, and would spit it out.

You can imagine that a girl who was said to have miraculous abilities might be one of two things to the medieval church. First, it could be wonderful. It was proof that God was amazing and could perform miracles in unlikely people (the first women to claim these abilities were usually associated with religious movements, such as nuns. But later, a regular girl from the village might manifest these miraculous abilities). A monastery with a real Fasting Girl could expect important visitors in addition to everyday ones. Everyone would want to say a prayer or be prayed for, and everyone would leave money.

The second piece was a little more anxiety producing. A Fasting Girl had some real spiritual power. So you better hope she was on your side. If she started to say that the local village priest was a disreputable fellow, or that the bishop was a dolt, you could bet that would be problematic. So Fasting Girls had to be contained by the system, or they might cause disruptions that the powers-that-be did not like. An important step, then, was to have the bishop or archbishop authenticate the girl’s abilities. She would be carefully examined, and then a verdict would be rendered. At the end of the examination, her abilities would either be declared “from God,” in which case she would be embraced by the church and her abilities watched and managed, or her abilities would be declared “from the devil” and she would be forced to repent and do public penance. If she didn’t cease and desist, she and her handlers (if she had any) were threatened with violent punishment and/or death.

Perhaps you can see how this kind of history could be tantalizing to a fiction writer! Especially as I realized so few people know about this stuff—though it was part of the Middle Ages like the air they breathed! How could we know nothing about this?! Well…because it is the 21st century and we are enlightened. We believe all that stuff is “bunk” so we don’t bother with it. (And let’s face it, the scientific age has brought many, many good and wonderful things—and I don’t particularly want to live in an age where people thought they had to starve themselves to prove that they were special to God.) But, though we don’t live in that world today, I think it is a mistake to throw the whole of it into the trash and pretend it never existed. It is part of our very real and very vibrant history.

Anna Richenda



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