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by Richenda Fairhurst     
What is a fasting girl?

Fasting Girls were girls or women in the Middle Ages who were said to eat little or nothing and yet live. These girls were also sometimes said not to defecate or sweat or menstruate. This was thought of as miraculous as well as curious, and these women and girls drew a lot of attention from regular people and the church. People came to see them, give them money, learn what God had revealed to them (if anything), and basically treated them as if they were holy, if curious, persons. 

Dorothy of Montau

Dorothy of Montau (b. 1347), her image at the center of this shrine, began practicing severe fasting even as a child.  As a woman she lived as a hermit and fasted to the point where she stopped defecating.  When taking communion, she fell into fits of ecstasy.  (Photo from Wikipedia, by Marcin N, 2006, creative commons sharealike license.)

The term ‘fasting girl’ may have been popularized by the political pamphlet writers in England during the English Reformation, when King Henry VIII separated England from the Catholic church and created the Church of England. 

What is fasting?

Fasting has long been an activity of those of all faiths who seek spiritual health and connection. Fasting at its most basic simply means that a person does not eat certain foods.  Today, we often associate fasting with a toxin cleanse, such as the grapefruit diet.  But long ago (and still today), fasting was primarily about spiritual health.  People avoided foods that they felt kept them from communion with God.

Fasting in medieval and early Christianity:

Medieval Catholics practiced extensive fasting.  Throughout the middle ages in the West, the week was divided into “lean days” and “meat days.”  On lean days (which were 'fast days'), you could eat fish, birds, eel, or even beaver tail (which was considered ‘fish’), and drink almond milk. Meat or milk from four legged creatures, including butter and cheese, could be eaten only on meat days.  If you ate meat on a lean day, you had to go to confession and confess it.

Where does this meat vs fish thing come from?  Many cultures have dietary restrictions as part of their religious expression.  But Christian ‘lean day’ fasting probably came in part from the ancient Greeks who applied their philosophies of ‘world vs spirit’ to early Christian theology and practice. The idea was that lean day foods were more spiritual and less corrupted by the world than were the meat day foods.  Food of and from the air and water, like fish and birds, was ‘purer,’ or higher up on the spiritual ladder, than food that came from goats, sheep, or cows. 

contaminated man

In this illustration, we see ‘Man.’ Originally created with God-like power, he is now corrupted by the fall of Adam and Eve, a fall that took him from the spirit/God realm to the corrupt world of flesh.  ‘Man’ is now contaminated by sin and flesh and earth, and is susceptible to corruption and disease.  (Illustration from Ebenezer Sibly, 1806, posted on fromoldbooks.org.)

Early Greco-Roman Christians may have inherited the idea of dietary restrictions for religious reasons from the Hebrews, but they applied it in a very Greco-Roman way. Regardless, fasting became a predominant form of religious expression in Christianity. Fasting was associated with Godliness and miracles. Those who engaged in fasting as a rigorous practice could be said to be creating or expressing a ‘hunger for God’ that at times became ecstatic or overwhelming. Fasting, could be, and sometimes was, practiced to the extreme.

Spiritual athletes:

Early devout Christians flocked to the desert and lived in little cells or caves or single room dwellings.  (See my article What is an Anchorite?)  Desert monks and hermits (both men and women) prided themselves on their ability to abstain from food. That these men and women could live without seeming to eat anything showed their spiritual vigor. Some claimed they did not eat food at all. (See the interesting modern case of Prahlad Jani ) There are also many stories about monks pretending to eat for appearances sake, while instead hiding the food in their sleeves or under cloths and later giving that food to someone else. 

People who lived when they did not eat (or ate very little) were thought to live by their spiritual strength (or by spiritual intervention) alone. Some of these desert men and women relate instances where they consumed spiritual food delivered to them by angels. They believed that in their extreme fasting and other practices, that they were leaving suffering and the world behind them.  They hoped that through prayer and meditation and endurance, they could escape the “corruption” of Man on earth and live by spirit alone. In their feats of endurance, suffering, starvation and hardship, they were called spiritual athletes, and they often drew crowds of admirers to see them and consult with them.

Saint Simon

The Syrian Saint Simon (Symeon) was one such spiritual athlete.  He lived for more than 30 years on a small platform on top of a pole.  Theodoret of Cyrrhus tells us: “ Night and day he is standing within the view of all…now standing for a long time, and now bending down repeatedly and offering worship to God….In bending down he always makes his forehead touch his toes—for his stomach’s receiving food once a week, and little of it, enables his back to bend easily…” 
(Theodoret quoted by William Harmless, Desert Christians, 2004, page 465. Image from Hone's Everyday Book, 1826, posted on fromoldbooks.org)

The Desert men and women became the monks (a Greek word) and nuns of the middle ages.  These spiritual athletes (also called ‘aesthetics’ who practiced aestheticism) were discouraged by church and government. Too many people communing so directly with God was disruptive and chaotic. Additionally, people like St. Benedict recognized that such practices were far too extreme to be healthy, and he encouraged his followers to be more moderate. Still, however, Benedict continued to advocate regular fasting.

Many of the saints of the Middle Ages practiced at least some kind of fasting. Though the church discouraged extremes, spiritual athletes persisted, popping up in the middle ages as both religious monks and nuns and lay men and women. They often earned a good deal of admiration and respect from those around them and their reputations could be widespread. People thought their ability to ignore their own suffering (to deny the body) proved them to be spiritually strong or blessed and so closer to God. Or, if fasting did not seem to bring them suffering, they were admired for their miraculous ability to not eat and yet not to suffer.  

Women saints who fasted:

In the medieval period, the importance of care of the soul far outweighed the importance of care of the body. Today we spend a great deal of time and energy caring for our bodies, exercising, outfitting, and botoxing them. We have a hard time understanding, then, how historically it was care of the soul that was of vital importance, even if that meant suffering for the body. (See my article on Medieval Hospitals.)  

In the medieval context, fasting becomes an expression of the soul over and above the needs of the body. The spiritual soul manifested through the body in a number of different ways. Fasting was only one manifestation of extreme aestheticism. Women and girls were also known to have stigmata, to levitate, to leak or ooze bodily or mysterious fluids, to disfigure their bodies or otherwise attempt to render themselves unattractive, shut themselves away in small cells, and be swept into fits of hysteria when receiving the Eucharist (or when thinking of the Eucharist).  A number of them claimed the only ‘meal’ they ate was the Eucharist itself. (Eucharist is also called Communion, it is the Christian ceremony that distributes bread as the body--usually only a small wafer--and wine as the blood of Christ.)


Saint Lidwina of Schiedam (b. 1380) tried to disfigure her pretty face.  Later she suffered an accident that lead to a gangrenous disease that caused pieces of her body to fall off.  She is said to have been able to taste the difference between bread that had been consecrated to God, and bread that had not. (Image from a woodcut, from wikipedia commons.)

Some of these fasting women sought to escape marriage, or were dealing with other issues of suffering in their lives that seemed to manifest in extreme behaviors. Perhaps their often extreme focus on receiving the Eucharist as an actual (and only) meal came from some inner compulsion to deal with the troubles of their lives. Regardless, these women were both feared and admired. 

Women such as Joan the Meatless could be simultaneously threatening to the power structures of the church, and good for promoting miracles and the worship of saints. The church, therefore, put a lot of effort into both containing these women and girls, and chronicling their exploits. Those women who became saints, such as in the case of Christina the Astonishing, were often made the patronesses of the very things they seemed to suffer from most in their attempt to imitate the sufferings of Christ. Christina the Astonishing is the patron saint of insanity, mental disorders, madness, lunatics, and mental health providers.

Feasting on spiritual food:

Visions and fits of ecstasy were common in women who fasted.  Their visions were often recorded and circulated by priests who served as their confessors. Both lay women (ordinary Christian women, not nuns) as well as religious women could express their faith through fasting and ecstatic fits. 

In the cases of religious women, where it is the Eucharist itself triggers the fits, it seemed clear that such ecstasies must have come from God. But things could be more difficult for lay women, as sometimes these fits were considered annoying to one’s neighbors. Certainly this was true in the case of the fit-throwing Margery Kempe, who regularly disrupted church services by throwing herself into the aisle and flailing around in ecstasy. Because Margery was a lay woman, a lot of energy was spent in determining if her fits came from God or the Devil. She visited bishops and submitted to their examinations. Lucky for her, her experiences were authenticated by the church. Joan of Arc was not so lucky.

These women (and men, too) were generally called mystics, for their religious expression was often visionary and accompanied by many kinds of wonders, such as levitation.  But fasting was a common thread and women and girls who fasted often claimed, as the desert hermits had as well, to live from spiritual food.  In the case of these women, the food could spontaneously fill their mouths in the form of blood or honeycomb. It was delivered to them by angels, saints, the Virgin Mary, or Jesus himself.

Angela Foligino

Angela of Foligno (b c.1250), was a nun who took
only the Eucharist while enduring long periods of
fasting.  Christ as nourisher comes through in this
image, where Christ seems to reveal his breast as
Angela receives a spiritual food in the form of blood
(or milk?) from him.
(Image from wiki commons.)

Images can show nuns or abbesses drinking the blood of Christ as it oozes from the wound at his side, either into a chalice or directly into their mouths. In some of these images, Christ’s wound is raised high on the chest and his action seem to imitate lactation. Lactation (breast feeding) was an act of deep caring and sustenance, and though today breastfeeding can embarrass us, we still use phrases like ‘The milk of human kindness.’

Is this Anorexia Nervosa?

No. The manifestation of fasting as an extreme spiritual practice has nothing to do with Anorexia.  Today we understand Anorexia Nervosa as a particular kind of disease. In the Middle Ages, things were culturally and socially very different. People still suffered from anxiety and depression and, no doubt, food disorders. But there is nothing to say that these woman and girls (and men, too) were anorexics. Importantly, many of the girls who supposedly ate nothing but communion were also said to look healthy and well, and this, you see, is also part of the miracle.

Some researchers have likened the fasting girls of the middle ages to girls today suffering from Anorexia. I can see why they do, because there are no doubt similarities.  But I worry that likening Fasting Girls to Anorexics romanticizes a terrible modern disease and misconstrues an ancient spiritual (if extreme) practice.

Should girls today practice this kind of fasting?

No! Again, this behavior comes out of a very different time and place. Girls today shouldn’t wear corsets, either. Today we understand fasting and the body differently than we did then. If you would like to undertake a fast for health or spiritual reasons, read some good books on modern fasting and good health, and talk to your pastor, spiritual advisor, dietitian, or doctor.  Remember, we understand today that the body is a beautiful expression of God’s creation.  Fasting together with good and healthy diet is supposed to be a healthful and beautiful thing. 

Suggestions for further reading:

If you like historical fiction, follow my mystic nun protagonist in The Saint and the Fasting Girl

Find more articles and information at my website historyfish.net

For a fascinating non-fiction tour de force of women saints and abbesses and other religious women read Holy Feast Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum and Forgetful of their Sex by Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg. These scholarly books chronicle the lives of women from the religious east and west who endured (or sought out) tremendous physical hardship in a quest of extremism, seeking to live as Christ lived and to endure as Christ endured. 

I also recommend the book Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe, by Lois Collins, Harper Perennial, 1983.


Holy Feast Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum, University of California Press, 1988.

The Lives of the Desert Fathers translated by Norman Russell, Cistercian Publications,1980.

Desert Christians by William Harmless, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Forgetful of their Sex by Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages by Terence Scully, Boydell Press, 1997.

The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by John Skinner, Penguin Classics, 2000.

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