Commenting on C. W. Bynum's "Holy Feast and Holy Fast" (University of California Press, 1987)

I am not completely persuaded by Bynum's 8th chapter about the meaning of food as physicality. In particular, the interplay between erotism (or pleasure) and female (especially eucharistic) devotion is quite controversial: if this correlation was proved, we would run the risk of having perpetuated one of the biggest overreading in the story of medieval literary criticism.

In fact, it is generally believed that Medieval intellectuals had a loose understanding of many of the categories that nowadays we consider 'fixed.' This led them to use certain topoi -even the erotic/courtly love ones- also in religious texts. An example of this can be provided in the Grimestone lyric in which Christ is represented as a courtly lover begging the "lover" to open his door and let him in. In this case, the Franciscan friar John Grimeston, author of the NLS ms. Advocates 18.7.21, is freely playing with the literary topos of "the serenade", adapted for religious purposes as it was a kind of "contrafactum". This happened also with another poem from The Vernon Manuscript (Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. a. 1), with the title "hou ure Lady gaf mylk off heore papper to a man that hadde the squyncye". Here, for instance, the Virgin Mary "With hire pappe into his mouth / Milk heo spreynt" (ll. 35-6) to heal the poor man from his terrible illness according to the Byzantine archetype of the "galaktotrophousa" (a.k.a. the Nursing Madonna in the anglosphere).

All this shows us how common was at the time to represent religious scenes through an –according to nowadays view on the matter– extravagant sensuality. And that happened mainly because every text represented an 'authority,' which derived from the fact that it had been written on the parchment. So my question is, could it be that we are in a sense sexualising elements that could have not had such a connotation?

Since we are dealing with women in/of the Middle Ages, it is very likely that they could not have been acquainted with the subtilities of theological formulations –as mentioned by Bynum. Therefore, more than a daring and curious literary game, I suppose that the nature of erotic references has to be found somewhere else. Perhaps, this sensuality is motivated by both the paucity of 'adequate' expressive devices, and the long-standing medieval tendency to refer to a physical metaphoric. Considering that, in the search for something so strong, which could have rhetorically characterised such an extreme condition as ecstasy –or rather psychosis?–, the medieval female mysticism may have appealed to their sexual/bodily sphere (i.e., orgasm or sexual intercourse) without no real adherence to an actual erotic practice.

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