The Medieval Dry January
For many January has become a month of atonement. The waist line has expanded, the liver is aching, the obvious solution seems to be a period of self flagellation of the worst kind – abstinence. Across the UK many people have now chosen to give up drinking for whatever reason, as they enter a joy-hangover, a post Christmas purge, I thought it would be interesting to compare this modern take on fasting with some of the more extreme cases from history.
It is not difficult to find a multitude of examples of fasting through the Middle Ages. Fasting was relentlessly entwined in the Medieval calender with a vast number of saints days and fasting periods, such as Lent. To the Medieval mind the fast represented a kind of duel between physical necessity and and spiritual perseverance. By denying the body its needs, you could transcend the world around and achieve a more spiritual state. This led some early hermits, known as ‘Pillar-Saints’, to spend decades atop great stone pillars in deserts. An unknown monk from the ninth century was said to live off nothing but dates for years.
In a frankly ghoulish trend throughout the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for young women to become inflicted with what has been recently labelled ‘Holy Anorexia’. The powerful motive to deny the body of nearly all fuel. Many of the sufferers were venerated as saints, such as Catherine of Siena, for their efforts. However, the veneration of some only lead to more women attempting to bring themselves closer to God through starvation. Catherine did break her fast at least once, if only to drink the pus from a cancerous sore. Sorry.
Alcohol seems to have been surprisingly free from the the worst excesses of restraint. Monks were issues their half cup of wine each day, and in terms of biblical backing the fact that Jesus turned water into wine seems to have put it firmly on the ‘acceptable’ list. St Cuthbert was a notable teetotaller but as he also apparently had the gift of making water ‘taste like wine’ he didn’t really miss out.