Laura Dalla Ragione – The perception and experience of the body in the 13th century Women Mystic Saints: between mysticism and anorexia.

Conference on the Centenary of the Publication of the Spiritual Biography of Jacopone da Todi by Evelyn Underhill, Todi, May 4th, 2019, English abstract available at

In recent years, many authors have highlighted connections between medieval saint women and the body perception and experience in the psychopathology of modern mental anorexia. However, if in the words of mystic women the extreme denial of corporeity appears as a search towards the absolute, in the words of today’s anorexic patients the body becomes the obsession, the prison, the center around which the game of identity is played. 

However, the texts related to the saints officially recognized by the Church, lived between 1200 and today, often present a use of fasting in forms that are very similar to modern forms of Anorexia.

There is a strong affinity in the arrogance with which the saints refused to start eating again, even in the face of an obvious decline in the general state of health, just as modern anorexics oppose attempts to convince them by family members or therapists: they can be threatened , enticed, fed by force, filled with promises, but all this does not change at all their obstinate abstinence.

In the saints, as well as in modern anorexics, there were also physical hyperactivity, insomnia, emotional instability, bodily dysfunction. Other affinities are to be found in the temperament: traits of an exasperated perfectionism, what we call today the functioning of “all or nothing”: a very strong need for control accompanied by an equally deep-rooted sense of guilt in case of surrender.

Margherita da Cortona writes in 1297:

“My father, I have no intention of establishing a pact of peace between my body and my soul, nor am I going to spare it. So allow me that I tame it with not providing food “

However, the affinities between these two forms of hostility to oneself body must not make us forget the great differences. The mystical saints tried to go beyond the physical dimension, in order to reach a pure state of contact with the absolute. While the corporal practices were for the mystics an attempt to get rid of the body, perceived as an obstacle to the ecstatic experience, modern anorexics build up, in the obsessive search for thinness, the reason and the ultimate goal of the search for identity. In patients with anorexia there is no conscious spiritual search, a willingness to free oneself from the body, but, on the contrary, every physical and mental energy is concentrated on the body, a prison-obsession that sums up every possible meaning. There is not an excess of spirituality, but rather a disappearance of it. If in the saints the denial of basic needs is a means of approaching the absolute, in today’s patients the denial of physicality is an end in itself, with no other purpose than a desperate attempt to recognize one’s identity in corporeity . 

We can use the words of Veronica Giuliani, to superimpose and distinguish times and assonances:

«I can’t say anything about what I understood; and what I say is nothing. With silence I will say the wonders of the greatness of God, because with words one cannot. So I will say about our nothing. With silence one can say what is not, and only by saying that it is nothing, we can manifest what it is. This is enough for us to learn who we are ». 

In the words of the mystic women the Self is totally absorbed in the search of a contact with God, without any uncertainty about oneself identity. In today anorexic patients the theme of nothingness and inner emptiness takes on the contours of a profound and structural difficulty in finding one’s place in the world, a profound anxiety connected to an emptying of identity and a loss of the boundaries of the Self.