Fighting against the materiality of the body: cultural ascriptions of food in medieval theology in Western Europe

Human nutrition is inextricably linked to endogenous and exogenous functions of human action and are therefore shaped by the natural environment, the cultural constructions, human relations and religious beliefs, which impose their restrictive rules on believers. In Western Europe, Catholicism was the main regulator of human behavior that influenced the way individuals and communities perceived the notion of food abundance and pleasure during the Middle Ages.

The past few years, the connection between food and religious experiences has received great scholarly attention. Scholars have produced numerous studies in an effort to appoint the importance of decoding food symbolisms and ritual meals, as well as the vast influence of religious restrictions and beliefs on shaping nutritional identities. Contradictory methodologies and theories have occurred regarding certain food symbolisms, which have certainly contributed to a deeper understanding of religion as an important factor of constituting society by attributing specific meaning to certain objects and processes.

The Christian theological system entails a cosmological narrative, which promotes an unending battle between the spirit and the lustful, voracious flesh that imprisons humanity in a material world. Subsequently, food connected with the biological evolution and survival of the material body, can either work as the mean to connect and communicate with God or as the mean to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh. Subsequently, certain religious practices like fasting or ritual meals reflect not only the way individuals interact and communicate in their communities, but also how they perceive, embody and experience the world in specific historical and cultural contexts.

By studying Early Christian and medieval theological literature, the current presentation aspires to point out the role of food and nutrition as a linkage between the man and the divinities in conjunction with certain historical facts and socioeconomic factors. This connection can be interpreted by examining certain nutritional habits that align with institutionalized religious practices and thereafter collating them with the ones opposed to them. The importance of understanding all the aforementioned interrelations lies in the fact that such notions still affect the way we understand the relation between dietary choices and the human body. Contemporary societies may seem quite unaffected by religious restrictions, but excessive eating is still perceived as an act of gluttonous behavior; gluttony may not be considered a sin today, but it remains connected to certain attitudes towards food, body types and negative feelings, such as shame and guilt.