Sarah E. Hanson

European Studies & History

After studying female mystics and asceticism in Professor Nancy McLoughlin’s History course on Women, Visions and Authority, Sarah Hanson became interested in the connection between the body and the soul and how physical ascetic practices were believed to influence the state of the soul. Looking specifically at food based practices, her project explores the relationship between the asceticism of religious women, as described in hagiographical accounts and the saint’s personal writing, and the medieval understanding of the soul. Sarah hopes to attend graduate school to study medieval European History.triangle.gif (504 bytes)




The relationship between the body and the soul has been defined and redefined in Western European tradition since Plato due to its important role in answering political, social, religious, philosophical and medical questions. In late ancient and medieval Europe, saints’ lives recorded in hagiographical accounts were used to influence the religious community’s understanding of the relationship between the body and the soul. Late ancient saints’ lives displayed the religious piety of saints by detailing their ascetic practices. By the high and late Middle Ages women’s hagiographical accounts became particularly concerned with asceticism. This study examines the contributions of female saints to the understanding of the relationship between the body and soul by looking specifically at the use of food-based ascetic practices in their accounts. The results of this study indicate a change in the medieval understanding of the body-soul relationship. Whereas saints’ accounts from late antiquity focused upon how the body influenced the state of the soul, by the high and late Middle Ages there appears to have been an increase in the focus on the soul’s ability to influence the body. This increased focus on the soul enabled women to overcome the inferiority ascribed to their physical bodies by medieval theorists and perhaps explains the growing number of female ascetics in the late Middle Ages.triangle.gif (504 bytes)

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Faculty Mentor                                                                                                                

Nancy Ann McLoughlin

School of Humanities

Sarah Hanson’s paper seeks to illuminate medieval understandings of the relationship between the body and the soul. This problem has remained an enduring point of concern not just for theologians, but for philosophers, anthropologists and medical theorists as well. Sarah’s project is of particular interest because of the source material she uses—medieval texts written by and about women visionaries. Sarah demonstrates conclusively that although these women were formally excluded from medieval universities, they nevertheless actively contributed to evolving understandings of the relationship between body and soul through their own writings, and most significantly, through their actions. Sarah’s conclusions place her within an ongoing debate among medievalists regarding the intellectual authority of medieval women.triangle.gif (504 bytes)

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