While dressing the cancerous breast sores of a woman she was tending, Catherine felt repulsed at the horrid odor. To overcome all bodily sensations, she gathered the pus and drank it. That night, Catherine envisioned Jesus inviting her to drink the blood flowing from his pierced side, and it was with this consolation that her stomach "no longer had need of food and no longer could digest."

In medieval times, to live without food meant that Catherine had found other forms of sustenance - piety and faith in God. From the age of sixteen, she subsisted on bread, water and raw vegetables. Eventually she ate only a handful of herbs daily, and, when forced to eat more, would eat twigs to make herself vomit. In time she simply refused to eat.

Catherine's life of austerities, visions and her possession of "supernatural grace" won her admiration and awe. Her faith in her calling compelled her to tell kings, queens and even popes what to do. She became one of the most powerful women of the fourteenth century.

Adapted fromFasting Girlsby Joan Jacobs Brumberg andHoly Anorexiaby Rudolph Bell.

© Kathryn Sylva & Robin Lasser