Grammar changes the world!

Or people’s minds, at least. According to Not Exactly Rocket Science, questions are more effective than orders. Even if you’re doing the asking of yourself.

Medieval eating disorders, anyone?

Do any of you know if any work has been done on eating disorders in the middle ages, or even the early modern period? (Quick JStor searches for “eating disorder middle ages” brings me a fair bit about middle-aged modern persons suffering from eating disorders, and not much else.)

Now, I know that the simple answer to that question is “they didn’t exist”. If you’re of the ilk of Keith Windshuttle, they wouldn’t exist because we have no documentary evidence of their existence.1 If you were of a more theoretical bent, you might say that the concept “eating disorder”, like the concept “homosexuality”, did not exist before some point in the fairly recent past, and I’d pay that. I understand that there are a unique set of social factors in first-world society from, say, the mid-twentieth century which contribute to both the *occurrence* of disordered eating and to our construction of “eating disorders” as medical and psychological conditions.

Of course, food in the middle ages was scarce (duh), and thus thin-ness wasn’t the be-all and end all of attractiveness for women. Chaucer’s Duchess was “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”, which warms the cockles of your heart right until you remember that probably very few people met the appropriate standard of “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”.

So I’m not so much interested in finding out if people (probably but not necessarily women) restricted their food intake to be attractive in the middle ages. Presumably those who were “greet therewith” might have tried a bit of dieting; those who felt themselves too thin could likewise have tried to gain weight. That’s… not so interesting to me.

I’m wondering about the relationship between food and control, food and sin, food and autonomy – things which are unlikely to be the same as they are for eating disorder sufferers today (or for the rest of the population today); concepts and behaviors which may not map neatly onto our ideas of eating disorders at all; but which might be worth exploring nevertheless. I think I’m thinking of the sort of thing which Greg Carrier used to do with disability studies (whatever happened to Greg, anyway?). Work in this field, if it exists, might have a fair bit in common with some sub-branches of queer theory, and probably also with a particularly excellent article I read the other day, ‘The Language of Rape in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Law: Views from the Anglo-Saxon(ist)s”, by Shari Horner. The sort of things which recognise that the past doesn’t share our own conceptual framework, but also that the people of the past may share common experiences with us, and then tries to look at how those people thought about their experience.

This hypothetical field – which I seriously hope exists because I do not have the skills, psychological knowledge, or emotional fortitude, to start it – ought to look at archaeological evidence (what could you tell from preserved remains? Eating disorders certainly screw around with your body, including the skeleton – but could you distinguish these effects from malnourishment from other causes, like famine or disease?). Someone in this field would have to look at existing work on beauty and the body, and think about what factors in the medieval context might lead to a disordered relationship with food.2 Someone could go down all kinds of interesting (and precarious) routes by looking at various aesthetic religious groups and practices (extreme fasting? St Patrick and his happy habit of standing in freezing cold rivers all night to teach his body not to get uppity? Flagellation, obviously) and asking how these practices overlap with self-harming practices, and if the contemporary doctrines provided a channel for impulses or drives which we now bundle together as psychological disorders. Someone else could go through charters and wills and local records and look at causes of death, perhaps? It would be guesswork at that stage, but it might produce some pieces of the puzzle. Once the field got going a bit, I expect that there would be grounds for some lit scholars to come through and start talking about things like characters who refuse food, and consider the grounds on which they do so, and the judgments which authors come to about the choice to refuse food.

So please, O Internet: tell me that someone’s started work on this?

Otherwise, every time I read that, just for example, Fenice refused food and drink in order to become “pale and livid” (yeah, that’s the penguin translation, I’m reading ahead in the English so I know what’s coming) and fake her own death and escape her marriage, I’m going to start wondering if Chrétien’s just pulling that out of a hat, or if he knew any women who did starve themselves until they were “pale and livid”, or if he didn’t know any but he considered it a reasonably plausible response to her situation, or, or, or…

And that is why someone else had better have started this field. Because I have nothing better to go on than some literary tropes, and I have more cheerful things to think about when it comes to Chrétien anyway.


1. For those who are not Australian, Keith Windshuttle doesn’t believe in things that don’t have extensive documentary evidence. Because, y’know, there’s never been any category of things which might be *less likely to be documented*, or any of that. I’m afraid I don’t understand The History Wars nearly as well as I should. Should get on to that.
2. By the extremely scientific method of “guessing” and “brainstorming this with the friend who asked me if there were eating disorders in the middle ages” (she has more personal experience with eating disorders than I), I suggest that, if plump were a beauty ideal, one might strive for thin-ness if one felt threatened by male attention; it’s *possible* that one might strive for under-nourishment in order not to fall pregnant, although I’m not sure how common that would be; one could have all kinds of guilt about food, coming either from the Seven Deadlies or perhaps resulting from having lived through a famine; one might deprive one’s body of food after a traumatic event (rape, assault, abandonment, grief) which resulted in a low investment in one’s health or continued survival; over-exposure to some of the more unpleasant doctrines about the body and sin might lead one to deprive one’s body of food… and on and on we go.

Finally, a *really useful* online personality test

You’re St. Melito of Sardis!

You have a great love of history and liturgy. You’re attached to the traditions of the ancients, yet you recognize that the old world — great as it was — is passing away. You are loyal to the customs of your family, though you do not hesitate to call family members to account for their sins.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Pity, I was hoping for Origen

Today, a guy in the bank told me he wished he had a time machine so he could go back to the medieval period. I told him I didn’t: I rather like running water and penicillin.

I have changed my mind. I will happily travel to any time period which DOES NOT CONTAIN FLATPACK FURNITURE. Bring me a TARDIS at once.

We figured it out!

Kayloulee figured out what’s going on with the Cambridge website. They might be dismal, but they’re embracing the finest traditions of Old English literature to express their fortitude in the face of the dismal prospects of academia.

Old English Literature, as enacted, in interpretive dance, on the front lawns of Sydney Uni by Highly and eggs_maledict the other day:1

The Seafarer: I’m all ALONE on a BOAT and I HAVE NO FRIENDS.

The Wanderer: I’m all ALONE on a BOAT and it’s COLD and I HAVE NO FRIENDS.

The Wife’s Lament: I’m all ALONE in a HOLE under a TREE and I HAVE NO FRIENDS.

and for comparison:

The University of Cambridge website for prospective postgrads: You’ll be all ALONE in a LIBRARY and it’s BORING and you’ll HAVE NO COLLEAGUES.


1. No really, we did. Apparently it was highly entertaining for persons standing outside the library watching us.

The University of Cambridge are SRS BIZNIS

I have now been a graduate student for ONE WHOLE WEEK. It’s very exciting. So obviously now is the time to start planning my next degree. (There is method in my madness – if I plan to finish this one a bit *early* then I should be able to roll right into an overseas PHD program, on the arrogant assumption that I’m spiffy enough to get into such things.)

Having recently been through one round of applications, and having spent a couple of hours poking at the websites of various universities, I have some observations:

1. I thought the university of Sydney were crummy with their paperwork (don’t talk to me about paperwork. I somehow still don’t have a timetable!). But apparently Australian universities are models of efficiency! I applied in October and started in March. Investigation suggests that I will have to apply *this* October if I want to start *next* September/October overseas. Seriously, people, is your paperwork all done in stone tablets?

Note: this is no longer the logo of USyd.

The new one is “modern”. And ugly.

2. Does the University of Cambridge not WANT students? Their prospective grad students pages are the most depressing thing I’ve read for quite some time. Observe:

From “What we expect from you“:

The most important qualification for becoming a graduate student is a sense of vocation. Finishing a dissertation is hard work; it is also a test of determination. In deciding if graduate work is for you it is valuable to consider which elements in your undergraduate course you most enjoyed. It is not enough to have relished the excitement of reading new material each week and cleverly concealing what you did not know in your essays or coursework – although an enthusiasm for reading is one vital qualification for graduate work. If you felt frustrated about the limits of your knowledge when you were an undergraduate, and enjoyed the more extended forms of study which were required for a dissertation or extended essay, then it is likely that you will get satisfaction from graduate work.

From “What you cannot expect from us“:

Do not expect to be spoon-fed while you are here. You will spend long hours in the library working on a topic which on a black day might seem to be of interest to noone else in the world. You should bear in mind that you will probably be poor, and that you will almost certainly have to spend a great deal of time reading material which you find unappetising in order to master your chosen field.

Translation: We are CAMBRIDGE and we are HARDCORE. You must be HARDCORE to be at CAMBRIDGE. You’re SMART? Think again! ORDINARY SMARTS ARE NOT HARDCORE ENOUGH AT CAMBRIDGE. Students at Cambridge are so HARDCORE that they are MISERABLE ALL THE TIME! But that’s the way they LIKE IT because WE ARE CAMBRIDGE AND WE ARE HARDCORE! Come to Cambridge, earn a degree in MISERABLE, it’s HARDCORE.

Ok, Ok, I understand, they’re *Cambridge*, they don’t need to be nice to their students. But compare to the nice, businesslike pages for Medieval Studies at Toronto! Those pages tell us that the program is quite hard to get into, and Serious Business once you’re in, but for the rest of it, they don’t seem to feel the need to either scare people off or to target a select audience of intellectual masochists.

Is it just me, or is Cambridge’s pitch all wrong here? I can imagine receiving such advice in a friendly peer-to-peer orientation pack, perhaps, but for the university’s public face… surely there are ways to get say “you must be serious to come here” without talking down to your applicants or advertising the many miserable qualities of the degree in question.