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.


10 Responses to “Medieval eating disorders, anyone?”

  1. jumpthesnark Says:

    Oooooh… for this kind of thing, you might be best-off looking at archaeological anthropologists, or something similar, rather than psychologists? Psychologists could certainly contribute when it came time to compare with modern eating disorders, but I don’t think we’d be much help in any time period before the early 1900s. Psychology’s not a static science like, say, human medicine (the human body is wonderfully complex but it has been the much same for several thousand years now, and is unlikely to change suddenly or dramatically.) The human psyche is influenced by many things, and perhaps most of all by the time period and location in which it develops. So anthropological data is probably the best way to go, and is also where you are most likely to find pre-existing data on disordered eating/other maladaptive behaviour from that time. [/ramble]

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I think this is a very tough one because refusing food and fasting were seen as positive for so many other reasons. The whole ascetic æsthetic is really really vulnerable to twenty-first century psychohistorical diagnosis of neuroses (and that’s even before we get the Flagellants on the scene, for appropriate values of the word scene I guess). I mean, you have Bernard of Clairvaux, who can’t keep his extremely scant food down for very long so has to have a small pit dug beside where he preaches to vomit into. And this is good! Distinguishing anything that might be genuine psychological mix-up is going to be tough when there is so cultural baggage positively driving those perhaps vulnerable to such things towards it.

    So okay, I wonder if you might get further in the other direction, by looking at over-eating. Okay, yes, feasting is a regular thing and has a rôle in community formation as well as displaying power, quite literally conspicuous consumption, but there is also the old Roman idea of moderation being praiseworthy and so on, and the counterweight effect of asceticism as above… So I think it would be easy enough to find people whom we are told ate immoderately, and maybe the literature on gluttony is a way in. A quick hit-up of Regesta Imperii suggests that there is work out there… But I can’t think of useful keywords to query it with for the opposite I’m afraid.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Oh oh yeah also, the bit of Chrétien you mention, it reminds me quite strongly of the eleventh-century texts that talk about identifying heretics because of their pallor, implying a vegetarian or insufficient diet. That might be a way in in itself, especially since it gives you various ideologies like Catharism that teach that not just meat, but the body, is basically evil and to be discarded, not that this idea is new in Christianity. With the Cathars, though, it’s a bit different from mortification. Anyway, I would keep an eye out for that sort of nod from Chrétien to the maybe-Cathars in his audience. He does seem to do this every now and then, throw a term out there that the heretics would have heard differently from his mainline audience (which says to me that the ideas are floating around only loosely attached to observance, and Eckbert of Schonau‘s text seems to support me on this when he says that his audience may find they think some things that are Manichæan without knowing it). I can put you in touch with someone doing work on that if you would like (though, fair warning, his real focus is the Grail).

  4. clio's disciple Says:

    I think you need to start with Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast. It may not hit all the themes you’re thinking of, but I can’t think of a more important work on food, fasting, sin, and spirituality generally than that one. You might follow it up with Holy Anorexia, which takes a different view of similar source materials. Both of those works appeared in the ’80s, I’m not sure if there’s more recent scholarship building on the food issues.

  5. Chris Says:

    Have you seen:

    Rudolph Bell , Holy Anorexia

    Caroline Walker Bynum :
    Article: Fast, Feast, and Flesh: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women –
    Book: Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women

    I’ve read only the last named, and it was a while ago, but it looked interesting.

  6. Rymenhild Says:

    I was about to suggest both books that Chris named. They’re both quite good, although Holy Feast is stronger and more influential, and they should set you up with a starting point. You should also look for responses to Bynum.

  7. magistra Says:

    Bynum is extremely good on the meanings that religious women gave to their ascetic practices, and at showing how they don’t fit nicely within modern frameworks such as anorexia. But if you’re looking at secular texts, then there’s also a completely different strand of medieval thought, which is the lover as non-eater. Andreas Capellanus’ 23rd rule of live, for example, is ‘he whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little’. I think that idea goes back at least to Roman poets, and forward through Shakespeare to the Romantics, if not beyond. Isn’t Chretien tapping into those kinds of ideas, of strong emotions as destroying appetites?

  8. april Says:

    I was going to mention the things Chris did too.
    The yearn for transcendence of the body is still part of anorexia today. I think It’d Be A Good Thing to de-emphasise the “beauty” bit – both for historical accurateness and because it’s not as big a factor for many modern anorexics as many people seem to assume. It could be interesting to discuss differences in terminologies. eg. anorexia nervosa vs. anorexia mirabilis. Not for what they tell us about the illness (“nervosa” makes it sound like people “are just a bit preoccupied and go off their food”), but for attitudes towards them. Esp. when the terms were coined.
    Also, the difference in attitude towards bulimia and anorexia, despite their close connection. Now and in medieval times, I imagine (despite Bernard).

    These might help. I haven’t read most of them. I just did a quick google search for “medieval anorexia”, and “medieval bulimia” :

    “This Is My Body”: Reflections on Abjection, Anorexia, and Medieval Women Mystics, Martha J. Reineke
    Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 245-265


    The Psychoanalytic Approach to Psychosomatics and Eating Disorders: The Newsletter of the Psychosomatic Discussion Group of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

    Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia. On Google Books.

    also, Henry Schwartz, Holy Anorexia.

    History of eating disorders

    The “Bynum thesis”, about the suffering of the female body in religious/mystical practice, and its reception: criticism, qualification, substantiation. by Katrien Vander Straeten.

    Int J Eat Disord. 1996 Dec;20(4):345-58.Bulimia: a historical outline. Ziolko HU.

    “There is No Fat in Heaven”: Religious Asceticism and the Meaning of Anorexia Nervosa
    Caroline Giles Banks
    Ethos, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), pp. 107-135

    Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence
    Gail Corrington
    Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion , Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall, 1986), pp. 51-61.

    XX apes

    ‘Anorexia Nervosa’: Asceticism, Differentiation, Government
    Gordon Tait

    Holy anorexia and anorexia nervosa: society and concept of disease. M. Saraf . Pharos Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Med Soc. 1998 Fall;61(4):2-4.

  9. april Says:

    Ah, my very long comment didn’t stay here. if you took it down, that’s ok.
    Basically, do a search for “medieval anorexia” or “medieval bulimia”, instead of “middle ages”. I got quite a lot of stuff coming up.

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