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.