Ancient Anorexia

Knowledge about anorexia nervosa (often known just as anorexia) didn’t hit the mainstream until 1978, through Dr. Hilde Bruch’s book The Golden Cage, which chronicled case studies of the problem. Frustrated therapists around America were calling her for help with patients who didn’t eat– tough cases that the psychiatrists didn’t know how to handle. Is this just a modern problem, a result of cultural pressure to be thin, or is it a basic human experience? How far back can we trace it?

I realize that this could be a controversial and/or sensitive topic, so I would like to go no further without a disclaimer. Though I have never personally experienced anorexia or any sort of eating disorder, I have been diagnosed with a couple other mental health problems, so I have nothing but sympathy for those suffering from something that may be invisible to others. So please, if this problem affects you and I have dealt with it poorly, let me know in the comments and I promise to be receptive.

A primary feature of anorexia is controlling one’s eating for a higher purpose. Today this is usually beauty. control, or perfectionism, but in the past the severe restriction often served the sufferer’s sense of religion. Of course, this perception may be skewed by the era’s tendency to record religious matters over the secular details of people’s daily lives.

Saint Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of fire prevention, is an early example of anorexic behavior in the Western world. Over the course of her life, which ended in 1380, she reported being in constant physical pain, and ate almost nothing for long periods of time. After being disappointed that an assassination attempt had failed to result in her martyrdom, she starved herself to death while working ‘strenuously’ on behalf of the church. A century earlier, Saint Hedwig of Silesia engaged in similar fasting behavior.

Jane Balan supposedly did not eat or drink from February 15th, 1613 until her death three years later at age 13. After a sickness with fever and vomiting, she totally refused to eat. The author who described the incident blamed a cursed apple for imbalancing her humors.

Sir Richard Morton, in 1689, produced the first medical description of what we now think of as anorexia. Its medical name was coined by Sir William Gull in 1874, who was the first to recognize it as a psychological condition. It became officially recognized as a mental disorder in 1980.


Further Reading:

Contemporary article about Hilde Bruch’s book

Saint Catherine of Siena

History of anorexia, from Encylopedia Brittanica


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