The eating disorder anorexia nervosa only became familiar to us in the last few decades, but documented cases go back to antiquity. It wasn’t quite recognized as a mental illness because sufferers appeared to be completely rational, even when their behavior was self-destructive. Accounts tell of holy women, some of them saints, who transcended earthly flesh by not eating. One of them was Catherine of Siena (1347-80).
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By the age of 15, her already frugal diet was reduced to small quantities of bread and raw vegetables. Five years or so later, following the death of her father and more visions of Christ, Catherine cut out the bread, and, from her mid-20s, apparently ate ‘nothing’ other than sacramental wafers at Holy Communion. She was dead from self-starvation by the age of 33. According to Raymond, during those last years of severe starvation, not only did she have no need of food but the very act of eating was physically unbearable. ‘If she forced herself to eat, her body suffered extremely, her digestion would not function, and the food had to come out with an effort by the way it had gone in.’ In other words, she was forcing herself to vomit, which she did by swallowing branches of fennel or other bitter herbs. Despite her frailty, she remained physically energetic to the last and, indeed, seems to have been prone to bursts of hyperactivity. In Raymond’s words: ‘She did not know the meaning of fatigue.’
Neuropsychologist Paul Broks compares the modern diagnosis of anorexia nervosa to the medieval anorexia mirabilis, or holy anorexia, in terms of the struggle between the body and the soul at Aeon. -via Strange Company
(Image credit: Didier Descouens)