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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

A brief early history of Anorexia

catherine of siena writing

Descriptions of religious fasting dates as far back as the Hellenistic Era [i] and continuing into the Medieval period; During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, dominant interpretations of self-starvation were religious, particularly in Western Christianity. Women who starved themselves (“miracle maidens”) were highly esteemed, and the origins of their “holy anorexia” were thought to be supernatural. Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80) was a well-known example of a 'miracle maiden'. She was a nun, scholastic philosopher and theologian who gave away her food and belongings to the poor,and began to equate 'giving into' food with giving into sin [ii] [iii]. After some time, she wrote in response to her confessor’s exhortations that she was unable to eat. She died at the age of 33. The period of “holy anorexia,” however, was short lived, and in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church no longer tolerated asceticism. Anorexics were, in fact, condemned as witches and consigned to the stake [iv]. Some suggest that Mary, Queen of Scots suffered from the condition.[v]

The earliest medical description of Anorexia as an illness is generally credited to English Physician Richard Moreton in 1689 in his "Phtisiologia: a Treatise on Consumption", two cases of a “wasting” disease of nervous origins, that could be considered the first clear medical description of anorexia in both men and women, were described [vi]. This identification of Anorexia as a solely physical condition (highlighted by descriptions of the disease, which focus entirely on physical symptoms such as heart rate and appearance.) led to the shortcomings of cures used during the Victorian era. It is often considered that, partly due to the contemporary mores, would lead women to often not say anything at all about her condition; if she were asked why she was starving herself, it would be more likely for her to express the problem as a physical ailment, such as a bad throat or stomach pains, or possibly an inability to chew. However when cures for the presenting physical problem failed, the treatment would involve moral instruction, isolation, force-feeding and constant weighing [vii]

Anorexia was widely considered to be a wilful, attention-seeking choice; Sarah Stickney Ellis, a contemporary writer shared her thoughts on the Anorexic lady of the time: “that capricious abstinence from food… which by certain individuals is thought rather lady-like and becoming. I doubt not but this may be the case, so far as it is… ladylike to be the object of attention—to be pleaded with by kind friends, and pitied by strangers…” [viii]

image of William Gull

Anorexia Nervosa was named by physician William Gull in 1873.

Gull was the first to characterise Anorexia as a disease different from religious 'hysteria' or biological eating problems; in the same year French physician Ernest-Charles Lasegue published details of a number of cases in a paper titled 'De L'Anorexie hysterique'.

In his paper 'Anorexia Nervosa, (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterica)', Gull first coined the term Anorexia Nervosa to distinguish the disorder from the umbrella term of “hysteria.” (Hysteria comes from the Greek root 'hystera', meaning 'uterus'. Originally it was believed that hysteria and hysterical symptoms were caused by a defect in the womb, and thus only women could become 'hysterical') His conclusion that anorexia nervosa was a psychological disorder was immensely significant [ix]. So Gull's work moved 'self-starvation' from its association with different traditions like theology or folklore, and put the study of Anorexia Nervosa into the field of psychiatry.

[i] Joan Jacobs Brumberg Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia

[ii] Heywood, Leslie. 1996. Dedicated to Hunger: The Anorexic Aesthetic in Modern Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

[iii]Joan Jacobs Brumberg Op.Cit.

[iv]Joan Jacobs Brumberg Ibid

[v]Carol Lawson Anorexia: It’s Not a New Disease, 1985

[vi]Gordon, Anatomy of a Social Epidemic, 2000

[vii] Brumberg, Joan J. “The Appetite as Voice.” (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in Food and Culture, A Reader,. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. 141-61. Print.

[viii]Stickney Ellis, Sarah. The Daughters of England: Their Position in Society, Character, and Responsibilities. New York:D. Appleton, 1843

[ix]Hepworth, Julie. 1999. The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Ltd

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