Anorexia mirabilis literally means "miraculous lack of appetite". It refers almost exclusively to women and girls of the Middle Ages who would starve themselves, sometimes to the death, in the name of God. The phenomenon is also known by the name inedia prodigiosa ("prodigious fasting").[1]

Differences from anorexia nervosa

Anorexia mirabilis differs from the more modern, well-known anorexia nervosa in several distinct ways.

In anorexia nervosa, people usually starve themselves to attain a level of thinness, as the disease is associated with body image distortion. By contrast, anorexia mirabilis was frequently coupled with other ascetic practices, such as lifelong virginity, flagellant behavior, the donning of hairshirts, sleeping on beds of thorns, and other assorted self-mutilations. It was largely a practice of Catholic women, who were often known as "miraculous maids".

Until recently, plumpness was a clear sign of affluence, and emaciation either a sign of poverty, ill health, or both. Women did not typically begin depriving themselves of food for outer beauty until the Victorian era, they did however starve themselves for spiritual fulfillment.

Historical instances

Both Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) were reportedly anorexia mirabilis sufferers.[2] They both refused food, but drank the pus from the sores of the sick. Angela of Foligno is reported to have said it was as "sweet as the Eucharist", and also to have eaten the scabs and lice from those same patients, though precious little else.[3]

Many women notoriously refused all food except for the holy Eucharist, signifying not only their devotion to God and Jesus, but also demonstrating, to them, the separation of body and spirit. That the body could exist for extended periods without nourishment gave people of the time a clear picture of how much stronger, and therefore how much more important, the spirit was. It mattered not in popular opinion that the reported periods of female fasting were impossibly long (from months to many years) and simply added to the allure of this very specifically female achievement.

The most famous case of anorexia mirabilis is Catherine of Siena, who purportedly ate nothing but a spoonful of herbs a day, aside from the Eucharist. Any additional food she was forced to eat she would expunge with a twig or small branch pushed down her throat.[4]

Saint Veronica fasted extensively for three-day periods, and would chew five orange seeds, representing the five wounds of the crucified Jesus.[5]

Marie of Oignies (1167–1213) reportedly lived as a hermit, wore only white, cut off pieces of her body to expunge her desire, and both she and Beatrice of Nazareth claimed that not only did the smell of meat make them vomit, but also that the slightest whiff of food would cause their throats to close up entirely.[6][7]

A gang of would-be rapists got as far as removing the clothing of Columba of Rieti (1467–1501), but they retreated as she had mutilated her breasts and hips so thoroughly with spiked whipping chains that they were unable or unwilling to continue.[8] Columba did eventually manage to starve herself to death.[9][10]

Perceived benefits

Many of these women claimed that they possessed at least some measure of spiritual enlightenment from their asceticism. They variously claimed to feel "inebriation" with the holy wine, "hunger" for God, and conversely, that they sat at the "delicious banquet of God."

Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297) believed she had extended communications with God himself. Columba of Rieti believed her spirit "toured the holy land" in visions, and virtually every one of these women was apparently possessed of some level of psychic prowess. These women's exercises in self-denial and suffering did yield them a measure of fame and notoriety. They were said to alternately be able to make a feast out of crumbs, exude oil from their fingertips, heal with their saliva, fill barrels with drink out of thin air, lactate even though virginal and malnourished, and perform other Miracles of note.[10]

The practice of anorexia mirabilis faded out during the Renaissance, when it began to be seen by the church as heretical, dangerous socially, or possibly even Satanically inspired. It managed to survive in practice until nearly the 20th century, when it was overtaken by its more popularly known counterpart, anorexia nervosa.[11]

Further reading

  • Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Vintage; Subsequent edition, October 10, 2000)
  • Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Caroline Walker Bynum (University of California Press; New Ed. edition, January 7, 1988)
  • Holy Anorexia, Rudolph M. Bell (University Of Chicago Press, June 15, 1987)
  • From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: The History of Self-Starvation, W. Vandereycken (NYU Press, July 1, 1994)

See also


External links

Saint Veronica

Columba of Rieti

Catherine of Siena

Angela of Foligno

Mary of Oignies

Margaret of Cortona

Beatrice of Nazareth

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