In 1874 the prominent British physician William Withey Gull coined the term 'anorexia nervosa' for a peculiar form of self-starvation. This is far from saying that prolonged abstinence from food was previously unknown. In the late Middle Ages, extravagant fasting played a prominent part in the penitential or ascetical practice of deeply religious women. Thomas Netter, for instance, in a treatise against the Lollards, referred to a devout Christian girl from Norfolk. She was known...
in the vulgar tongue as Joan the Meatless, because it was proven that she had not tasted or drunk for fifteen years, but only fed with the greatest joy every Sunday on the sacrament of the Lord's body.
Although similar cases can be found subsequently, since the early modern period their number has gradually diminished. Rising Protestantism and the sceptical attitude of the Roman-Catholic Church with regard to new 'fasting miracles' offered less opportunities for potential 'fasting saints'. Moreover, the scientific revolution and its concomitant process of secularisation minimised belief in the supernatural causes of unusually protracted fasting. By these developments the ties between prolonged fasting and religion became weaker and the so-called 'miraculous maidens' or 'fasting girls' appeared on the scene. In the history of self-starvation this phenomenon is the connecting link between medieval excessive fasting within a Christian tradition. and modern anorexia nervosa within a medical context.
From the sixteenth century onwards. these fasting girls - just like giant babies. sea monsters and other monstrosities - were part of the sensational news of the time in various parts of Europe. Until the late nineteenth century they achieved local and even national notoriety, because they ate very little. or nothing at all, and nevertheless staved alive, sometimes even in excellent health. Just like their illustrious medieval predecessors, these 'natural wonders' lived on for months or even years.
Although we are poorly informed about the opinions of ordinary people in those days, evidence through popular media such as pamphlets and newspapers, suggests that a fasting girl was often considered a miracle, a sign of God's presence on earth, and (later) an astonishing natural phenomenon. In some instances thousands of people, including kings and other dignitaries, would visit the girl to witness the miracle for themselves and to talk to her and be shown how impossible it was for her to consume anything. In honour of the miracle or simply in gratitude for the enjoyed spectacle, people would offer her money or goods.
However, extended fasts were as regularly doubted as applauded and the title 'miraculous maiden' was never easily obtained. When the first signs of the abstinence manifested themselves, people usually consulted the local quack or doctor. if their treatment did not have any effect, rumours would rapidly spread. instead of being merely ill, the fasting girl might well be a miracle. Sceptics would accuse the girl of cheating, while physicians, often in charge of the local town council, tried to put an end to the rumours by making extensive investigations into the case. For the fasting girl there was no escape: refusal to co-operate would instantly be interpreted as fear of detection.
Usually a cross-examination of those who were involved and a medical examination of the girl preceded a period of observation. Thereafter the girl's abstinence was checked by isolating her entirely from the outside world and watching her for days on end. Once the observation had started, women guards closely watched her health as well as anything else that took place. In a number of cases they could only confirm the prolonged fasting, thus considerably increasing the miraculous reputation of the faster.
However, in several cases the observation period would make it clear that the fasting girt had been deceiving everyone. …