The Strange Phenomenon of the Anorexic Saints

About a third of the Roman Catholic Church’s female saints since 1200 show clear signs of anorexia nervosa - an illness that’s generally considered a modern phenomenon. Has such mortification always occurred, and how in the world does it relate to sainthood?

Caterina, a young woman from Siena, Italy, starved to death at the age of 36. As an adolescent − so her many letters and writings indicate − she gradually stopped eating. She just couldn’t eat. Whenever she put the tiniest bit of food in her moth, her stomach couldn’t keep it in and she immediately vomited. Everyone around her − her mother, the priest confessor and all her relatives − commanded her to eat. It worked for a time, but she finally convinced everyone that, since food would kill her in any case, better she should just die of starvation.

Umiliana de’ Cerchi also died an agonizing death from starvation. She became ill and stopped eating almost completely after being widowed at age 22. Even when she was still able to chew, she chose not to.

Margherita da Cortona was renowned for her great beauty. It was said that even her terrible abuse of her body and self-starvation did not detract from her charm. She never married, but lived with a lover for nine years and bore him a son. Margherita, too, kept reducing the amount of food she allowed herself to eat, declared that she wished to die of starvation, and eventually did so.

These three Italian women didn’t just afflict themselves, but deliberately starved themselves to death. They all suffered from the dreadful disease called anorexia nervosa, whose symptoms are well known today. But Caterina, Umiliana and Margherita were not modern women. All three, like many other anorexics, lived in the 13th and 14th centuries. The difference between them and young women with anorexia nowadays is that they connected their physical mortification, and what would now be termed their “eating disorder,” to their religious faith and devotion to God.

Fasting and physical mortification are known to be common among the very pious and those who dedicate their lives to God. But in the case of these young women, even the priest confessors and Vatican officials who heard of their stories realized that something was wrong.

Documents and writings from the period show that, in the Late Middle Ages ‏(c. 1300-1500‏), self-starvation was at first perceived as an effect of possession, or witchcraft, or as a sign of some kind of Satanic work. But later on, the women’s refusal to eat, or their self-induced vomiting, was perceived as an act of religious devotion and purification, a way of dedicating one’s life to God.

These three women were admired in their lifetimes and the Roman Catholic Church subsequently declared them saints, in a relatively easy canonization process ‏(an official process in the Catholic Church in which select human beings, or even objects or places, are elevated to holy status‏).

We are used to attributing the spread of the anorexia epidemic to the ills of modern society and the pressure it puts on young girls and women to adhere to a standard of beauty in which slimness is paramount. The surprising evidence that young actresses and models like Kate Moss − or even Princess Diana, who spoke openly about her bulimia − aren’t the only sufferers indicates that self-starvation is not a problem particular to the modern age, but rather a timeless phenomenon.

Submission or control

Historian Rudolph M. Bell of the University of Arizona calls this phenomenon “Holy Anorexia,” and notes that more than a third of the 261 female saints recognized by the Catholic Church who lived in Italy after the year 1200 showed clear signs of anorexia. Bell believes that this group of women exhibited signs of anorexic behavior in response to the patriarchal society in which they were trapped, and that the historical background of “Holy Anorexia” should lead to a reevaluation of the modern approaches to treatment of the illness. He advises that more effort be put into understanding the causes and sources of the illness, rather than focusing on therapy alone. A frequent motif when examining the source of anorexia is blaming the mother.

Bracha Ettinger is a successful artist and the Marcel Duchamp Professor of Psychoanalysis and Art at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She is a theorist of French psychoanalysis and  is considered a pioneer in the fields of philosophy and feminism. Ettinger disagrees with Bell’s conclusions.

Is this specific form of mortification − starvation, the self-distancing from the female body − really a modern phenomenon that is directly related to the anorexic’s social and family structure? Or is it a timeless disorder that has always been essentially connected with womanhood?

Ettinger: “Mortification is an arousal of the mind and body that comes from the pain that is at the heart of pleasure, whose meaning is emptied of what marks our bodies as human. Mortification appears on the border that separates the human and the living from the nonliving and that which is beyond human, and it is therefore an expression of the attempt to find meaning in that which is beyond the human. A distinction must be drawn between anorexia that is bound up with the ideal of feminine beauty as defined in our time − which is starvation rather than mortification − anorexia as a severe emotional crisis, or a psychotic level of anorexia, which can lead to death and requires medical intervention; and mortification, which relates to ideas about holiness in the divine and in man, even if all these may be easily confused.

“When a psychotic breakdown occurs, the ideas guiding the self-starvation seep in from a chaotic dimension in the personality that takes command of both the emotional and rational self, and continually sabotages the woman’s efforts to maintain coordination among body, mind, emotion, intellect, actual events, aspirations and goals. When the perception of reality is impact and the state of wakefulness is like a dream, this is accompanied by anxiety and depression. The mind then signals via the body its request for help and the loss of the will to live.”

Why did anorexics obtain the imprimatur of sainthood so easily? What is there about extreme thinness, as opposed to the opposite extreme of obesity, that creates a holy aura around the woman who mortifies her body this way, while a woman afflicted with compulsive eating and obesity is not perceived as holy in any way, but rather as weak?

“In this day and age, extreme thinness can be simultaneously perceived as self-mortification and as a consequence of the norms that are the result of the ills of modern society, i.e., as a surrender to these norms and as a rebellion against them. Physical mortification, which is aimed at fitting an ideal image − and we live in an age of mirror reflections, an age of cameras and screens − is a signal the woman is projecting that she is capable of overcoming physical needs for the sake of something that goes beyond the physical, and she can control her body with her mind.

But in our day, unlike in the past, the demonstration of this independence from the body also projects conformism, submission to and internalization of the pressures of the media and society on the young woman. She identifies with a reflection of herself in the mirror that alienates her from her body and her self, while giving her back an image instead − if we were to describe it in terms of Lacan’s ‘mirror stage.’

“Being overweight, however, may be perceived as a rebellion against the norms of our time. But at the same time, it is also a sign of the mind’s lack of control over the body − in other words, it represents an addiction to earthly things. These syndromes, that transcend history and culture, receive different interpretations in each era, and without question also attest to what deviates from the social and historical interpretation: human selfhood per se, its fatal connection to the body and to the infinite soul.”

Our conversations, and Bell’s conclusions that the self-mortification of these women saints derives from a lack of normalization in their close society and family, led me to think of a holy trinity: girl-guilt-mothers − in other words, this cycle we’re accustomed to, under the influence of modern psychology, of blaming the mother.

Is there a real danger that a girl who resents her mother and blames her for her emotional state will eventually come to hate herself?

“In Lacan’s view, the idea of seeing the parent as the cause of things and blaming the parent would be, for the therapist, akin to entering the deceptions of the imaginary realm. The relationship between children and parents is part of the whole, but its cause is more hidden. The real cause is missing from the symbolic discourse through which the cause is sought, and the imaginary realm mustn’t take over the actual and the symbolic, for this will make the healing more difficult.

“Popular English and American schools of analysis, meanwhile, using a very rich imagination, developed a lexicon that enables the therapist to serve up to each patient what I called in my article ‘a ready-made mother-monster’ − the cause of all the hurts that are stuck in the unknown past, and thus to channel all anger and frustration at the woman-mother. Western society is saturated with psychoanalytical ideas that paint the mother as guilty.

“When therapists do not accord respect to the mother figure or treat her with compassion, they perpetuate the image of the mature woman and the mother figure within the daughter’s mind as a monster and Medusa, whose rejection will ease their suffering. This is a channeling of various angers into a pattern of hatred that exploits the primal trust in the mother.

“For mother-daughter relationships, it is an ongoing source of anguish. For creativity in general, it sabotages the potential for trust and admiration. Ethically, there is an impediment here to developing an attitude of respect. And in addition, for the daughter who is a woman or will one day grow up to be a woman and maybe also a mother, it’s a ticking bomb of potential self-hatred, unconscious hatred of her future as a woman and perhaps a mother; as soon as she imagines herself as such, she is repulsed − this time from herself.”