Voluntary starvation dates back centuries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am

Women starving themselves is not a new phenomenon - in Western Europe at least.

In medieval times, women in the Catholic orders would starve themselves in order to get closer to God, sometimes refusing all food except the holy Eucharist.

The women, known as 'miraculous maids', would have made a vow of chastity and often took part in other mortifications of the flesh such as self-flagellation, sleeping on a bed of thorns, or donning a hair shirt.

The refusal to eat food other than the bread and wine administered by a priest in celebration of the Eucharist is believed to have been an attempt to signify the woman's devotion to God and Jesus and demonstrate the separation of body and spirit.

The most famous adherent of anorexia mirabilis - as the practice is known - is St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who is jointly venerated as patron saint of Italy along with St Francis of Assisi.

St Catherine, a Scholastic philosopher and theologian canonised by Pope Pius II in 1461, supposedly ate nothing but a spoonful of herbs a day apart from the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

If she was forced to eat anything else, the lay sister with links to the Dominican order was said to have pushed a twig or small branch down her throat to purge the food.

Blessed Mary of Oignies (1167-1213), a lay Catholic sister who founded a leper colony with her husband and later lived as a hermit, and Flemish Cistercian nun Beatrice of Nazareth (1200-1208) both claimed that the smell of meat made them vomit and the smell of food caused their throats to close up.

The miraculous maids gained fame during the Middle Ages for their feats of denial and were endowed in the popular imagination with supernatural powers such as exuding oil from their fingertips and healing people with their saliva.

The practice died out in the Renaissance, when it came to be seen as dangerous and heretical.