Joan Jacob Brumberg’s fantastic book, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, is an excellent example of the benefits of sociologically-inspired history. Brumberg begins by explaining that girls who starved themselves have been recorded in many historical epochs, but the way in which societies have made sense of that starvation has varied.
Today we medicalize self-starvation; we call it a mental illness and we name it “anorexia nervosa.”
In Medieval Europe, fasting girls were labeled with the term “anorexia mirabilis”; these girls were seen as miracles, able to survive on spiritual devotion alone. (Later, some would suggest that these women were possessed by demons.) During the Victorian Era, people would pilgrimage to these fasting girls and leave offerings. A famous fasting girl could be a financial boon to a struggling family.
During the nineteenth century, medical doctors and psychiatrists (who generally saw religion as a threat to their nascent authority) argued that the fasting girls were impossibilities, that no one could survive without food. The competition between medicine and religion became so intense that doctors became intent on proving that these fasting girls were not, in fact, surviving on holiness, but were, instead, sneaking food. In several cases, doctors staked out fasting girls, watching her to make sure that she did not eat, and these girls, relentless in the illusion, sometimes died.
In any case, I thought of Brumberg’s book when I came across a story about Prahlad Jani, an Indian man who claims that he has not had any food or drink for 70 years, surviving on “spiritual life force” instead:
Indian military scientists are reportedly holding him in a hospital, watching him not eat and drink. Unlike the doctors in the Victorian era, however, who wanted the girls to fail, these doctors think Jani might hold a secret that will be useful for the military and they’re hoping that, by watching, they will be able to discover it. Here’s to hoping he is less stubborn than Victorian girls.