Saturday, June 20, 2009
SCENES FROM THE HISTORY OF HUNGER
I’ve been reading “From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: A History of Self-Starvation” by Walter Vandereycken and Ron van Deth. The book charts how in various times in history self-starvation has been a religious discipline, a freak show attraction, a medical condition, and lately a career move for fashion models.
The book tells us that in the early days of Christianity, believers were a tiny, fervent, oppressed minority within the Roman Empire. To be a Christian at all meant that you were a kind of extremist, keen to distance yourself from the pagans around you. Fasting was one way of doing that, and although it was practiced widely among early Christians it hadn’t become formalized. You fasted as and when you saw fit as a demonstration of your asceticism and piousness.
Once Christianity had become the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire and spread around the world the church considered it necessary to lay down rules about fasting. Good 4th century Christians fasted for 40 days prior to Easter. Later there were fasting periods associated with Christmas and Pentecost. By medieval times fasting days took up a third of the year.
And what’s the point of rules if they’re not enforced? Those who didn’t fast properly or at all were punished either by exclusion from celebrations, or more simply by having their teeth knocked out. Having no teeth would surely make it much harder to eat, though whether that’s quite the same thing as fasting, I doubt.
The book also tells the story of Marie-Joseph Dahl. Marie-Joseph was an agricultural worker who in 1773, in France, at the age of 33, fell in love with the son of the farmer who employed her. The farmer didn’t want his some marrying a poor peasant woman, and one day, mockingly said to her that if she could harvest a whole field in 3 days all by herself then she could marry his son.
Marie-Joseph did what she’d been asked to do, and only then realized that the farmer had been mocking her. She took it badly. She adopted a crouched position and refused any food for the next 11 years. To ensure her survival, concerned neighbors force-fed her. Since she wouldn’t open her mouth, they broke some of her teeth and poured diluted honey in through the gap.
I don’t know much about religion, but it seems to me there’s something a lot more holy about breaking someone’s teeth to ensure they live, than to break their teeth to ensure they fast better.