Anorexia mirabilis literally means "miraculous lack of appetite". It refers almost exclusively to women and girls of the Middle Ages who would starve themselves, sometimes to the point of death, in the name of God. The phenomenon is also known by the name inedia prodigiosa ("prodigious fasting").
Anorexia mirabilis has in many ways, both similarities to and clear distinctions from the more modern, well-known "anorexia nervosa".
In anorexia nervosa, people usually starve themselves to attain a level of thinness, as the disease is associated with body image distortion. In contrast, anorexia mirabilis was frequently coupled with other ascetic practices, such as lifelong virginity, flagellant behavior, the donning of hairshirts, sleeping on beds of thorns, and other assorted penitential practices. It was largely a practice of Catholic women, who were often known as "miraculous maids".
The anorexia nervosa of the 20th century has historical correlates in the religiously inspired cases of anorexia mirabilis in female saints, such as Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) in whom fasting denoted female holiness or humility and underscored purity. The investigation of anorexia nervosa in the 20th century has focused on the psychological, physiological, and various other factors.
For Caroline Walker Bynum (Holy Feast and Holy Fast), anorexia mirabilis, rather than misdiagnosed anorexia, was a legitimate form of self-expression with motives set in contrast to the modern disease paradigm. She considers cases such as that of Julian of Norwich and other Christian anchorites, as using fasting as a legitimate means for communing with Christ.
Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa) suggests that anorexia mirabilis no longer exists not because the motives of those who starve themselves have changed, but because the paradigms for coding these behaviors have shifted. If a young woman were to make the decision to self-starve as a means to communicate with Christ, healthcare professionals would code her as anorexia nervosa regardless of her motives.
Whether or not there is historical continuity between anorexia mirabilis and anorexia nervosa is a subject of debate with both medieval historiographers and the psychiatric community. Some have argued that there is historical continuity between the two conditions, while others maintain that anorexia mirabilis should be comprehended as a distinct medieval form of female religious piety within the historical context of such societies.
Many women notoriously refused all food except for the holy Eucharist, signifying not only their devotion to God and Jesus, but also demonstrating, to them, the separation of body and spirit. That the body could exist for extended periods without nourishment gave people of the time a clear picture of how much stronger, and therefore how much more important, the spirit was. It mattered not in popular opinion that the reported periods of female fasting were impossibly long (from months to many years) and simply added to the allure of this very specifically female achievement.
Both Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) were reportedly anorexia mirabilis sufferers. They both refused food, but drank the pus from the sores of the sick. Angela of Foligno is reported to have said it was as "sweet as the Eucharist", and also to have eaten the scabs and lice from those same patients, though precious little else.
In the time of Catherine of Siena, celibacy and fasting were held in high regard. Ritualistic fasting was both a means to avoid gluttony (one of the seven deadly sins), and also atone for past sins. Catherine initially fasted as a teenager in protest against her proposed marriage to her late sister Bonaventura's husband. Bonaventura herself had taught this technique to Catherine, refusing to eat until her husband showed better manners. Fasting then was a means of exercising some control, taking power back for the individual and as such it is similar to one of the underlying factors in anorexia nervousa today. Also, women could gain more freedom and respect remaining virgins than they would becoming wives. Catherine managed to pursue her interests in theology and papal politics, opportunities less likely available to a wife and mother. She purportedly lived for long intervals on practically no food save the Eucharist, leading to an untimely death at thirty-three years from starvation and emaciation.
Any additional food she was forced to eat she would expunge with a twig or small branch pushed down her throat.
Marie of Oignies (1167–1213) reportedly lived as a hermit, wore only white, cut off pieces of her body to expunge her desire, and both she and Beatrice of Nazareth claimed that not only did the smell of meat make them vomit, but also that the slightest whiff of food would cause their throats to close up entirely.
A gang of would-be rapists got as far as removing the clothing of Columba of Rieti (1467–1501), but they retreated as she had mutilated her breasts and hips so thoroughly with spiked whipping chains that they were unable or unwilling to continue. Columba did eventually starve herself to death.
Author Giles Tremlett has suggested that Catherine of Aragon was anorexic.
Many of these women claimed that they possessed at least some measure of spiritual enlightenment from their asceticism. They variously claimed to feel "inebriation" with the holy wine, "hunger" for God, and conversely, that they sat at the "delicious banquet of God".
Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297) believed she had extended communications with God himself. Columba of Rieti believed her spirit "toured the holy land" in visions, and virtually every one of these women was apparently possessed of some level of psychic prowess. These women's exercises in self-denial and suffering did yield them a measure of fame and notoriety. They were said to alternately be able to make a feast out of crumbs, exude oil from their fingertips, heal with their saliva, fill barrels with drink out of thin air, lactate even though virginal and malnourished, and perform other Miracles of note.
The practice of anorexia mirabilis faded out during the Renaissance, when it began to be seen by the church as heretical, dangerous socially, or possibly even Satanically inspired. It managed to survive in practice until nearly the 20th century, when it was overtaken by its more popularly known counterpart, anorexia nervosa.
Contemporary accounts of anorexia mirabilis do exist, most notably that of a fundamentalist Christian girl in Colombia, as reported by Medical Anthropologist Carlos Alberto Uribe.