The 14th century religious women Margery Kempe and Catherine of Siena can still teach us lessons about eating disorders today

Sukkar, Isabella, Gagan, Madeleine, and Kealy-Bateman, Warren (2017) The 14th century religious women Margery Kempe and Catherine of Siena can still teach us lessons about eating disorders today. Journal of Eating Disorders, 5 (23).

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Background: Women today more commonly suffer the morbidity and mortality of eating disorders. Looking through the dual prisms of historical accounts and modern theory the authors examined the meaning of eating disturbance in two cases from the late Middle Ages. The historic role of women and food is explored.

Method: Widely reviewing historical sources and the current academic literature, we gathered data and considered two women, Margery Kempe and Catherine of Siena. They were empowered by their roles as religious mystics, and drew strength from suffering, distress and fasting. We briefly examined them in the context of modern diagnostic and aetiological explanations of eating disorders (particularly Anorexia nervosa).

Results: We present an account of these women's lives. The relevance these cases have for our understanding of patients, eating disorders, and expressions of suffering today is discussed.

Conclusions: Historic accounts provide a rich counterpoint to understanding our present clinical culture of theory and diagnosis. Both our subjects had disturbed eating: one probably died as a consequence of it. Subjective distress was a central component of the life that was desired by each of these women, and they were empowered by their eating disturbance. Food has immense meaning historically, and personally it had meaning for each of our subjects. This is reflected in current clinical experience. The authors suggest we may be aided by adding our cultural, historical and gender based experience of food to our modern biological understanding of eating disorders, to further illuminate the complexities of today's eating disordered patient.

Item ID: 50611
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 2050-2974
Keywords: Anorexia mirabilis, Anorexia nervosa, diagnosis, subjective distress, DSM, eating disorders, embodiment, feminist theory, holy anorexics, suffering
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© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Date Deposited: 20 Sep 2017 10:30
FoR Codes: 32 BIOMEDICAL AND CLINICAL SCIENCES > 3210 Nutrition and dietetics > 321099 Nutrition and dietetics not elsewhere classified @ 50%
42 HEALTH SCIENCES > 4203 Health services and systems > 420313 Mental health services @ 50%
SEO Codes: 92 HEALTH > 9204 Public Health (excl. Specific Population Health) > 920410 Mental Health @ 50%
92 HEALTH > 9204 Public Health (excl. Specific Population Health) > 920401 Behaviour and Health @ 50%
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