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Thursday, 8 March 2018

How Can Anyone Live Without Eating?

     I had already planned to write this article in this month, and only later realised how timely it would be. Right now we are in the midst of Lent and, as we shall see, some people take it to a whole new level.
     In A. J. Cronin's novel, The Keys of the Kingdom there is a nine day wonder when a girl is alleged to be living without food, and the congregation consider it a miracle until the priest discovers that she is being fed surreptitiously. But what can we think when there is strong evidence that things like that have actually taken place?
     The technical term is inedia, which is Latin for "non-eating", ed- being the Latin equivalent of "eat", following Grimm's Law that a Latin d becomes a t in Germanic languages such as English.
     It need have nothing to do with religion. In my article on hallucinations in comas, I mentioned the case of Anne Jeffries of Cornwall who, in 1645, fell unconscious and reported being taken into fairyland. Much of her story was told by Moses Pitt, the son of her employer, who also described her psychic healing practices after the event, and the following crucial comment:
She forsook eating our victuals, and was fed by these fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day she came to our table and said, because it was that day, she would eat some roast beef with us, the which she did--I myself being then at the table.
    Harvest time in Cornwall is September, so if the story is accurate, she was being fed by the fairies for three months. Apparently, she gave Moses a piece of their bread, which he claimed was the most delicious he had ever tasted, before or after. Not only that, but when she was arrested on a charge of witchcraft (of which she was eventually acquitted), she was put in prison for several months without any food - or ill effects.
    All right, Mr Pitt's account was written fifty years after the events, so we are justified in being skeptical. The trouble is, according to another source,
 a 1647 document containing correspondence from the mayor (now held in the Clarendon manuscripts archive) confirms Anne’s presence in the gaol and that she was deprived of food for several months without any apparent detriment to her health. 
     With this bizarre story behind us, let us return to our old friend, Herbert Thurston. Chapters 15and 16 of his book, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism are entitled, "The Mystic as Hunger-Striker" and "Living Without Eating", and, as usual, he is at pains to establish the accuracy of the information. It is interesting, also, to note that, with few exceptions, all the cases cited are women. Perhaps we men can't live without eating.
     Fr. Thurston records allegations of late medieval mystics going without food for years: St. Lidwina, 28 years, Elizabeth von Reute, 15 years, among others, and Nicholas von Flüe (an exception to the all girls' club), 19 years. However, as he provided no further information, presumably he considered the evidence insufficient. The same cannot be said for one of the most famous and influential nuns of the middle ages, St Catherine of Siena (1347-84). Here we have the accounts of her confessors, intimate friends, and disciples, collected within a short time of her death. After she began to take communion daily, no further food was required by her and, in fact, her body rejected normal food. From September 1372 until Lent the following year, she was able to take only the smallest quantity of food, and for 55 days, from Easter Sunday to Ascension, none at all, although her activity for good works never ceased.
     It is important to remember that, in a convent, nuns live in one another's pockets. Also, they follow a strict routine of communal prayer and activities. In other words, it would be rather difficult for one to sneak food for private consumption, in either her normal or altered state of consciousness, without being caught out. Catherine, in fact, was surrounded by a coterie of young devotees who watched her constantly. Instead of catching her at eating, they caught her out pretending to eat.
     The last brings us to another issue: nuns (and monks) are under vows of obedience. Her family and friends were so dismayed by her inedia that her confessor ordered her, under obedience, to take daily food. She tried, but invariably she brought it up again. Catherine's fame was such that 400 of her letters to various important people throughout Europe have been preserved, and in one of them she related how she used to pray to God to allow her to live like others, should it be His will, and she attempted to eat once or twice every day, but without success.
     One could go on and on with these records. Another St Catherine, this time of Genoa (1447-1510) used to go almost without any food at all for 30 days every Advent and 40 in Lent for 20 years, and during these fasts she was just as vigorous and active as at other times. Under obedience she attempted to take food, but her stomach rejected it.
     Ever on the alert for possible mundane explanations, Fr. Thurston referred to experiments in which it was established that, provided the subject is warm, and kept supplied with water, it is possible to abstain from food for 30 days without necessarily incurring significant harm, but fasts of 40 or 50 days are dangerous, and close to the limits of human endurance.

      Instead of examining further cases of simple religious inedia, let us move to situations where the subject is bedridden and physically incapable of taking food for herself. In the chapter on stigmata, Thurston relates the appalling story of Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815 -1848). I note that a campaign for her beatification commenced in 1943, but during her lifetime she was considered essentially as an invalid, who was known to be religious, but with no reputation for exceptional holiness.
     At the age of 13 she suffered a severe grief reaction on the death of her father, as well as what appears to have been an hysteric illness with convulsions. In 1833 she went into a catatonic fit, after which she hardly ever left her bed. In 1834 a Dr Dei Cloche was called in to treat her.
He gives a description of her extraordinary aversion to food and of the strange hyperaesthesia which manifested itself in all her senses. She could not endure anything but the most subdued light. The slightest pressure on her abdomen caused her the most intense pain. When she consented reluctantly at his request to allow a small fragment of sugar to be placed upon her tongue, she at once had an attack which lasted twenty minutes, in the course of which the fit of vomiting was so violent that she almost choked. Already for some weeks she had taken next to no nourishment at all, and from the 10th of April, 1834, until her death it seems that she neither ate nor drank. [emphasis added]
    Her clinical condition was dreadful. She could endure neither light, scents, or noise. She could speak only faintly, and with difficulty. If anyone approached her without precautions, she would suffer trembling or convulsions. Although she took no nourishment, she was not emaciated. When, in 1837, she began to experience stigmata ie bleeding in the area of Jesus' wounds, Dr Dei Cloche, who was now head of an important hospital in Trent, paid her another visit. Her condition was unchanged.  His description of her sufferings is terrible to read. Even taking her pulse caused her distress.
     Personally, I cannot see the poor girl as anything but the victim of a terrible psychosomatic disorder. No doubt malnutrition would have contributed to her death, but just the same, 14 years is a jolly long time for someone to go without food or water. It hardly need be pointed out that a person in her physical condition would be in no state to get up and sneak food on the side, even as a sleepwalker. If her family were feeding her - and her visceral rejection of food was obvious to the doctor - there would have been no reason for them to deny it. They would have gained nothing from the deception, either in monetary or social value. They were not trying to prove anything. Their relative was already severely disabled even without inedia. Even if they had pretensions of extreme holiness on her behalf - and they didn't - that would have been satisfied with her stigmata, which occurred three years after the commencement of inedia.

      Completely unrelated was the case of a Scottish lass, Janet McLeod, which was recorded in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1767. At the ages of 15, 19, and 28 successive "epileptic" seizures left her a complete invalid, her legs bent up under her body.
[On] Whit-Sunday, 1763, her jaw became fast locked. Her father with a knife forced it open enough to introduce a little thin gruel or whey, but it all, or nearly all, ran out again. From this time, for more than four years, it is stated that she took no food and lost all desire for it, except that on two occasions her jaws for a while relaxed and she asked for water. All the normal excretory processes were suspended, except, of course, from the lungs and skin. The doctor who reports the case declares that when he saw her the girl was not at all emaciated. [Thurston's summary]
     In some attempts to open her jaws, two of her lower incisors were knocked out. Some food could be forced in, but it always leaked out of the sides, or was brought up by retching. Nevertheless, the same doctor returned five years later, to find that she was sometimes able to swallow a little oat cake through the gap in her teeth, and two years later her jaws relaxed enough for a more or less normal life to be followed.
    It must be emphasized that the story was confirmed by other witnesses of standing in the community. Also, no ulterior motives could be detected. The family asked and received nothing. Their distress was obvious. They were highly regarded in the neighbourhood, and had strict religious principles. And this was Scotland, remember. The religion was Presbyterianism. Inedia, and other Roman Catholic rigmarole would have cut no ice over there.

    There is no space here to list all the other examples provided of invalids existing for long periods without food in the age before intravenous drips and tubal feeding. As I mentioned previously, Thurston's investigations were so thorough that, in order to do them justice, large sections would have to be cited almost verbatim. But it is clear that, fraud and poor investigation to the side, inedia is a genuine phenomenon. I just have no way to explain it.


  1. Question - did they possibly take wine or milk? I once lived 7 days on nothing but milk, and I didn't even get hungry until the last day. I could have lasted much longer, if there had been no solid food available. The reason I tried this was because I get having digestive problems and couldn't figure out what foods were causing the problem, so I tried to give up all food. In the end I decided that hunger was worse than taking a risk of being sick from eating solid food, but if my sickness had been worse, I might have made the opposite choice. Some of your examples specified that the person couldn't even swallow water, but in other cases, it just said they didn't take "food," which could be interpreted as meaning solid food.

    1. The impression I got was that the nuns involved were physically adverse to food, but there was no indication that they failed to drink. Miss Lazzeri was said not to have eaten or drunk anything but, of course, it would have been impossible to confirm it. As for Janet McLeod, it was said that on two occasions her jaws relaxed and she asked for water. One presumes, therefore, that normally she took no liquids.

    2. It's often mentioned in old novels and history blogs that medieval people drank a lot of watered wine or weak beer, and I gather that sometimes a raw egg was broken into the ale. I can well imagine that if you lived on a liquid diet that let you take the minimum necessary daily calories to keep you alive, you would experience the spiritual benefits attributed to fasting on a more-or-less permanent basis. Cynically, you could point to alcohol on an empty stomach as creating the altered state of consciousness, but I'm not sure that taking a small amount of alcohol invalidates the spiritual experience. Very interesting topic!

    3. Although it is not, strictly speaking, relevant to the subject in hand, it is interesting to note how, long before the discovery of germs, various societies had developed customs limiting the damage due to poor water supplies. No doubt natural selection was involved.
      In China the rule was (is): Don't drink water; drink tea. (Boiling the water kills germs.)
      In the ancient Mediterranean world, it was St. Paul's advice to Timothy: "Stop drinking only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments."( Tim 5:23) (The alcohol knocks out a few of the germs.) In the ancient world you were considered a drunkard if you drink undiluted wine. The Romans diluted it with equal parts of water, a custom still observed in Tuscany, while the Greeks diluted it three or four times. Wine also served as an antiseptic, hence the use oil and wine by the Good Samaritan in dressing the patient's wounds (Luke 10:34).
      In northern Europe, which was too cold for grapes, the drink of choice was small beer, which had a very low alcohol content, but at least the brewing destroyed the germs.


    Claims to have gone without food for 70+ years. Underwent testing twice and could not be debunked.