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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 523-538

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Somatic Affects

Fasting Women: Bodily Claims and Narrative Crises in Eighteenth-Century Science

Karen Hollis


Over the course of the long eighteenth century, the British reading public became fascinated with and perplexed by tales of women who claimed not to eat, sometimes not even to drink, for periods ranging from a few months to fifty years. These fasters were uniformly poor, of humble backgrounds, living in relatively isolated rural areas, often Scotland or Wales, and ranged in age from fifteen to seventy. Although several developed a reputation for piety over the course of their fasts, none claimed extraordinary religious power. Their inability to eat appears to have been triggered by physiological "chance": Martha Taylor was beaten across the back with a board by an angry neighbor; another young woman fell from her horse into a river at the moment of her first menstrual period; Janet Macleod was seized by an epileptic fit during which her jaw locked; the most notorious faster of the period, Anne Moore, provided varying reasons for her inability to eat, ranging from swallowing boiling gruel to a revulsion for food brought on by her nursing of a scrofulous patient. All the fasters drew the attention of medical men, local clergy, and magistrates, but two achieved wider fame: Martha Taylor in the 1660s, and Anne Moore in the early 1800s. By 1810, Ann Moore's fame even reached across the Atlantic, where a wax replica of her figure was displayed in a Boston museum to the accompaniment of "music on the organ or grand piano forte." 1

Why did these particular women provoke such extensive interest at these specific historical moments? How is the meaning of their fasting bodies established, who controls that meaning, and for what purposes? One suggested answer [End Page 523] comes from the work of social and medical historians concerned with establishing a "female tradition" in which "noneating and control of appetite have been notable aspects of female experience." Because their explicit goal is to understand the genealogy of twentieth-century anorexia, Joan Brumberg, Walter Vandereycken, and Ron van Deth envision eighteenth-century fasters as part of a historical continuum, a progress from a medieval religious codification of fasting behavior to a modern, medical one. 2 In their view, the eighteenth century occupies a middle ground where the authority to interpret and validate fasts undergoes a shift from clerics to physicians, where popular "wonder" texts lauding the miraculous nature of fasting are gradually displaced by scientific and medical literature. 3 In other words, these fasting women point both backward and forward to periods in which all three historians are clearly more interested: the complex "food-related behaviors" of medieval and early modern spirituality, which bestowed a rich symbolic meaning upon abstinence, and the emergence of anorexia nervosa, situated within gendered familial struggles for power and cultural prescriptions for women's bodies. Because they are viewed as a bridge between these two periods, eighteenth-century fasters are curiously detached from contemporary cultural tensions, anxieties, or desires outside of what is represented as an inexorable and relatively uncomplicated drive toward the medicalization of the fast.

I would like to argue, in contrast, that the development of this purportedly objective, rational, scientific discourse is hampered, even compromised, by the intrusion of social and sexual concerns that fasting women embodied. Investigations of how fasting works in a woman's body, and even more importantly, what it means in a larger social context, quickly become mired in historically specific issues of class, gender, professionalism, print culture, consumerism, and regional and national identity. I will examine three distinct "moments" in fasting discourse, at the beginning, middle, and endpoints of the long eighteenth century, in which there are clearly different issues at stake for fasters and their male chroniclers. During the Restoration, Martha Taylor's fast produced a polarized debate, which Brumberg reads as a conflict between older religious and emergent scientific interpretations of the fasting female body. I look, in contrast, at competing models of authorship and sources...


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