I've read a fair bit on the history of anorexia, of the fasting saints of the Middle Ages, of the initial medical reports in the 1600s, followed by the formal medical diagnoses in the mid-1800s. Clearly, anorexia is not a new disease.
The history of bulimia and binge eating disorder, however, is much fuzzier. There were the Roman vomitoriums, yes, but otherwise the history is vague until about the 1900s.
However, a new article in New Scientist writes about a famous composer who likely suffered from binge eating disorder (and also lead poisoning). Could Handel's suffering have helped inspire his great works, such as The Messiah, the article asks?
The year 1737 marked a turning point for England's most celebrated composer. George Frideric Handel had been entertaining London society with his Italian operas since 1720. Each season he staged several, for which he wrote the music, hired the singers and directed 50 or more performances. Then he abandoned opera and wrote the type of music he is best remembered for, his English oratorios. Handel's operas had been peopled by gods and heroes, played by strutting superstar singers. Now his themes tended towards the tragic, his characters mere mortals and his music more personal. What prompted the change? Ill health, says Handel authority David Hunter.
Handel's contemporaries were well aware of his binges, and they were not afraid to ridicule his food intake or his weight.
Handel was clearly obese. According to friends and admirers he "paid more attention to [his food] than is becoming in any man" and was "corpulent and unwieldy in his motions". Others were less kind, making him the butt of jokes and mocking verses. "He consumed what even by the standards of his well-fed peers were embarrassingly large amounts of food and drink," says Hunter. His odd behaviour indicates something other than simple greed: Handel couldn't control his eating, even if it meant losing friends or facing ridicule.
One secret binge caused a rift between Handel and one of his oldest friends, the painter Joseph Goupy. In 1744 or 1745, Handel invited Goupy home for dinner, warning him that business wasn't going too well so the meal would be frugal. Dinner over, Handel excused himself. He was gone so long, Goupy went looking for him - and found Handel stuffing himself with "such delicacies as he had lamented his ability to afford his friend". Furious, Goupy left, and had soon produced a new portrait of Handel, one in which he was caricatured as an organ-playing pig (above).This loss of control over eating certainly characterizes binge eating disorder, and Hunter tentatively diagnosis the great composer with BED, though he speculates Handel may also have been suffering from other conditions, such as lead poisoning and heavy drinking. But even in the 1700s, without the thin-is-in culture, fat and overeating were derided.
Certainly Handel's diagnoses, whatever they may be, do not detract from his music. I've sung parts of the Messiah in various choirs, and it's a lovely piece of music. But I never knew that Handel might have struggled with some of the same demons that I did, which makes it all the more poignant.
Image courtesy New Scientist.