In the sixth century, when the Seven Deadly Sins were formulated by Pope Gregory the Great, eating too much lead to more than just an expanding waist line, it lead to eternal damnation in Hell. Dr David Haslam, Clinical Director of the National Obesity Forum, UK looks at the history of the gluttony...
For Pope Gregory, ‘Gluttony’ didn’t just describe eating too much, it also included eating too early, too delicately, too quickly, and even just having a hearty appetite was enough to end up burning in fire and brimstone for ever. Lust and gluttony were unique among the Seven Deadly Sins, in that, even the most saintly person admitted that both food and sex were necessary for the continuation of the species, so couldn’t be ruled out altogether; the sin was to actually enjoy the activities of sexual intercourse, and eating. Francis of Assissi added ashes to his food to make sure it was as unpleasant as possible, just so he could be quite free from accusations of gluttony.
The reason for gluttony to be deemed a Deadly Sin, was that eating too much took a person’s mind off Holy things, leading to debauchery, drunkenness and temptation. St Basil complained that "The sense of touch in tasting and gluttony by swallowing, the body, fattened up and titillated by the soft humours bubbling uncontrollably inside is carried in a frenzy towards sexual intercourse.", and Thomas Aquinas described the six ‘daughters’ of gluttony: Excessive joy, unseemly joy, loutishness, uncleanness talkativeness and uncomprehending dullness of mind.
Aquinas himself, however, ended his days being more soft on gluttony, ending up "looking like a wine barrel", and needing a crescent shape to be cut out from the table to enable him to sit near enough to his food.
Plato said "Listen to your gut and you will submit to the base and carnal" The exact fate awaiting gluttons in Hell is open to debate. The greatest writers and artists have attempted to describe the worst, and most ironic situations possible for someone who ate too much during their life on Earth.
Dante suggested that as payment for pandering to the pleasures of the flesh during life, gluttons would be condemned to the third circle of Hell, where they would exist in eternal discomfort, in interminable hail, naked and starving in a swamp. Some said that nourishment would be plentiful; sinners would be surrounded by fine foods and wine; meats, fruit, bread; but that they would be prevented from eating it by Demons who would burn them, and impale them on their claws. Others suggested that gluttons would be able to eat and drink as much as they could, being force fed on toads and vermin, and being made to drink fresh urine through a funnel. But the majority seemed to believe that gluttons would be eaten themselves in a variety of different ways; sometimes whole, by demons, or alternatively cut into pieces and boiled, fried, or roasted on a spit.
So in the sixth century just as today, the advice was to avoid overeating, but for completely different reasons. Today we do it to avoid problems during the rest of our Earthly life, rather than in Purgatory; heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure and stroke which are a direct result of excess weight. However obesity was known to be a medical condition thousands of years ago; long before Pope Gregory the Great dreamt up the Seven Deadly Sins.
Over 3,000 years ago Hippocrates wrote "men who are constitutionally very fat are more likely to die quickly than those who are thin". The differences between the risks of obesity to men as opposed to women were well recognised amongst the Greeks, who realised that obese women were frequently infertile, whereas obese men had a shortened life expectancy.
Plutarch said "The body is a ship which must not be overloaded.", Aristotle agreed; "Drink or Food above or below a certain amount destroys the health." . It would not have been known in those days what precisely caused early death, as blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol were still unknown.
The connection between obesity and respiratory disorders was recognised by Celsus, one of the earliest physicians, who said "The obese are throttled by acute diseases and breathing difficulties; they often die suddenly which rarely happens in the thinner person"
More recently, in the 1800s, the link between maleness and obesity has been more clearly defined. According to the famed writer and wit Brillat-Savarin "There is one kind of obesity that centres round the belly; I have never noticed it in women: since they are generally made up of softer tissues, no part of their body is spared when obesity attacks them. I call this type of fatness Gastrophoria, and its victims Gastrophores. I myself am in their company; but although I carry around with me a fairly prominent stomach, I still have well-formed lower legs, and calves as sinewy as the muscles of an Arabian steed" He is describing the typical, and dangerous apple shape which obese men tend to assume, as opposed to the ‘pear’ shape of obese women who often carry their weight harmlessly on the thighs and buttocks.
One notable ‘apple’ was Mr William Banting, who was a coffin maker to the Royal Family in the 1860s. Not only did he succeed in ridding himself of ‘this lamentable disease’, but he also put pen to paper and wrote the first commercially available diet book, the ‘Letter On Corpulence, addressed to the Public’.
After having tried "much exercise, gallons of physic, the waters of Leamington, lived on sixpence-a-day, spared no expense on consultations with the best authorities in the Land, the evil still gradually increased". Eventually he could "not stoop to tie my shoe; I have been compelled to go downstairs slowly backwards to save the jar of increased weight upon the ancle [sic] and knee joints" Eventually when deafness was added to his list of ailments, an ear, nose and throat surgeon successfully cured his hearing by suggesting a diet, which nowadays is recognised as the forerunner of the Atkins diet; he cut out bread, sugar, beer and potatoes, and lost over 12 inches off his waist. Banting’s diet, unlike modern low-carbohydrate diets, suggests 7 units of alcohol per day.
In days gone by, swollen waist lines accompanied swollen wallets; only those people who could afford to eat, ate well enough to become fat. Furthermore, being fat was often seen as a sign of health, as the carrier of a paunch clearly did not have Tuberculosis or cholera, or other common infectious diseases of the day. If you were choosing a doctor or a lawyer, you would never choose a skinny one! These days the connection between money and weight is not as clear cut, because of economic factors such as fast food being cheap and readily available at any time of day and night, and gymnasiums expensive and exclusive.
Over the entire course of history the most celebrated obese people, and gluttons have been male; and many of them extremely well off. Wealthy Romans would eat vast amounts, then deliberately be sick in a vomitorium, so they could go back for second helpings of hummingbird tongues and goat’s testicles.
Henry VIII believed that increased girth was a sign of heroic valour, so deliberately gained weight, until at age 56 his chest measurement was 60 inches, and he could no longer walk around the Palace. Louis XIV of France was not as successful; he resorted to padding his clothes to give him the appearance of obesity
Diamond Jim Brady, the philanthropist, financier, and jewel collector, was one of the world’s most notorious gluttons. He would allegedly sit down for dinner leaving a gap of 6 inches between his belly and the table, and only rise from dinner once the gap had been filled.
In 1780 Samuel Johnson, the most famous writer and personality of his day, said "Whatever be the quantity that a man eats, it is plain that if he is too fat, he has eaten more than he should have done". His friend James Boswell disagreed, saying "You will see one man fat who eats moderately, and another lean, who eats a great deal" There is a great deal of truth in both statements, and the lesson is that just as there are different causes for becoming apple shaped, so there are different remedies.
Happy festive season!