Human Flower Project
An early 17th Century Human Flower Project: Was it miraculous, a charade, or an eating disorder?
Image: Online History of Dutch Women
This New Year, we present Eva Vlieghan, Jenny Craig of the Counter Reformation. Eva was actually Protestant but her dietary version of mysticism is a good example of the era’s spiritual calisthenics.
Vliegan was born in Meurs, North Westphalia, near what’s now the Dutch/German border, 1575. In her late teens, she gradually refused food and in 1597 began what some claimed to be a 34 year fast.
“In 1599, when she was persuaded to eat a single cherry, she became so ill that she nearly died. It was said that she lived from the fragrance of flowers.”
Today we would call Eva Vlieghan “anorexic,” but in the late 16th century, her eating habits were interpreted differently: as a sign of extraordinary sensitivity and power. This online article about “hunger artists” gives many more examples of those whose abstinence from food became a statement – religious, political, personal.
None of the others, so far as we know, relied on the scent for flowers for sustenance.
“Eva herself maintained that every other day at sunrise she was surrounded by a glittering light and her mouth was moistened by a honey-sweet substance.”
Eva Vlieghan with sustaining bouquet
Image: Andries Jacobsz Stock/ Fitzwilliam Museum
Vlieghan became the subject of intense public curiosity. Her food intake was monitored by an incredulous local clergyman, who later vouched for her. She drew the attention of European nobility and in 1614 published a pamphlet foretelling a great plague; she had been told by an “angel” that God would soon punish humankind for its sinfulness. With this announcement, she reportedly gave up speech as well as food.
Some say Eva Vlieghan died March 1, 1614, but another report, from physician Nicolaes van Wassenaer, claims to have found her alive 14 years later, with a larder full of food.
With all its complexity, anorexia nervosa seems a gastric overreaching for personal power and control. (See Isak Dinesen.) And what more intensely, arcanely feminine way could there be to strive for authority than subsisting on the airs of roses and lilacs.
May your Human Flower Projects 2012 be less ambitious, more fortifying.