George Frederick Handel, a Compulsive Binge Eater?

David Hunter, a music librarian, has spent more than 15 years piecing together Handel’s medical history, and believes Handel suffered from compulsive binge eating.

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 behavior 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 (pictured).

Based on all the available evidence, Hunter believes the diagnosis that fits best is binge-eating disorder. Such a condition might also explain Handel’s notoriously heavy drinking, which in turn was largely responsible for the condition that led to his seizures and, Hunter suspects, his eventual blindness.

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