Successive editions of the ICD and DSM classification systems have exercised a major influence over contemporary diagnostic practice and perceptions of the form and structure of disorders. Periodic revision has been based on clinical and epidemiological research, and minimal attention has been given to any possible contribution from historical evidence. To test the potential value of such evidence, the historical manifestations of four eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, rumination and pica) were considered in relation to the clinical descriptions and diagnostic criteria of DSM–III–R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) and ICD–10 (World Health Organization, 1992). For each disorder, evidence is presented of continuities and discontinuities with the phenomena recognised currently. Instances of symptom overlap between disorders and the implications of the historical findings for some current classificatory issues are discussed. When spread over several centuries, case numbers remain relatively small, the amount of clinical detail is highly variable, and temporal distribution is uneven. The conclusions that can be drawn, therefore, are necessarily somewhat tentative and subjective.