BuckMD is delighted to welcome Sarah Kernan to our blog. Sarah is a PhD student in medieval studies here at The Ohio State University. Her area of specialization is late medieval French and English food and cookbooks. Now, it might not seem like medieval cookbooks and student health have a lot in common. Wrong. Read. Learn. That’s why you came to college, after all. -Victoria Rentel MD
As a medievalist, my mind often wanders to daily life in the Middle Ages. With cold and flu season upon us, I have been thinking about how people in the Middle Ages tried to stay or become healthy by eating right.
Just as people today turn to nutritional information in books or online, literate people in the Middle Ages turned to books of health and nutrition advice called “regimens of health” and “dietaries.” One extraordinarily popular regimen of health was the Regimen sanitatis salernitatum, a twelfth-century poem about hygiene and diet dedicated to the king of England.
Eating right in medieval Europe meant balancing four bodily humors – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Each of these humors had a combination of hot, cold, moist, or dry characteristics. Imbalanced bodily humors could be balanced by foods which contained opposite characteristics. Ingredients were often selected for their humoral properties. Foods that could potentially be dangerous to eat, such as eel – an extremely cold and moist fish – could be remedied and balanced by a warming and drying sauce containing ingredients such as pepper or garlic, rendering it healthy for consumption.
Medieval cookbooks often contained recipes called “sickdishes” for foods that could be easily eaten and digested by picky eaters, convalescents, or someone suffering from a nonspecific illness. These dishes contain more sugar, nuts, and chicken than regular recipes. The chicken and nuts – especially almonds – had balanced humoral properties similar to the balanced humors of a healthy human. Sugar was thought to purify blood. It was the most common item in sickdishes, but rarely was an ingredient in regular food preparations.
Strange combinations of food were thought to restore health and wellness to the sick. I am, however, comforted to know that my sickdish of choice, chicken noodle soup, would have been approved by medieval physicians.
Sarah Peters Kernan
Blanc mengier d’un chappon: An Invalid’s White Dish of Capon
Cook a capon in water until it is well done; grind a great quantity of almonds together thoroughly with the dark meat of the capon, steep this in your broth, put everything through the strainer and set it to boil until it is thick enough to slice; then dump it into a bowl. Then sautee a half-dozen skinned almonds and sit them on end on one half of your dish, and on the other half put pomegranate seeds with a sprinkling of sugar on top.”
Terence Scully, The Vivendier: A Critical Edition with English Translation (Totnes, England: Prospect Books, 1997): 291.