Medieval Nutrition and Diet

Gerard Cheshire's picture

Dear H-Nutrition members,

Those of you interested in Medieval nutrition and diet may be intrigued by two new papers concerning the Mediterranean in the 15th century. 

Recently, the writing system of a Medieval manuscript was revealed to be proto-Romance: i.e., the ancestor to Spanish and the other modern Romance languages. In addition, it is written with a proto-Italic alphabet. It is the only known document of this kind and therefore has considerable linguistic and historic importance.

Two papers have been issued, which explain the writing system and translate a number of excerpts as examples. They can be freely downloaded from the LingBuzz website. 

  1. Linguistic Missing Links:
  2. Linguistically Dating and Locating MS408:

The manuscript is filled with recipes for vegetarian foods and remedies. There are many illustraions of plants, plant products, and cooking apparatuses known as Ottoman, or Turkish, braziers. As an insight into the use of different plants to nutrify particular parts of the body according to Medieval doctrine on plant shape and characteristics, it is a rare example. Much of the manuscript deals with gestation and childbirth, so many recipes are designed to benefit the developing child and the pregnant mother. There is also a great deal of reference to olive oil and wine, which were seen as the 'holy light of god' and the 'blood of god', and therefore believed to possess divine curative powers.

The discussion question is this: Did these foods and remedies only appear to work because they resulted in providing a varied and healthy diet? 


Gerard Cheshire

University of Bristol 

Thanks for sharing, Gerard! To your question, I would hesitate to define efficacy in terms of modern ideas about healthful diets. While it is surely true that correcting some dietary deficiency would likely have been perceived as efficacious, understanding of what "works" is heavily influenced by social and cultural context and, perhaps not surprisingly, is also deeply personal or individualized (i.e., what works for *me* may not be what works for someone else). It's worth exploring further to be sure, but I would approach the idea of efficacy as having both biological *and* socio-cultural components.

+1 to what Andrew wrote--and definitely thanks for highlighting these texts! An important aspect of the cultural context here is textual tradition. If an well-known authority (medical or religious) had written that a particular food or drug was a useful cure, that becomes "truth." Even such substances were/are not particularly efficacious from a physiological standpoint, it was easier to come up with a reason why it didn't work in a particular instance rather than to decide the long-standing belief was false or the authority was wrong. So I would say in case you mention that people saw them as appearing to work at least partially because they believed in the authority from which they derived. In the same vein, it can be awfully hard to know the level of correspondence between the textual tradition and actual medical/dietary practices and experience.