Eating Healthy, Medieval Style
by Eli Cohen, Brock University
Living historically has become a pastime for many individuals both in the academic world and outside as it allows one to step into the shoes of someone from a time gone by. As a means of understanding history it is somewhat effective but suffers from the tendency for individuals to view history through the lens of modern times. It is difficult, in the modern age, to truly immerse oneself in history but can nonetheless be an eye opening experience in many ways. Eating is an extremely important facet of day to day life and is one of the more interesting angles by which to study the history of day to day life as the quest for food is very closely related to the survival of individuals and communities. Furthermore, as a part of the modern daily routine, attempting to eat as individuals did as far back as the year 1200 is a jarring experience rife with opportunities to learn about the past.
The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum is, in short, a somewhat lyrically written set of instructions for one to follow with regards to their daily intake of food. It is a highly intriguing document which not only provides a look at the culinary life of medieval peoples but also allows for some insight into the medieval understanding of health and wellness in a time where people knew comparatively little about what makes someone unhealthy. With references to the classical physicians that define the long held belief in balancing the four humours for good health the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum is earnest in its goals and, as will be discussed, is not without its merits as a prescribed diet plan.
My personal selection of this project was due, in no small part, to my previous career as a chef. I felt that an understanding of food and its properties might give me a greater appreciation of what it took to prepare and, to some degree, source and store food. Initially, I felt as though I would be doing myself a disservice by traveling to the grocery store as opposed to finding some analogue for the raising and slaughter of meat but as I very quickly discovered, even without theses factors it is a time consuming process to prepare the foods outlined in the Regimen. In the interest of realistic feasibility and cost I decided to adopt some of the main suggestions in the guide with particular attention being paid to using ingredients that would have been available. This meant selecting only produce that is emphasized and was available, the use of the lowest quality cuts of meat available to replicate meat not privy to a barrage of hormones and antibiotics as is found today and, finally, liberal use of wine. Additionally, I went to lengths to follow the prescribed schedule the author has laid out as it allowed me to replicate, to some degree, a typical day.
From the outset I was highly intrigued by the idea that medieval peoples, along with other historic cultures, in some cases consumed wine or beer in lieu of water. This was doubtlessly the most prominent learning experience which came from following the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum‘s emphasis on quality wine and beer as it went to show the difference with which people historically have approached alcohol consumption. Early on the guide warns against drinking excess quantities of undiluted wine, this could not be a more prudent warning as one quickly finds out that in the absence of a reliable water source it is important to ensure that the wine or beer being consumed is not so strong that it will inhibit one from performing the rest of their daily duties, of which there were many even just with regards to food preparation. Slowly consuming diluted beer or wine over a long period allowed me to keep my wits about me while going about daily activities and demonstrated this differing approach to consumption. The second observation I made was thanks to the numerous references to dairy which inspired my decision to make my own cheese. It was truly eye-opening to experience the sheer amount of time and effort it took to prepare a cheese recipe and served to highlight just how much modern people take for granted with regards to their food. Cheese making is an undertaking so daunting that even the bravest of cooks rarely attempt it and for good reason, it is a complex process which leaves a great deal of room for both error and the establishment of harmful bacteria. Considering the authors of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitum did not know about harmful bacteria their reticence in suggesting cheese for those in less than the finest of health is fairly easily explained as it was likely many people became ill after eating even slightly improperly prepared dairy products. Even with the benefit of modern tools and utensils it was easy to develop an appreciation for what it took to prepare cheese, an appreciation which grew when considering the goats would have to be milked the same day as the cheese making process began due to the lack of preservation techniques as well as the fact that the temperature of the milk and proper inoculation of the rennet were a game of estimation and trial and error, and a dangerous one at that. Finally, in preparing my historic meals I found a new appreciation for an ingredient which is far from glamorous, the humble potato. It is no wonder that the potato has found its way into a disproportionate number of western dishes as it has the capacity, in the absence of an abundance of meat, to take a pottage from a thin, soup-like product to a hearty stew. Until this experience I would not have guessed the starchy root vegetable to be a truly exciting addition to the historical menu but its ability to keep for long periods, thicken a broth and fill a person’s stomach in lean times must have proven a culinary revelation and its longevity as a staple of menus is testament to this fact.
In short, through this exercise I learned that our modern approach to alcohol as a beverage of celebration and and what often amounts to over consumption is the product of an era where clean water is an expectation and previously it was simply the utilitarian choice for hydration which necessitated some degree of moderation. I went on to learn that products which are thoroughly taken for granted in the modern world were not only extremely time consuming but required a level of expertise and ability that made their production something of a gamble with regards to health and safety which went on to demonstrate some of the motivation for authoring the guide to begin with. Finally, and most surprisingly, I learned that the introduction of the potato to everyday diets would have likely been a exciting and important evolution in food history and would have provided an unprecedentedly robust and useful crop to a great many people who had few of, if any, such hardy crops aside from leeks and onions. The latter of which was a contested ingredient in the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitum and thus likely not as ubiquitous an ingredient as in modern times.
Aside from the practical implications of using historical ingredients was the medical aspect of the regimen which outlines when to eat based on when the, “stomach has been purged and emptied”, and essentially how one’s day should be organized with regards to food and hygiene. In following these guidelines I came to realize how much of this regimen continues to be valuable advice to this day. Although the medical advice regarding humours seems less than scientific to the modern reader the Regimen Sanitatus Salernitum at its core promotes good habits; frequent hand and face washing, oral care, stretching, exercise and avoidance of overeating are practices which have, despite medical advances, remained proven components of a healthy lifestyle
Ultimately, the experience of eating based on this particular regimen represented only a fraction of the work that common people would have had to endure in order to provide for themselves and thus represents one of the primary weaknesses of living history as a source for academic study. This weakness being that it becomes obvious that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to wholly and accurately recreate the past. This exercise, though, is proof that it is not necessary to fully recreate the past to gain an appreciation for it as simply highlighting those things that are the most different will allow for a new perspective. For example, the ability to check a recipe online while in the crucial stages of a difficult food preparation technique brings to mind the fact that those who were doing it in the past would either have had to know already or go searching for someone who does. It took no small measure of practical knowledge and experience to safely sustain oneself in the days of the Regimen Sanitatus Salernitum and the suggestions contained in said document would be helpful in staying alive long enough to develop such knowledge and experience.
 Society for Creative Anachronism, “Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum,” accessed March 4, 2017, http://www.sca.org.au/herb/library/RegimenSanitatisSalernitanum.pdf