700-year-old book reveals wellness quirks of medieval culture

What kind of images come to mind when you think of medieval art? Knights and Ladies? Biblical scenes? Cathedrals? It’s probably not a wretch in the throes of vomiting.

It might surprise you to learn that this scene is found in a luxurious book from the Middle Ages made with the highest quality materials, including an abundance of gold leaf. Known as an illustrated manuscript, it was done entirely by hand, as virtually all books were before the adoption of the printing press.

Why would such an opulent art form depict such a mundane subject?

Scholars believe that around 1256, a French countess commissioned the creation of a health manual to share with her four daughters as they formed their own household. Known as the body dietor “body diet”, the book was widely copied and became extremely popular throughout Europe during the late Middle Ages, particularly between the 13th and 15th centuries.

Over 70 unique manuscripts survive today. They provide a window into many aspects of daily medieval life – from sleeping, bathing and preparing food to bloodshed, leech and purge.

I am a art historian who recently published a book called Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art and Knowledge in the Regimen of the Body About these beautifully illustrated copies.

What fascinates me about body diet is how it depicts the responsibilities of women in wealthy medieval households – and how advice for household management was passed between them.

In a chapter on the care of one’s complexion, two women exchange a remedy. ‘The Diet of the Body,’ circa 1265-70.British Library, MS Sloane 2435. ©The British Library Council.

Seeing relationships

Illustrations, which are usually found at the beginning of each chapter, convey information not often found in other historical documents. Even if the images are idealized, they reveal an extraordinary amount of clothing, objects and furniture of the time. They also show interactions between people that reflect the culture and society in which these books were made.

A potential nanny is assessed by another woman. The body diet14th century.Mme Fr. 12323. National Library of France.

In a scene accompanying the chapter on caring for one’s newborn, two women are shown facing each other. Closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman on the right reaching out and grabbing the exposed breast of the woman in a simpler outfit. This scene – apparently an assault and violation – represents the assessment of a potential nanny.

Wet nurses were used throughout the Middle Ages by some elite families who could afford them, but choosing a good wet nurse was essential, fraught with life and death implications. Aldobrandino of Siena, the author of body diet, warns that an unhealthy nurse can “kill children right away,” underscoring a very real anxiety around this important decision. The different clothes and head coverings communicate the social status of each woman. The elite woman’s gesture also makes it clear who has power on the stage.

On the other side body diet manuscripts, upper-class women are presented with clothes, objects and gestures that convey authority, often in dialogue with those who are presented as laborers of various sorts. Servants within elite households are also illustrated, especially in the chapters on various foods and their health benefits.

Two servants with sacks of grain. The Bute Painter, The body dietaround 1285.MS Arsenal 2510, National Library of France.

Men and women are shown sifting rice, making wine and managing livestock. The creators of the manuscripts chose not only to make such mundane and repetitive work visible, but to treat the high-level doctor and milkmaid as equally valid subjects for representation.

Medieval health maintenance

In the Middle Ages, the health of family members from infancy through old age was maintained through a variety of strategies aimed at balancing the body. the body diet recommended a wide range of treatments, including the release of bodily fluids by purging or bleeding to maintain this balance.

Cupping, or the placement of heated glass cups on the skin, were among the procedures supervised by surgeons because they involved scraping or puncturing the skin before applying suction. On the other side body diet manuscripts, it is not uncommon to see male physicians and other practitioners depicted, implying that elite households employed such professionals.

A woman administers cupping therapy. The body dietaround 1265-70.British Library, MS Sloane 2435. The British Library Council.

But women are also shown administering treatments, including in several cupping scenes. A practitioner’s humble clothes and hairstyle signal her class as a worker.

Such images show that medieval health care involved many tools – medicine, surgical treatment, food, prayer and charms – and that a wide range of people offered their services both at home and outside. Women sometimes administer this care professionally, but they also do so by supervising their own households.

A 15th century copy body diet open to a section on food.British Library, MS Sloane 2401. The British Library Board

the body diet offered homeowners images that reflected their world – showing women asserting their authority over the care of their families, providing treatment and contributing to a well-run household. The elite owners of these exquisite books also enjoyed an additional advantage: the possession of such manuscripts was undoubtedly a symbol of status and evidence of conspicuous consumption.

This article was originally published on The conversation by Jennifer Borland at Oklahoma State University. Read it original article here.

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