Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Diet Books: A Millenium of Advice Unheeded

by Cokie Anderson

15th century manuscript of Tacuinum Sanitatis
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Every year, as January 1 approaches and the excesses of the holiday season begin to catch up with us, people everywhere begin thinking about their health. We resolve to go on a diet and to join a gym, firmly resolved (for a few weeks anyway) to whip ourselves into shape. For assistance with this endeavor, and perennially hopeful that there is some secret, easy way (The 4-hour Body!) to lose weight and stay in shape, we purchase millions of dollars worth of "healthy lifestyle" books. This is not a new phenomenon: people have been purchasing such books for nearly 1,000 years, and have been ignoring their basic advice--SPOILER ALERT! Eat less, exercise more--for just as long.

Medieval Exercise Regime. And you though Pilates was tough.

One of the earliest works to focus on the healthy lifestyle was the Taqwîm al-sihhah (Almanac of Health) by the 11th century Iraqi physician and Christian monk Ibn Butlan (died ca. 1038). One of the few upsides of the Crusades was the introduction into Western Europe of medical and scientific knowledge from Arab and Islamic scholars, which augmented considerably the knowledge handed down from the Greeks Galen and Hippocrates. The Tacuinum Sanitatis Medicina, as it was titled in Latin, was one of the most popular non-religious manuscript works. The wealthy, then as ever, had the means and the leisure to seek ways of preserving their life and health; peasants did lots of physical labor and could only afford to eat vegetables, so those lucky devils had no weight-gain worries. The upper classes were quite willing to spend large sums on illustrated manuscripts that could serve as the guide to a longer and more vigorous life.

Tacuinum Sanitatis explains and illustrates the six things necessary for good health, as outlined in its introduction: "treatment of the air which touches the heart," "right employment of food and drink," "right employment of motion and rest," "protection of the body from too much sleep and from sleeplessness," "the right ways to increase and to constrict the flow of humours," and "the right training of one's own personality being moderate in joy, hatred, fear and anguish." In other words, moderation in all things.

More than 200 appealing and lively illustrations show men and women cultivating and harvesting food, tending and slaughtering livestock, hunting, making wool and linen clothes, dancing, and sleeping. The description beneath each picture gives the qualities and benefits of the item or practice, as well as any potential harmful side effects and the appropriate remedy for these. For example, drunkenness is cited for its helpful quality of forgetting one's cares and relieving pain, with vomiting (depicted in the following miniature) given as the remedy for any related excess.

1538 print edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis from St. John's College, Cambridge

With the introduction of printing, Tacuinum Sanitatis was available to a wider audience, with woodcuts replacing the hand-painted miniatures. As one can see from the examples below, the medieval audience lacked our modern sqeamishness about bodily functions. The editio princeps (first printing) appeared in 1531, and the book enjoyed continued popularity through the remainder of the century.

TMI, thankyouverymuch

A humanist guide to good health was produced in the mid-16th century, by the Englishman Sir Thomas Elyot. His Castell of Helth "was a popular, sensible treatise on healthful living, with sound and practical advice on the recognition of the commoner symptoms of disease, as well as what to do about them." It provides the reader with suggestions for a proper diet (both to maintain health and ameliorate afflictions), discusses the curative properties of various herbs, and gives specific information about diagnoses, even down to the inspection of urine. According to Elyot, partridge is easier on the digestion than goose, and we should limit our intake of melons, cucumbers, and dates, whereas onions, eaten with meat, make it easier to sleep.

This work also has a tangential connection with the history of music because it contains one of the earliest references to the sackbutt, an early version of the trombone. The reference, however, is not to the sackbutt as an instrument for making sound, but rather as an appliance that, when blown through with sufficient energy, is capable of relieving problems of the bowels. Elyot says that "the entrayles [can be regulated] by blowynge . . . or playenge on the Shaulmes, or Sackbottes, or other lyke instrumentes whyche doo requyre moche wynde." (Sadly, we do not have an illustration demonstrating this technique). A courtier in the service of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490?-1546) was a close friend of Sir Thomas More and of Thomas Cromwell, both of whom met an unhappy political fate that Elyot, though endangered, managed to avoid.

Holbein's portait of Elyot

In the 18th century, we find a contribution from the French chemist and physician Louis Lemery (1677-1743), physician to the king of France, member of the Royal Academy, and son of the famous pharmacist and chemist Nicholas Lemery. His Traité des Alimens was originally published in Paris in 1702 and first printed in English two years later as A Treatise of All Sorts of Foods, both Animal and Vegetable: Also of Drinkables. The work is divided into three sections, the first on the effects on one's constitution of various fruits, vegetables, and spices; the second on flesh, fowl, and fish; and the final section on drink. Lemery believes that what one eats is a key to health and that moderation and a balanced diet (AGAIN!) are advised (although he qualifies this by noting that our earliest ancestors were vegetarians and healthier for being so). Obviously addressing a French readership, he cautions against overindulgence in frog meat, and he comes out in favor of water and tea as beverages, while noting like a true Frenchman that wine is also healthful when taken in moderation, and the same is true of coffee and chocolate, although he warns that excesses will cause sleeplessness.

John Arbuthnot, physician and satirist

The English were not to be upstaged by the French in this area. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), physician to Her Majesty Queen Anne, published An Essay Concerning the Nature of Aliments and the Choice of them, according to the Different Constitutions of Human Bodies. In which the Different Effects, Advantages, and Disadvantages of Animal and Vegetable Diet are Explained. Arbuthnot's study of diet is moderate and sensible (Again with the moderation! Sheesh!), particularly for his day. After discoursing on the mechanics of digestion, he discusses the properties of acidic and alkaline vegetable and animal food. In general, Arbuthnot recommends a light, balanced, and varied diet washed down with cold water. Alchohol, tea, and coffee must be kept to a minimum, although phlegmatic constitutions require some stimulus, and cocoa is not noxious. The author maintains that diet should be tailored to the individual constitution; a vegetarian diet, for example, is not wholesome for everyone, but works well for those inclined to be bilious.

Epicure and eccentric William Kitchiner

My favorite title in this genre--and really one of my favorites of all time--is The art of invigorating and prolonging life, by food, clothes, air, exercise, wine, sleep, &c., or, The invalid's oracle : containing peptic precepts, pointing out agreeable and effectual methods to prevent and relieve indigestion, and to regulate and strengthen the action of the stomach and bowels ... To which is added, The pleasure of making a will. Really covers all the bases and, unlike most lifestyle guides, acknowledges that despite the health diet and exercise, one day you are going to die, so you might as well face up to it and make the proper preparations. The brainchild of epicure and writer William Kitchiner (1778-1827), it contains the same basic advice as the hundreds of thousands of others produced from ancient times to the present: eat and drink in moderation, exercise regularly, guard against weight gain, and get enough sleep. Kitchiner was the author of the phenomenally popular work The Cook's Oracle, which provided inspiration to many aspiring domestic goddesses, among them Mrs. Beeton, the Victorian Martha Stewart.

In addition to chapters on "Reducing Corpulence," "Siesta," "Clothes," "Influence of Cold," "Air," "Exercise," and "Wine" (which he recommends but finds too expensive), the Invalid's Oracle, as it was popularly known, includes his Peptic Precepts, further described as "pointing out agreeable and effectual methods to prevent and relieve indigestion, and to regulate and strengthen the action of the stomach and bowels." These range from a relatively pleasant, or at least harmless, mint pill for mild indigestion to harsh and most unappealing purgatives.

An especially delightful feature of this section is the reprinted menu of a Parisian restaurant, dated 1820. Kitchener, who advocated a diet of beef, mutton, and more beef (a forerunner of the Atkins Diet), includes this as an example of the horrifying things foreigners will eat; the modern reader is struck rather by how appetizing the dishes--most of which can be found on the menu of any modern Parisian bistro--sound when compared to the relentless parade of boiled meat urged by the author. The final section accepts that all this good advice is only postponing the inevitable, and encourages the reader to put his mind at ease by making a will and getting his affairs in order. Ironically, Kitchener died suddenly and rather mysteriously the day before he was to change his own will to disinherit his "undeserving" son.

And so we face another season of resolutions and good intentions, still hoping that someday, someone will come up with something a little easier and more fun than "eat and drink in moderation, exercise, and be sure to get enough sleep." I'm holding out for "Eat Chocolate, Drink Champagne, Never Gain Weight, and Live Forever." Now that would be a bestseller.

1 comment:

  1. delicious! if I could I devour books and ravenously as I read them I would be a walking ruinous folly! what a great post- we live and never learn. pgt


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