You Were What You Ate

The Medieval Diet


“You are what you eat” sounds like a thoroughly modern concept, but really our ancestors took it a lot more seriously than we do. According to pre-modern medicine, the ingestion of a particular plant, animal or substance was a highly powerful gesture — symbolically and practically. The ingested substance was thought to have an agency over the body, mediated by the body’s constitution. Classical, Medieval, Renaissance and indeed Baroque kitchens were very different from our own, and so were their cooks. The kitchen doubled as a pharmacy and the cook had to be something of a pseudo-magician — even an exorcist, in periods of greater social anxiety.

Ancient medicine believed that the balance or imbalance of fluids in a person’s bodies (humors) determined their disposition and temperament. Blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm flow to varying extents in the veins of every living being; an excess of any of them was thought to make a person sanguine, choleric, melancholic or phlegmatic, respectively. These humors were intertwined with the four elements — air, fire, earth and water — as were the seasons and astrological signs. Spring, wet and hot, corresponded with blood, air, and a sanguine temperament. Summer, hot and dry, was yellow bile, fire, and choleric. Autumn, dry and cold, was black bile, soil, and melancholy. Winter, cold and wet, was water and phlegm. The list went on to include the planets, the stages in the life of man, the humoral dispositions of animals and even individual organs. The elements, humors, temperaments were therefore not just reflections of one another — they were contained in each other, explaining the workings of the universe.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504.

“Alchemical laboratory” is how historian Piero Camporesi described the Baroque kitchen, but really this description can be applied to earlier centuries, also. Throughout, the kitchen was a space where substances were manipulated for the purpose of simple ingestion, but also a space for healing, for pleasure and for purification (of the body and the soul). In the grandest of kitchens, the cook was a sort of universal man. He might have served you a peacock that seemed alive, or a fish that appeared to be swimming. Presenting life-like animals at the table for banquets and feasts was a Roman tradition. The rich freed slave Trimalchio, in Petronious’ Satyricon, famously orchestrates a banquet in which a wild boar is served surrounded by baby boars made of almond paste. Once it is cut open, a flock of thrushes flies out into the banquet hall.

Eating was considered something visceral with powerful implications. It could be a game of illusion where nature was symbolic and full of double meanings. From antiquity and well into pre-enlightenment Europe, food combined science, art and religion, rendering the boundaries between diet and medicine indistinguishable. But all this is better illustrated with a few stories from the time:

The Eaten Heart
The medieval French novella Le Lai d’Ignaure begins with twelve married ladies playing a game. One of them assumes the role of priest and the remaining eleven confess to her, revealing the names of their secret lovers. It becomes clear that all are having an affair with the same man, Ignaure. Together they plot to ambush and kill him, but upon his capture Ignaure is able to convince them to spare his life; he loves them all equally, he says. In exchange for sparing his life, they demand that he choose one of them to be his only lover. Upon returning to their respective husbands, the women he turns down tell their spouses of Ignaure’s affair with the woman he chose in an attempt to humiliate both. The husbands, however, realize what really has transpired and assassinate Ignaure. They prepare a feast including a special paté made of the dead man’s heart and penis. The men feed their unfaithful wives these organs that most directly represent their illicit attraction to Ignaure. The twelve wives (and lovers) are so horrified when they discover the truth that they resolve to never eat again. They soon die of starvation. Their bodies become the physical tombs for Ignaure’s body, symbolic tombs for his sexual prowess.[1]



What did the twelve husbands hope to achieve by committing this act of culinary violence? Had they themselves ingested Ignaure’s powerful organs they might have absorbed his sexual powers and regained their lost virility. Instead they feed them to their wives in an attempt to punish or “cure” them with the central ingredient of their betrayal. To a contemporary audience, this may be easier to understand if one thinks of another old trick: to cure a hangover, drink on it.

There are several early medieval novellas in which women are forced to ingest the hearts and, sometimes, the sexual organs of their lovers. Food historian Allen Grieco tells us to look at hunting practices, more specifically wild boar hunting, to better comprehend the story of the eaten heart. The wild boar was seen as a highly sexual animal often associated with lust, a cardinal sin. There are some works where lust, or lussuria is illustrated by a woman reclining over a wild boar; wild because the animal was considered savage. In one particular example, a tryptic painted by Stefano di Giovanni Sasseta between 1437 and 1444, the center piece is Saint Francis in ecstasy. At his feet are two women, one wearing the garments of a nun and the other clad in a pink dress and holding a mirror to her face. Her pet, a wild boar, appears to be tamed by her presence. Perhaps she is more savage than he.[2]


Stefano di Giovanni Sasseta, The Ecstasy of St. Francis, 1437-44.

It was customary when hunting wild boar to divide the meat among the hunters as soon as the animal was killed. He who slayed the beast got the organs: the heart, the testicles, the lungs, the liver, and so on. The boar’s insides were fed to the hounds as a reward, because it was believed that by eating the animal’s vital organs, they would absorb its savage qualities. The line between dog and feral pig became blurred, and the dog a more successful hunter of the beast. Some of the most mythical hunters of the Middle Ages are said to have defied taboos and followed a similar diet, eating the organs of wild boar.[3] But eating the heart or the testicles of a wild boar was a risky business; only the most experienced hunter could ingest the potent substances contained in the animal’s organs — the very substances that supposedly made the wild boar wild — without losing his humanity.

Poison Girl
In Albert the Great’s De Animalibus, the medieval philosopher and theologian provides further evidence of the power of ingestion in a discussion of ‘the nature and humoral complexion of snake venom.’ Drawing on Aristotle’s Secretum Secretorum, he says: “Aristotle tells the story of a young girl who was fed poison… At first… in small amounts and later larger quantities, until she was inured to the poison, as to any other food. Fore, the girl had very little heat in her heart and narrow blood vessels in which the detoxified poison was moderated in the continual digestion of food before it could reach her heart. This steady diet of poison made her so venomous that her saliva and other body fluids killed everyone who had contact with them, and whoever had sexual intercourse with her succumbed.”

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nostalgio Degli Onesti II, ca. 1483. Prado, Madrid.

Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Nostalgio Degli Onesti II, ca. 1483. Prado, Madrid.

Unlike our hunter, the young girl in Aristotle’s tale is not strong and she is easily turned into a snake. We start to understand that the distinction between human and beast is a fine line, one that is easily crossed through ingestion. We know about the powers and vulnerabilities of the human body, and those of the animals and the vegetables it could ingest. But we also learn that there is a logic and a science behind all of this. In order to transform a girl into a treacherous and venomous serpent she had to have “very little heat in her heart” as well as “narrow blood vessels” so that the poison could not reach her vital organs and kill her. Her humoral disposition makes her the perfect vessel for snake poison and she effectively becomes a snake in the body of a young girl.

But what of the humoral disposition of the snake? The humoral nature of the plant and animal kingdom is divided as follows: fire (hot and dry) comprises mythological animals, air (hot and humid) corresponds to birds, water (cold and humid) comprises fish, and earth (cold and dry) comprises plants. Quadrupeds stood between air and water and therefore between birds and fish. Each animal thus took its humoral disposition from the element of its origin. The snake, Albert the Great, explains, needs heat and moisture to survive due to its cold complexion. A victim with a warm heart and wide blood vessels would give the snake’s lethal poison a clear path to the heart, but a cold one halts its flow allowing the venom to disperse in the blood stream.

Flesh Of Fowl
Only the noble hunter possessed the constitution and, most importantly, the strength of character to benefit from eating the organs of a wild boar. Young, cold-hearted girls, meanwhile, could easily be turned into snakes. There was a hierarchical order that followed the structure of the universe. At the peak of the middle ages, this order was reflected in social status, which dictated the foods that were appropriate for different social classes and different sorts of people. The animals located at the top of the food chain were only to be eaten by those in the upper echelons of society whose sobriety and nobility was not just a matter of appearance, but embedded in their humoral nature. Grieco explains that “morally and medically speaking, it was dangerous to eat food that was thought to produce excessive overheating in the human body and therefore led those who were imprudent enough to eat this way directly from the sin of gluttony to the closely associated and even more dangerous sin of lust.” He is referring explicitly to the consumption of birds, especially those birds that fly at high altitudes and therefore belong to the element of air closest to fire. Sparrows were considered the “hottest” of the volatiles. In fact, the Renaissance Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola wrote that they induced lust like no other meat.
The theologian Bernardino of Siena also warned of the dangers of imprudence with one’s diet. He told the widows of Siena to stay away from foods that “heat you up since the danger is great when you have hot blood and eat food that will make you even hotter.” He goes on to add: “let me tell you, widow, you cannot eat this or that… Do not try to do as you did when you had a husband and ate the flesh of fowl.”

Taddeo di Bartolo, Gluttons in Hell, Cathedral of San Gimignano, 1396.

Taddeo di Bartolo, Gluttons in Hell, Cathedral of San Gimignano, 1396.

But the flesh of fowl could also be a useful medicine. The eleventh-century Arabic treatise The Almanac of Health provides the example of an old rheumatic man complaining of a frigid complexion and stiffness during the winter. His doctor prescribes a rooster, whose hot and dry temperament would contrast with the man’s cold and wet one, to help balance his humors. Think of chicken soup, which we still turn to today when afflicted by a winter cold.
Morality, symbolism and class distinctions aside, the science of the humors was highly practical and widespread, and still resonates subtly in our own health myths. From the kitchens of peasants to those of princes, the cook was at once chef and doctor. The Baroque cook, Florian Canale was also somewhat of an inventor. His recipe for an elixir made of a cock stuffed with “enchanted herbs” is curative just like the one recommended to the rheumatic old man in the Almanac, but it also illustrates the blurred line between cook and herbalist, and between eating birds for the purpose of increasing libido (through heat) and eating them for regenerative purposes (again through heat). After all, fire was a regenerative element that was essential to life.

Canale’s recipe reads as follows: “Take a cock, three years in age, and fill it with the below-mentioned items, boil in twenty pounds of water till only five pounds are left; then five pounds of malmsey, treacle and mithridate, an ounce each; anacardine honey, six ounces. The cock shall be well minced and a goodly sauce be made with all the ingredients, which shall then be left for three days. It shall then be distilled in a bain-marie, taking care to place a little musk and amber tied in a muslin cloth in the neck of the lambeck. A quantity of four ounces shall be ingested every morning.”

Herbs: From Heavenly To Demonic
Florian’s elixir is one of many examples of using herbs to purify the body, exorcise evil spirits, provide simple remedies, as well as cause hallucinations or even poisoning. In the prologue to Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, Franciscan Brother William spots a shrub of herbs and halts his journey to pick them. The novice, his traveling companion (and our narrator), the young Benedictine Adso, asks his master what is it that he is collecting. Brother William replies laughing: “herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine.”

Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, 1st Century A.D.

Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii, 1st Century A.D.

The old Franciscan is implying that the consumption of the herbs he picks off the side of the road is something that was frowned upon in 1327. We can only guess what they may have been. But we learn that men of the church had detailed knowledge of herbs and their properties. Again Adso notices his master chewing on the same herb: “We felt we had reached a dead end […] But soon I saw William lost in thought, staring into the air, as if he saw nothing. A bit earlier he had taken from his habit a twig of those herbs that I had seen him gather weeks before, and he was chewing it as if it gave him a kind of calm stimulus. In fact, he seemed absent, but every now and then his eyes brightened as if in the vacuum of his mind a new idea had kindled… ”



A large portion of the book revolves around the apothecary and the jars inside the mysterious monastery where the story is set. Eco brings to life the anxieties surrounding the potentially dangerous properties of plants. Severinus, the monastery’s German herbalist explains to William and Adso: “The universe of poisons is various as the mysteries of nature are various. As I told you before, many of these herbs, duly compounded and administered in the proper dosage, could be used for lethal beverages and ointments. Over there, datura stramonium, belladonna, hemlock: they can bring on drowsiness, stimulation, or both; taken with due care they are excellent medicines, but in excess they bring on death.”

Severinus has a lot to say about the humors as well: “There are no plants good for food that are not good for treating the body, too, provided they are taken in the right quantity. […] Consider the pumpkin. It is cold and damp by nature and slakes thirst, but if you eat it when rotten it gives you diarrhea and you must bind your viscera with a paste of brine and mustard. And onions? Warm and damp, in small quantities they enhance coitus (for those who have not taken their vows, naturally), but too many bring on a heaviness of the head, to be combatted with milk and vinegar. A good reason why a young monk should always eat them sparingly. Eat garlic instead. Warm and dry, it is good against poisons. But do not use it to excess, for it causes too many humors to be expelled from the brain. Beans, on the contrary, produce urine and are fattening, two very good things. But they induce bad dreams. Far less, however, than certain other herbs. There are some that actually provoke evil visions.”

The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum and the Tacuinum Sanitatis, both medieval health treatises and how-to books, read widely across Europe and 
translated into all the vernacular languages, give similar advice, though
minus the moral suggestions. A selection below:

“Garlic, nuts, rue, pears, radishes, and theriaca are antidotes for deadly poison.”

“Vinegar has more of a drying effect: it cools, makes a man thin, induces melancholy, decreases the number of sperm, harms those of dry humor, and dries up the nerve of the fats.”

“Oil of Almonds
 Nature: Moderately warm in the second degree, humid in the first. Optimum: The fresh and sweet variety.
 Usefulness: Good for the stomach, the chest, and for a cough. Dangers: Bad for weak intestines.
 Neutralization of the Dangers: With mastic.
 Effects: Generates moderate humors. It is particularly recommended for temperate bodies, for adolescents, in Spring, and in the Eastern regions.”

The Ancient Greeks word pharmakon means both the cure and cause of an ailment, the medicine and the poison. This dynamic paradox encapsulates what is at the core of food, ingestion and medicine in the pre-modern world.

The World in a Fig and a Pumpkin
What were we like in the days long before explicit and legal pornography? I like to think we were more subtle. A series of frescoes completed in Raphael’s workshop between 1517 and 1518 in Rome’s Villa Farnesina depict the profane myth of Cupid and Psyche. The festoons by Giovanni da Udine framing the fresco are inspired both by ancient Roman decoration and the excitement of the recently discovered New World, and depict some 150 different species of flowers and fruits. They are proof of the profound classical revival in Renaissance art and thought, while their embrace of nature demonstrates the huge departure from the deep suspicion of nature during the Middle Ages. Gone are the religious anxieties caused by the tension between contradicting pleasures and fears of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.

Giovanni da Udine, Festoon, Villa Farnesina, Rome, 1517.

Giovanni da Udine, Festoon, Villa Farnesina, Rome, 1517.

They are nonetheless symbolic. If you look closely at the fresco of Mercury — the Greek and Roman messenger God, protector of travelers as well as commerce, thieves, communication (and divination), luck and indeed trickery —hidden in the forest of leaves, apples, pears, grapes and melons, there is a trick of the eye, a green pumpkin subtly penetrating an open fig. Did I mention that there are birds fluttering around the neighboring frame? But Vasari describes the detail better than anyone else:

“Above the figure of a Mercury who is flying, he made, to represent Priapus, a pumpkin entwined in bind-weed, which has for testicles two eggplants, and near the flower of the pumpkin he depicted a cluster of large purple figs, within one of which, over-ripe and bursting open, the point of the pumpkin with the flower is entering; which conceit is rendered with such grace, that no one could imagine anything better. But why say more?”

Priapus, the minor Roman God of fertility and protector of fruit, plants, livestock and male genitalia, is in fact always represented with an erect and oversized penis.

Tacuinum Sanitatis, The Honey and the Bees, 14th century.

Tacuinum Sanitatis, The Honey and the Bees, 14th century.

So, once again we return to sex and food, but in this case it is stripped of lust, poison and murder, and it is wearing the mantle of fertility. And despite the episode of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, or perhaps because of it, the vegetable kingdom never ceased to represent fertility. One has just to look at its various forms and its double meanings. There is literature about the health benefits of different fruits, plants and vegetables, but perhaps what is more interesting is their significance within the wider cosmology of the pre-modern world. Camporesi opens his book, The Anatomy of the Senses, with the phrase: “Quid est malum? What is an apple?” and then he goes on to list the contents of the entire world. To paraphrase, the apple is a spherical symbol of totality, it is both male and female, it is at once paradise and hell, virtuous and sinful, of the earth and of the sky, solar and lunar. The apple, like other species born out of the humid earth, contained the principle generative ingredient found in all living things.

Giovanni da Udine certainly intended to represent Priapus and his phallic pumpkin, but there can be little doubt that above all he wanted to represent and glorify life itself.
“What we can gather from exploring the realm of ingestion in the pre-modern world is the understanding of a profoundly sensorial relationship with food and nature. The appearance, the smell, the taste and indeed the sounds and movement of the natural world determined the meaning, the very essence of each being.” Observation and awe best describe our forefathers’ relationship with the natural world. As Petrarch wrote in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “We must write just as the bees make honey…not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.” Not by chance, honey was the food of heroes.



[2] Allen J. Grieco, ‘Le theme du Coeur Mange: l’ordre, le sauvage et la sauvagerie’ in La Sociabilité a la Table: Commensalite et Convivialité a Travers les Ages, 1990.

[3] Ibid.

This essay was originally published in Alla CartaN. 5