- Medieval Dietetics: Food and Drink in “Regimen Sanitatis” Literature from 800 to 1400
Regimen was a critical element in medieval theory and practice, and food and drink played an essential role in regimen. Calling our attention to the wealth of literature on the maintenance of health through diet, and to significant questions associated with this literature, Melitta Weiss Adamson’s book makes two contributions.
First, at the heart of this volume are painstakingly compiled lists of the items of food and drink and the “culinary recipes” mentioned in two dozen works available in Europe during the period from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Some of the authors, such as Avicenna and Arnald de Villanova, are well known, but Adamson has also gathered material from less obvious sources—particularly for the latter part of the period, where her focus is on material from the German lands, including five vernacular texts. She shows that these exhibit ties to Latin traditions, as does the transcription of a fifteenth-century translation offered as an appendix. The lists of ingredients, which are stripped of their textual environment (e.g., instructions about how foods were to be prepared), are accompanied by brief accounts of the history of each work, what it says about the principles of diet, and the sources it cites. The body of the book thus presents a mass of raw material, systematically and conveniently arranged (though an index would have been extremely useful). Unseasoned, and untranslated, it will not tempt many nonspecialists—but, as the author’s own treatment suggests, there are the makings of more than one meal here.
Adamson’s concluding exploration of some of the possibilities and problems implicit in these lists of meats and grains, wines and waters, constitutes the second contribution of this book. As her observations on the appearance and significance of almonds show, the material contains clues about the geographical and cultural dynamics of medical knowledge. Furthermore, she has used this collection of data to attempt some quantitative analyses: for example, though Galen is the authority cited by more authors than any other, he is not cited as often in aggregate as Avicenna, Rhazes, or Averroes. Sometimes the tabulations fall short (it makes no sense to say that “Texts A and B contain an average of 9 recipes” [p. 196], when A contains 2 and B contains 16), but Adamson has pointed the way to some tempting lines of inquiry. Questions on which she briefly touches include the extent and status of theoretical material on diet; the incorporation of the notion of degrees (gradus) into enumerations of foodstuffs; and the relationship between dietary indications for healthy adults (the subject of her texts) and medicinal recipes. On this last point, she shows that the question arose in the Middle Ages itself: Magninus Mediolanensis complains that sweets once restricted to therapeutic uses have now become ordinary foods (pp. 123 and 202).
The introduction, the weakest element of the book, sets up a division of the texts into periods named “pre-Arabist,” “Arabist,” and “Westernization” that hamper Adamson’s later attempts to formulate lines of long-term development. For example, after having attributed to two early Latin sources the arrangement [End Page 144] of foodstuffs into groups, she remarks: “The idea of food groups was taken up and refined by Arabist writers like Haly Abbas” (p. 195). Similarly, “during the Arabist period the general section [on food and drink] was extended” (p. 195). The Latin texts of these authors dressed in their Latin names thus appear to be simply participants in a phase of Western medicine. These authors, who lived in the Islamic world, were not, however, “extending” or “taking up” anything of this sort from the “pre-Arabist” West. Fortunately, the introductory remarks on the individual authors, their texts, and their sources give a clearer picture.
Adamson and others (e.g., Bruno Laurioux and Marilyn Nicoud) have been opening the borderlands between medicine and cuisine for scholarly exploration. For example...