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Eating Right in the Renaissance

Ken Albala

Publication Year: 2002

Eating right has been an obsession for longer than we think. Renaissance Europe had its own flourishing tradition of dietary advice. Then, as now, an industry of experts churned out diet books for an eager and concerned public. Providing a cornucopia of information on food and an intriguing account of the differences between the nutritional logic of the past and our own time, this inviting book examines the wide-ranging dietary literature of the Renaissance. Ken Albala ultimately reveals the working of the Renaissance mind from a unique perspective: we come to understand a people through their ideas on food.

Eating Right in the Renaissance takes us through an array of historical sources in a narrative that is witty and spiced with fascinating details. Why did early Renaissance writers recommend the herbs parsley, arugula, anise, and mint to fortify sexual prowess? Why was there such a strong outcry against melons and cucumbers, even though people continued to eat them in large quantities? Why was wine considered a necessary nutrient? As he explores these and other questions, Albala explains the history behind Renaissance dietary theories; the connections among food, exercise, and sex; the changing relationship between medicine and cuisine; and much more.

Whereas modern nutritionists may promise a slimmer waistline, more stamina, or freedom from disease, Renaissance food writers had entirely different ideas about the value of eating right. As he uncovers these ideas from the past, Ken Albala puts our own dietary obsessions in an entirely new light in this elegantly written and often surprising new chapter on the history of food.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: California Studies in Food and Culture


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-viii

I owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who have helped me write this book, foremost to my family, both immediate and extended. Thanks to my parents Albert and Phyllis, my wife Joanna, my sons Ethan and Benjamin, my in-laws Mona and Ira, and Marcia and Hershey for foodie...

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Note on Spelling

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pp. ix-11

Throughout this book I have attempted to be consistent with proper names. I have usually chosen to use the most familiar form of authors’ names whether in the vernacular or Latin. Hence Ficino and Estienne rather than Ficinus and Stephanus, but Placotomus and Lessius rather...

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pp. 1-13

It would be almost impossible for a person living today to escape the influence of nutritional science. A vast array of dietary guidelines is promulgated through every media and on every item of packaged food. Whether or not these rules are followed, the terms of the discussion are...

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1. Overview of the Genre

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pp. 14-47

The urge to categorize foods according to a rational system appears to be at least as old as civilization itself. Every major world culture has devised a method of appraising foods and many of these survive to this day in some form. The ancient Chinese system based on ideas of yin and...

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2. The Human Body: Humors, Digestion, and the Physiology of Nutrition

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pp. 48-77

This chapter is a guide to the basic theory that underlies all Renaissance discussions of food and nutrition. Human physiology, digestion, and especially the four humors are central to the entire topic and inform all specific food recommendations. These ideas are usually, but not always,...

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3. Food: Qualities, Substance, and Virtues

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pp. 78-114

Like human beings, all other living creatures and plants, according to the system of humoral physiology, have their own inherent complexion. When these creatures are used as food, their elements, being transferred and assimilated into our bodies, naturally alter our own complexion....

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4. External Factors

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pp. 115-162

This chapter focuses on a broad range of factors that were thought to play a major role in the maintenance of health and on how these factors relate to food. They have a direct bearing on the administration of diet and “hygiene” in its original sense because they can be manipulated and...

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5. Food and the Individual

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pp. 163-183

At first glance, it may seem that taste preferences and food choices are informed by simple biological and economic factors. A person eats whatever tastes good and can be readily obtained. In fact, it is almost never so simple. As a species, we learn to eat foods that are not immediately...

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6. Food and Class

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pp. 184-216

The social connotations of food are perhaps the most powerful determinant of dietary preferences. This is especially the case in a nutritional theory whose basis entails the literal incorporation of a food’s substance and qualities into the consumer. An item considered gross and crude...

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7. Food and Nation

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pp. 217-240

It has been suggested thus far that the major changes within Renaissance nutritional theory reflect larger transformations of European society, culture, and thought. The most conspicuous features of this new outlook have been described as reactions to various greater trends: a demographic...

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8. Medicine and Cuisine

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pp. 241-283

There can be no doubt at this point that the Renaissance genre of dietary regimens reflects both medical and culinary concerns about food. But the question remains whether the principles of humoral physiology actually informed eating habits, or whether dietary authors merely accommodated...

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Postscript: The End of a Genre and Its Legacy

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pp. 284-294

Why did the genre of dietary regimes come to an end in the midseventeenth century? The theories themselves certainly did not disappear overnight, and there were physicians still defending humoral pathology well into the nineteenth century. But the application of humoral medicine...


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pp. 306-313


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pp. 295-308


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pp. 309-315

Production Notes

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pp. 316-335

E-ISBN-13: 9780520927285
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520229471

Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: California Studies in Food and Culture