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You Are What You Ate

A balanced diet

The Middle Ages ran between the 5th century and the early 16th century (in England between the Romans and the Tudors). Some medieval ideas about food were very old, based on theories put together by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Ancient Greeks believed that human beings were made up of four humours or fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and four corresponding qualities: hot/wet, cold/wet, hot/dry and cold/dry. Each person had a natural complexion that was more inclined towards one of these humours or qualities. For example, a melancholic person (from the Greek for black bile) tended to be a bit dry and gloomy most of the time.

The main thing was to make sure that the humours remained more or less in balance and that one of them did not build up too much. Too much black bile could turn a naturally melancholic person into somebody suffering from a condition a little bit like modern clinical depression. Purging excess humours was done through bloodletting or taking laxatives.

All foods had their own complexion and eating too much of one kind of food could lead to problems. For example, fish were wet and cold phlegmatic foods that had to be balanced with hot, dry spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Similarly, most fruits were thought to be too cold and wet to be healthy, although this did not stop people from eating them.

Illness could be prevented or sick people could be treated through careful manipulation of foods. The sick received neutral foods or those that had the opposite effect to their symptoms. Chicken, barley soup and sugar were all thought to be excellent in sick dishes, as they were temperate in complexion and thought to be nourishing. Even the poor could have encountered these ideas through the food they received in hospitals.

The concept of ‘diet’ for both sick and healthy went far beyond just food. Thanks to the contribution of medical writers from the Arabic-speaking world from the 9th century, medieval people tried to balance six different aspects of lifestyle. In order to keep healthy they had to think about air, food and drink, exercise, sleep, their digestive system and their emotions. In many ways they had a far more balanced way of thinking about the body and its environment than we do.

Read King Duarte of Portugal's diet for the stomach (early 15th century)

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