Medieval recommendations on how to maintain health are surprisingly similar to the advice we hear today. The importance of sleep, exercise and a balanced diet can never be underestimated, as historian Dr Katherine Harvey reveals.
Medieval attitudes were shaped by the belief that the human body was composed of four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. To stay healthy, you should adopt living conditions and behaviours to keep your humours in balance. Just like us, medieval people believed that lifestyle was the key to a long, healthy life.
By the later Middle Ages, regimens were extremely popular throughout Europe. These books told the reader how to stay healthy, focusing on lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep, exercise and emotions. The wealthy commissioned personalised versions, which considered their individual bodies and lifestyles. For example, a bishop’s regimen would tell him how to avoid health problems linked to fasting and celibacy.
Your environment was extremely important to your health. Houses and gardens should be situated so as to benefit from health-giving north and east winds, and it was considered unhealthy to live in a basement or on the ground floor. The belief that illness was spread through airborne vapours prompted concerns about ventilation, hygiene and the elimination of unpleasant smells.
Medieval people shared our belief in the power of a balanced diet, although they classified foods in humoral terms, as hot or cold, wet or dry. The best foods (such as chicken) were warm and moist, but some surprising things were considered unhealthy – like uncooked fruit. Overeating was also dangerous, because it produced humoral excesses that could cause disease. Alcohol could be health-giving if consumed in moderation.
Although we often assume that medieval people were dirty and smelly, good personal hygiene was actually extremely important. Regular washing and bathing of both body and clothes helped to remove potentially harmful residues (including sweat). This was important because parasites such as worms and lice were thought to spontaneously generate from such dirt.
Staying healthy meant expelling bodily waste products. This could mean via regular urination and bowel movements, but phlebotomy was another important form of preventative medicine too: many people were regularly bled. It was important to choose a skilled practitioner that knew who not to bleed (children and pregnant women, for example), and who would avoid astrologically inauspicious times.
It was widely believed that both sexes produced seed, which was expelled during intercourse. If this did not happen, it would accumulate inside the body, causing illness; it was even possible to die of celibacy. But too much sex was also unhealthy, especially for men, because it used up too much heat and moisture. So it was good to have regular sex with one’s spouse – but not too often!
According to the French physician Bernard de Gordon, exercise was “one of the best things that can be imposed on the human body”. It improved digestion, opened the skin’s pores, and toned the limbs. Anything that caused sweating and increased breathing and pulse rates counted as exercise, but walking, running and riding were especially popular. Some people did gym-style activities, including rope climbing and lifting heavy rocks.
Sleep was important because it aided digestion and rested the senses. Sleep hygiene is not a modern invention: regimens usually advised sleeping for 8–12 hours a day and made detailed recommendations about beds and sleeping positions. For example, it was best to sleep first on the right side, then on the left, and then again on the right. Napping was prohibited.
Contemporary concerns about mental health would have made sense to medieval people, who believed that the emotions could have a direct impact on physical health. For this reason, they worried about stress, and doctors emphasised the importance of relaxation. Music, good company and spending time outdoors could all form part of a healthy lifestyle, while arguments, noisy neighbours and too much work were best avoided.
For medieval people, the body and soul were intimately connected. This meant that religious practices such as going to Mass had a direct impact on both spiritual and physical wellbeing. During a serious illness, it was extremely important to confess one’s sins and to receive the last rites, which might relieve physical symptoms, and would certainly ensure that the soul was prepared for death.
About the author
Dr Katherine Harvey is a medieval historian based at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of ‘Episcopal Appointments in England, c. 1214–c. 1344’ (Ashgate, 2014), and is currently writing books on the medieval episcopal body (for OUP) and medieval sex (for Reaktion).