Medieval Women’s Guides to Food during Pregnancy: Origins, Texts and Traditions

Medieval Women’s Guides to Food during Pregnancy: Origins, Texts and Traditions

By Melitta Weiss-Amer

Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol.10 (1993)

Detail of the historiated initial 'P'(our) with a standing physician and pregnant woman.  British Library

Abstract: The dietary guidelines contained in medieval Arabic, Latin, and vernacular pregnancy-regimens are analyzed and their origins explored. In their emphasis on eating disorders such as morning-sickness and pica, the texts are shown to follow more closely Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sources than the conservative pregnancy-regimens of Hindu medicine, although medieval Arabic compilers were familiar with both the Eastern and Western tradition. A shift in audience from professional and male to lay and female is observed when the Latin pregnancy-regimens of school medicine are translated into the vernacular and later printed either separately or in conjunction with books on midwifery and gynecology.

Introduction: In the twentieth century prenatal care has evolved into a specialized field of medicine for which entire clinics are set aside, equipped with the latest in monitoring technology. In her book The Captured Womb, Ann Oakley follows this development, which has gradually turned pregnancy into a “pathological” state closely supervised by the medical profession. Although the author denies that prenatal care in the modern sense of the word existed in earlier centuries, she concedes that “some idea of taking care of pregnant women has … been built into most societies’ ways of managing childbirth throughout history.” What exactly this idea was with respect to the nutrition of the pregnant woman is the subject of this article.

Realizing that the food eaten during pregnancy affects both the mother and the child, and therefore not just the present but also future generations, medical writers over thousands of years have felt the need to address the issue in some form or other. In the Middle Ages such information was usually contained in the pregnancy-regimens of school medicine, which were conservative in nature and which dealt with topics in addition to food, such as air, exercise and rest, sleep and waking, repletion and excretion, and the passions and emotions of the pregnant woman. Although Western school medicine was firmly rooted in the Greek tradition, the pregnancy-regimen as a genre of medical literature is non-existent in the works of Hippocrates and Galen. It is only with Byzantine authors such as Oribasius, Aetius of Amida, and Paul of Aegina that we find the beginnings of this type of literature. However, with the exception of Aetius, these writers still show a strong orientation towards pathology, focusing on disorders and their correction rather than on conservation and hygiene, a slant which is characteristic of Greek medicine as a whole. A system of prenatal care which stressed conservation and hygiene can be found in Ancient Hindu medicine, and like its medieval Arabic and European counterparts, Sanskrit pregnancy-regimens prescribed a comprehensive lifestyle for the pregnant woman, ranging from the air she breathed and the food she ate to the I right amount of exercise and sleep as well as attention to her emotional well-being.

Click here to read this article from the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History

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