Attempree diete was al hir phisik: The Medieval Application of Medical Theory to Feasting
Burkholder, Kristen M.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 13 (1996)
The quotation in the title is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, describing a widow woman who lives a simple life, but it is also an indication of the perceived relationship between diet and medicine in late medieval England. This paper will attempt to look at fifteenth-century feasting from the viewpoint of people who had a definite awareness of a relationship between food and health, even though their understanding was not the same as today’s. First, it will briefly consider the motivations which underlay a medieval feast. Then it will suggest that the cooks responsible for preparing the food had some definite ideas of what would constitute healthy dishes. Finally, the last part of this essay will examine three fifteenth-century coronation feasts in England, select several dishes served at each, use contemporary cookbooks to determine the likely ingredients in each dish, and then attempt to analyze the qualities of the finished dish with reference both to the humoral qualities and to the other medicinal qualities that a medieval cook would have understood to exist in the several ingredients. Medieval texts usually distinguished degrees in each humor, e.g. warm versus hot, or cold in the first degree versus cold in the third degree. This paper will tend to ignore such distinctions and will concentrate on the more general concepts of humoral theory, for the cooks who created and prepared the recipes would not be likely to have known the finer points of the theory.