A new book on the role of food in Italy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has revealed some new insights into what people during these periods thought about eating. It includes research about an important fifteenth-century medical text that details what pregnant women should eat if they wanted to have healthy, male babies.
The article “The Prescriptive Potency of Food in Michele Savonarola’s De Regime Pregnantium,” by Martin Marafioti, appears in the book Table Talk: Perspectives of Food in Medieval Italian Literature. It examines a mid-fifteenth century medical treatise that dealt with gynecology, obstetrics and child-rearing, written by Michele Savonarola, the court physician of the Este family, rulers of Ferrrara.
De Regime Pregnantium contains an important section on what food and drink should and should not eat during pregnancy. Savonrola writes “it is important to consider both quality and quantity of nourishment, which is certainly the first and foremost foundation of both lives, especially of the child.”
Savonrola, who dedicated this work to the noblewomen of Ferrara, was not only interested in making sure that the babies would be healthy, but also would be male. He believed that women could play an important role in the health, temperament and even sex of their unborn children. The best way they could do this was in the foods they ate.
Medieval medical opinion believed that foods could play an important role in the health and behaviour of people – certain kinds of foods, if eaten too much, could cause illness or cause a person to become depressed or melancholy. Savonarola believed that the effects of food were even greater for unborn children, and developed a list of foods which should be eaten or avoided.
Marafioti explains that “in order to give birth to a healthy, warm, and dry-tempered male child, pregnant women should consume warm and dry foods. Savonarola sustains that the warmth and dryness of certain foods will cancel out a woman’s inferior qualities and shape the fetus into a robust and healthy male child.”
Among the recommendations made by the Italian doctor was to eat bread made from wheat instead of bran, avoid fried fish, be moderate in how much fruit to eat, and drink dry, red wine. Savonarola writes, “Beware of using cold water, it is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls,especially here in our region, so keep drinking wine.”
He often notes that foods can have good and bad qualities, and generally advises people not to over-indulge in the same foods, otherwise it could risk a miscarriage. Even fruits like the pomegranate are risky, for while the sweet taste may be soothing, it is also acidic in the stomach. Therefore he advises women to drink it in a juice or add it to wine.
Table Talk: Perspectives of Food in Medieval Italian Literature, edited by Christiana Purdy Moudarres, is a selection of revised and expanded papers presented at “Table Talk: Perspectives on Food in Medieval Italian Literature,” at a conference in Boston in 2009. Taken together, these essays explore the multifaceted role of food within medieval Italian culture through a variety of literary genres, from the poetry and prose of Dante and Boccaccio to the religious writings of Catherine of Siena.