Fruit of the Womb: Prenatal Food in Renaissance Italy
Paper presented at the West Coast Culinary Symposium (2012)
Renaissance physicians and midwives had many tools at their disposal; balms, tinctures, poultices, even rudimentary diagnostic testing and surgical procedures. However, most health maintenance was done by controlling diet. Proper humoral balance, achieved through proper diet and preparation, was central toclassic medical theory which became the basis for Renaissance dietary theory. There was a booming market across Europe for health manuals, reminiscent of today’s self-help, beauty, pregnancy and diet books. This paper will examine some of the dietary recommendations for pregnant woman in one of these health manuals, Michele Savonarola’s Ad mulieres ferrarienses, and compare them with similar references in contemporary sources and modern medical research.
One of the crucial tenants of humoral theory is the belief that females are of a colder and wetter disposition than the hotter, drier nature of males. To achieve optimal health the humors needed to be in perfect balance, as seen in all recommendations for food, drink, preparation and even environment. Ad mulieres ferrarienses was addressed to the women of Ferrara, so it’s peppered with advice concerning the food available to them there, based on their social and economic status. He addresses each category of food, and details which to embrace or avoid. The overall dietary recommendations here seem to be heavy on the domestic meats over game meats, young animals over older ones, and minimal exposure to most fruits and vegetables and avoidance of fish. I will address each category of food, note where historical recommendations coincide, or deviate from modern recommendations and where our modern definitions of these categories may deviate as well