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Medieval Advice for Students Away From Home

By Danièle Cybulskie

Over the last few weeks, countless parents have kissed their sons and daughters and sent them off to study away from home, loading them up with advice and admonitions to take good care of themselves. Hundreds of years ago, medieval parents were loading up their own children with love and advice, too. Dr. Peter Fagarola, a fourteenth-century Valencian physician, wrote down some advice to his two sons, then studying in Toulouse, about how to take care of themselves while they were away, and a lot of his advice is still relevant to students today.

Medieval Students
Medieval Students

How to Eat (and Drink)

Fagarola starts off with some advice on how to avoid the Frosh Fifteen, a tricky business for any student, especially with all the late nights. He says, “Beware of eating too much and too often especially during the night” (503), and adds that his sons should eat dairy only rarely. Nuts and meat should be eaten only rarely, too, and after fish, “for they are bad and difficult to digest” (504) (like a lot of on-campus food!). Also, “don’t have fresh pork too often. Salt pork is all right [sic]” (504). Now you know.

It’s possible that Dr. Fagarola may have studied in Toulouse as well, or knew it, as he tells his sons,

Remember about the well water of Toulouse. Wherefore, boil it, and the same with the water of the Garonne [River], because such waters are bad. (504)

This is the first time I’ve come across a medieval boil water advisory, and it shows that people found ways to manage staying hydrated even with questionable water sources. Today’s students should have little problem with finding good water, but this next bit of advice still applies: if you’re drinking, don’t do it on an empty stomach. He says,

[Drink] twice or thrice or four times during a meal. Between meals drink little, for it would be better once in a while to drink too much at table than to drink away from table. Don’t take wine without water and, if it is too cold, warm it in winter. For it is bad to grow used to strong wine without admixture of water. (504)

Drinking water while you drink your wine, drinking in moderation, and drinking on a full stomach are excellent pieces of advice for students, both medieval and modern. However, there are a couple of little tidbits that we can safely skip over now. First,

Beware of eating milk and fish, or milk and wine, at the same meal, for milk and fish or milk and wine produce leprosy. (503)

Second, if you’re staying up for a late-night cram session, avoid eating raw onions, “because they dull the intellect and senses generally” (503). This just goes to show that as helpful as parental advice often is, maybe some of it can be (tactfully) ignored.

How to Sleep

Good sleep is important, especially for students’ busy brains, and Fagarola is pretty strict about it. He says,

Sufficient and natural sleep is to sleep for a fourth part of a natural day or a trifle more or less. To do otherwise is to pervert nature. (504)

His next sentiment is likely pretty familiar to today’s students, as it would be to sleepy teens throughout history: “Too much is a sin” (504), so rise and shine like your elders.

When it comes to sleep technique, Fagarola says not to sleep on your back, but to trade sides or sleep on your stomach. Also, be sure to keep your feet warm in the winter, but cool in the summer, as the “vapors” that are emitted from sweaty feet “are very bad for the brain and memory” (504). Likewise, don’t sleep in a “rheumatic place, such as a basement or room underground” (504), good advice for anyone. No doubt many students then (as now) were offered damp basement apartments for cheap.

As with the section on eating, Fagarola suggests not sleeping immediately after eating, but waiting an hour and taking a walk first (504). If you sleep right after eating, “vapors will rise to the head and fill it with rheum and steal away and cut short memory” (504). So, no late night pizza in bed.

How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Place

Fagarola really wants to prevent infection from evil vapours, so he advises that students should find an apartment “removed from all foul smells as of ditches or latrines and the like” (505), and to guard against draughts (505). Keeping the floor swept and dry will minimize fleas, but straw on the floor will keep it warm (505). Strong vinegar will also help to keep the floor clean, and “comforts heart and brain” (505). Vinegar is still a cheap and awesome way to keep things clean, but I can’t say that your roommates will feel especially comforted by the smell.

It’s really important to keep your head covered and warm, so wear a cap – a fur one if necessary – especially when you’re up studying, and always when you sleep (505). If it’s rainy, you can wear two caps, like some people do, “so that in the presence of the great they may remove the bonnet [on top] and be excused from doffing the cap” (505). (This strikes me as the type of advice that a dad would find particularly clever, but his kids would never dream of actually doing in public.)

It’s also important to keep clean. No dirty socks allowed, says Fagarola, remember to brush your hair, and wash your hair – with shampoo, please – at least every two weeks:

wash the head, if you are accustomed to wash it, at least once a fortnight with hot lye and in a place sheltered from draughts on the eve of a feast day towards nightfall. Then dry your hair with a brisk massage; afterwards do it up; then put on a bonnet or cap. (505)

That way, you’re nice and clean for the feast day. (You’re welcome!)

How to Keep in Shape

With so much going on at school, it can be easy to forget to move your body, so try to walk twice a day, “morning and evening” (506). If you’re cold, walk fast or run, unless you’ve just eaten – then walk slowly (506). If it’s raining, no problem: you can be a stairmaster. Fagarola says,

If you cannot go outside your lodgings, either because the weather does not permit or it is raining, climb the stairs rapidly three or four times, and have in your room a big heavy stick like a sword and wield it now with one hand, now with the other, as if in a scrimmage, until you are almost winded. This is a splendid exercise to warm one up and expel noxious vapors through the pores. (506)

Splendid or not, you might want to move your computer if you’re going to try this at home. If you can’t swing a big stick, you can jump or sing, or play ball (506). “All these were invented not for sport,” Fagarola says (raining on our parades), “but for exercise” (506). Regular exercise will give you “healthy limbs [and] a sound intellect and memory” (506).

How to Stay Happy

Fagarola ends his treatise/letter to his sons with a section called “On Accidents of the Soul”, which reminds us that leaving home to go to school can be tough, confusing, and lonely, as much as it can be a great adventure. In true medieval fashion, he reminds the reader that “if you love God with your whole heart” (506), you’ll be okay, but the rest of the passage (minus the bit about women being a bad influence) applies just as much to secular students as faithful ones. He writes,

Accidents of the soul have the greatest influence, such as anger, sadness, and love of women, fear, excessive anxiety: concerning all which I say nothing more than that you [should] avoid all passions of the soul harmful to you and enjoy yourself happily with friends and good companions, and cultivate honesty and patience, which bring more delights to the soul. (506)

Check out Daniele's new book!
Check out Daniele’s new book!

Medieval or modern, if you’re studying away from home, things will feel strange and difficult at times, so try to make new friends and good choices, and you’ll enjoy the ride.

To read Dr. Fagarola’s letter in its entirety, along with some other really great medieval writing on how to be happy and healthy, check out Faith Wallis’ Medieval Medicine: A Reader.

Click here to read more by the 5MinMedievalist

Visit Danièle’s website: danielecybulskie.com
Follow Danièle on Twitter:@5MinMedievalist

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