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Medieval Fitness Tips

Need advice on keeping fit and how to exercise? Cait Stevenson tells us how it was done in the 15th century.

Scene from a fencing manual written in 1459 by Hans Talhoffer – Ms.Thott.290.2º

Sports, military training, and, you know, running after potential food probably take us closer to “since the dawn of mankind” being accurate than the topic of any paper beginning with that phrase. But surely the time and caloric luxury of a stationary bike or a CrossFit workout, fitness for the sake of Instagram fitness, is a modern invention? Not quite!

A curious document folded into a fifteenth-century medical manuscript from France claims to be a letter of advice from an Iberian physician to his sons at university in Toulouse. Regardless of how it started life, it became a friendly, homey set of basic advice for how to stay healthy on a day-to-day basis. The advice is as sensible to the modern reader as “comb your hair after you wash it” and “don’t wear a silly hat because other boys are; wear one that will actually keep you warm;” or as, well, medieval as “don’t drink milk and wine at the same meal or you’ll get leprosy.”

The daily life of university students, of course, was not known to include running after food or hefting swords to train as soldiers. But the author folds in a surprisingly detailed and thought-out plan for exercise that can fit into a student’s lifestyle and living space:

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…Jumping is a similar exercise.

On fair-weather days, appropriate exercise depends on the temperature:

If you will, walk daily somewhere morning and evening. And if the weather is cold, if you can run, run on empty stomach, or at least walk rapidly…However, it is not advisable to run on a full stomach but to saunter slowly in order to settle the food in the stomach.

Walking with your kids –
British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 231

It’s important to remember that what seems like “common sense” exercise advice to us actually isn’t. We know about cardiovascular exercise—that is, exercise is good for your heart and lungs, and we know the biological pathways why.

What makes this particular text so fascinating is that, keeping with the claim that it was written by a physician, it also dives into the biological reasons for the fitness advice—except they come squarely from a Galenic point of view. All of the exercises are predicated on restoring the body’s natural cool/heat balance, excising bad air, and balancing the humours. Running in the winter “revives” the “natural heat.” Working so hard you are out of breath, as with practice broom-sword exercises, is to work so hard you literally run out of noxious fumes to breathe out.

So even with, let’s go with, dated ideas of human biology, medieval fitness advice approaches some of our own ideas. Was it ever followed? A final line in the passage holds a clue:

All these were invented not for sport but for exercise. Moreover, too much effort is to be avoided as a continual practice.

In scolding the audience to do it right, with health in mind, the author implies that whether or not there is actually individual mock swordfighting happening in university bedrooms, there are definitely people staying in shape because it’s fun.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

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