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Six Medieval Rules for Healthy Living

If you are looking for advice on healthy living, perhaps you should try reading the medieval text The Theatre of Health. It offers six rules “for the daily maintenance of health,” five of which sound very modern.

The Theatre of Health (Theatra Sanitatis) was a popular work in medieval Europe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The original version of this work was Ibn Butlan, a physician who worked in Baghdad during the eleventh century. It begins by saying these necessary things are basic for healthy living:

The first rule is always to breathe good fresh air.

The second is to consume the right food and drink.

The third is regular activity and repose.

The fourth is to refrain from too much sleep and from too much wakefulness.

The fifth concerns the retention and expulsion of the humours.

The sixth is to be moderate in joy, in fear and in anxiety.

The Theatre of Health does not go into a lot of detail about these rules – it actually makes a point of being brief, saying “men want to know only the conclusive results of what concerns them, not demonstrations and definitions.” Five of these six rules would be typical of advice you might get today, but the fifth rule requires some explanation – humours is a medical theory dating back to ancient Greece and Rome which said that the human body contained four vital fluids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. If these fluids were not in proper balance, then one could get sick or a disease. For example, if you had too much black bile in your system, then it could lead to depression. Therefore Ibn Butlan, like nearly all physicians in the Middle Ages (and beyond up to seventeenth or eighteenth centuries), advocated that people keep these humours in balance through healthy eating and following the other rules.

The text then goes on to discuss the health benefits of dozens of various foods, including apples, mushrooms, spinach and wheat. The entries are only a few lines for each, enough to offer some list a few benefits they can give. For example, grapes are said to be good for “nourishing and fattening the body while keeping the bowels free,” while peaches “relieve burning fevers because of their cold-moist nature, and they lubricate the stomach.” The text usually offers information on how particular foods can alleviate some problems, but can cause others. Chestnuts, for instance, are “highly nutritious, they stimulate sexual intercourse, but they make the stomach swell and bring on headaches.” The author adds these negative effects can be prevented if the chestnuts are boiled in water. Meanwhile, with black olives “although they sharpen the appetite they may bring on headaches and sleeplessness, and because they rot quickly they tend to upset the stomach. Eye trouble sometimes follows.”

The Theatre of Health offers readers a short guide on improving and maintaining their physical well-being. It recommends a balanced lifestyle – eating right, getting activity and proper rest, and not letting your emotions rule your life. It’s advice that could easily be given in the present day.

You can read an English translation of The Theatre of Health in Herbrarium: Natural Remedies from a Medieval Manuscript, by Adalberto Pazzini and Emma Pirani (Rizzoli International Publications, 1980).

Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS NAL 1673  fol.103r

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