Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blood and Spices

Last spring Harvard Magazine reported on a recent (2010) translation of a thirteenth-century German illuminated manuscript, De Regimine Mensium, that provided brief monthly instructions on how to maintain one's health. The manuscript, held by Houghton Library, included this advice for the month of January: “It is healthiest (sumere sanum) to eat warm food.” I guess most of us can check that off the list, though I'm not sure how effective this would be as a treatment for, say, influenza. The author provided similar dietary advice for other months: “Eat roasted meat and take baths”* (March), “Eat lettuce leaves with apples and drink from fountains” (June), “Avoid warm food, this month you have no need of it” (August), and “Drink cattle or curdled sheep's milk” (October). Demonstrating attachment to the humoral theory of illness, the manuscript sometimes recommended bloodletting - “Avoid frost and let blood flow from the thumb” (February), “Fill your belly with fluids and drain the foot of blood” (April) – though the entry for July recommends “Do not slash the veins...avoid them altogether,” which is good advice for any month. 

The entries for May and November are of particular interest to yours truly, because they both recommend spices such as cinnamon**, evincing the medieval and early-modern European belief that spices had great medicinal value. (The entry for September is a two-fer: “Bloodletting is good, and then you ought to eat spices.”) This is probably a consequence of the Eurasian belief that spices, such as pepper (“the grains of paradise”), were literally otherworldly, and it explains why European aristocrats were willing to spend such large sums of money on them – and thus why mariners like Columbus, Verrazano, and Hudson spent so much time seeking a short all-water route to China and Indonesia. (See William Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World [Grove Press, 2008], 112-113; Peter Mancall, Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson [Basic Books, 2009], 21-25.)

Anyway, if any of my readers plan to spend February filling their bellies with generic fluids and draining the blood from their feet, they will have to let me know how that works out.

* Perhaps not at the same time, though.
** According to a late sixteenth-century author cited by Mancall, "cinnamon soothed upset stomachs, strengthened the brain and liver, helped prevent dropsy...eradicated pain in the lungs, guts, and breast...[and] could both freshen breath and whiten teeth" (Fatal Journey, 22).


A. Student said...

What an odd adaptation of "Jane Eyre."

Seriously, my Valentine's Day just got very romantic!

A. Student said...

In Song of Songs, the beloved is compared to spices, along with other material splendors like gold and silver. "Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices" are the beloved's garden.
The Assyrian gods drank wine of sesame seeds before they created the world (so where do those seeds come from?) The Akkadian word is šamaššammi,("sun-oil").

Dave Nichols said...

At least the Assyrians have answered that age-old question: "Which came first, the sesame or the sesame seed?"