Well-Being: Health Regimens

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Well-Being: Health Regimens


Theory and Practice Meet. One place at which medieval medical theory and practice came together was in the recommended regimina sanitatis, or “regimens of health,” that learned physicians drew up for their wealthy patients. The central feature of most of these plans was the list of “six things non-natural” that the wise patient was told to regulate in order to keep in good health. These “non-naturals” were things that would today be called cultural or habitual aspects of daily life—as opposed to “natural” things, such as the pulse, over which one has little control, or wholly “unnatural” things, such as being wounded in battle. In most medical works the non-naturals that a patient should regulate were listed as

Exercise versus Rest

Sleep versus Awake

Fasting versus Feasting

Air (such as Fresh, Foul, or Stagnant)

Food and Drink

Mental States (such as Agitation and Melancholia)

The first three non-naturals were, in good medieval Aristotelian fashion, expressed as pairs of opposites while the remaining three were generic categories. The well-advised patient was told to try to breathe only fresh, pure air, and avoid airs thought to contain “miasmas,” or harmful vapors, that might injure the health. If forced to confront foul odor or stagnant air, one might hold to his or her nose a handkerchief scented with peppermint or rosemary to ward off the worst effects. Exercise, usually in the form of walking or horseback riding, was recommended in moderation, along with periods of rest between bouts of activity. Throughout medieval regimens, the emphasis is on moderation: regular periods of sleep were recommended and in sufficient amounts to make being awake both possible and pleasant. Feasting was a highly regarded activity in the Middle Ages, and fasting was a religious duty. Health regimens counseled the reader to avoid extremes in either case.

Psychology . Mental states, or the psychological condition of the patient, was given special emphasis. Medieval doctors knew that depressed (“melancholic”) people got sick more easily and healed more slowly than cheerful, optimistic people, and they were familiar with a host of mental illnesses as well. They blamed these conditions, as well as physical illnesses, on imbalances in the four humors, and they prescribed regular, moderate, wholesome activities as the best antidote. Medieval doctors had a humane concern for mental distress and did not employ heroic or barbaric methods to overcome mental illness, even in severe cases. Only after the Middle Ages did “scientific” medicine begin to torment the mentally ill in misguided attempts to “cure” them.

Diet. By far the biggest category among the non-naturals was “Food and Drink.” Medieval people—at least those people with enough money to have a regimen composed for them—tried hard to maintain good health by controlling what they ate. Considering things such as whether his patient was male or female, old or young, fat or thin, and melancholic or choleric—a physician took pains to assess the condition of the individual and to prescribe a diet intended to maintain the optimal balance of the four humors of that person. These recommendations usually also included recipes for preparing special foods; certain types of stewed chicken, for example, were held to be especially beneficial to people with weak digestion. Such recipes passed out of the realm of “food for the sick” and became main courses or side dishes for everyday consumption. The modern diet cookbook, designed to teach people how to “eat better” or “cook healthy,” has its origin in these late medieval regimens and their emphasis on food and drink as part of a balanced lifestyle.


Darrel W. Amundsen, Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Sheila Campbell, Bert Hall, and David Klausner, eds. Health, Disease, and Healing in Medieval Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

Faye Marie Getz, Healing and Society in Medieval England: A Middle English Translation of the Pharmaceutical Writings of Gilbertus Anglicus (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).

Thomas Francis Graham, Medieval Minds: Mental Health in The Middle Ages (London: Allen &Unwin, 1967).

Monica Helen Green, Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000).

Edward J. Kealey, Medieval Medicus: A Social History of Anglo-Norman Medicine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Simon Kemp, Medieval Psychology (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990).

Carole Rawcliffe, Medicine & Society in Later Medieval England (Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1995).

Rawcliffe, Sources for the History of Medicine in Late Medieval England (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Western Michigan University, 1995).

Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).