Lessons from Medieval England: The Relationship Between the Sick Room and the Kitchen

Let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food. ~Hippocrates

Food and medicine, always intertwined in the human  imagination.

Because – obviously – the earliest English settlers brought their food habits and medicinal beliefs with them to what is now the United States, I relish books that provide background to the English way of viewing the world. At least the world of food and, not exactly indirectly, medicine.

In order to understand the influence of the English on early America, it is crucial to understand where they were coming from in regard to medical theory. Trudy Eden’s The Early America Table (2008) provides a very thorough analysis of this subject, as do the following books.

The following list of tomes* — by no means complete (and with no journal articles included) — provides a modest beginning point for understanding the framework behind English kitchen thought, which affected every person in the colonies. To be sure, the English had very definite ideas about proper food and medicine and were quite unlikely to willy-nilly accept modifications. (See also Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition.)

The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture), by John Aberth (2005)

A fascinating account of the phenomenon known as the Black Death, this volume offers a wealth of documentary material focused on the initial outbreak of the plague that ravaged the world in the 14th century. A comprehensive introduction that provides important background on the origins and spread of the plague is followed by nearly 50 documents organized into topical sections that focus on the origin and spread of the illness; the responses of medical practitioners; the societal and economic impact; religious responses; the flagellant movement and attacks on Jews provoked by the plague; and the artistic response. Each chapter has an introduction that summarizes the issues explored in the documents; headnotes to the documents provide additional background material. The book contains documents from many countries —  including Muslim and Byzantine sources — to give students a variety of perspectives on this devastating illness and its consequences. The volume also includes illustrations, a chronology of the Black Death, and questions to consider.

Medieval medicine herbs

The history of medieval food and cookery has received a fair amount of attention from the point of view of recipes (of which many survive) and of the general context of feasts and feasting. It has never, as yet, been studied with an eye to the real mechanics of food production and service: the equipment used, the household organisation, the architectural arrangements for kitchens, store-rooms, pantries, larders, cellars, and domestic administration. This new work by Peter Brears, perhaps Britain’s foremost expert on the historical kitchen, looks at these important elements of cooking and dining. He also subjects the many surviving documents relating to food service — household ordinances, regulations and commentaries — to critical study in an attempt to reconstruct the precise rituals and customs of dinner.

The Great Household in Late Medieval England, by C. M. Woolgar (1999)

In the great households of medieval England, a whole range of important social, political, and artistic activities took place. This highly illustrated book explores all the intriguing details of life in the great houses between 1200 and 1500?the roles of family members and servants, the ordinary meals and special feasts, the furnishings, clothing, household animals, religion, intellectual life, and much more.


Health, Sickness, Medicine and the Friars in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (The History of Medicine in Context), by Angela Montford (2004)

Health, Sickness, Medicine and the Friars in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries explores the attitudes and responses of the mendicant orders to illness, their contribution to medical history, the influence of health and sickness as a factor in the orders’ decision making, the extent of their participation in treatments, their relationship with physicians or their own involvement in medical practice, and the problems which occurred as a result of these matters.

King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England by Colin Platt (Paperback – Mar 25, 1996)

The Black Death came to England is 1348 and for over three centuries bubonic plague remained a continual and threatening presence in the everyday life of the country. Written with verve and rich in detail, King Death offers an important analysis of one of the most potent instruments of change in late-medieval England, and a fascinating insight into the industry of death that pestilence brought with it.


Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680, by Andrew Wear (2000)

This is a major synthesis of the knowledge and practice of early modern English medicine, as expressed in vernacular texts set in their social and cultural contexts. The book vividly maps out some central areas: remedies (and how they were made credible), notions of disease, advice on preventive medicine and on healthy living, and how and why surgeons worked on the body. In particular, two of the most high-profile diseases of the age — the pox and the plague — are discussed in detail, and their treatment analyzed.

Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England, by Carole Rawcliffe (1999)

This pioneering study explains in a social context, and with extensive illustrations, how the medical profession developed and functioned in late medieval England.

Medicine before Science: The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, by Roger French (2003)

This book is an introduction to the history of university-trained physicians from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. While considered elite (in reputation and rewards) and successful, we know little of their clinical effectiveness. To modern eyes their theory and practice often seems bizarre. But historical evidence reveals that they were judged on other criteria, and this book asserts that these physicians helped to construct and meet the expectations of society.


Medicine in the English Middle Ages, by Faye Getz (1998)

This book presents an engaging, detailed portrait of the people, ideas, and beliefs that made up the world of English medieval medicine between 750 and 1450, a time when medical practice extended far beyond modern definitions. The institutions of court, church, university, and hospital–which would eventually work to separate medical practice from other duties–had barely begun to exert an influence in medieval England, writes Faye Getz. Sufferers could seek healing from men and women of all social ranks, and the healing could encompass spiritual, legal, and philosophical as well as bodily concerns. Here the author presents an account of practitioners (English Christians, Jews, and foreigners), of medical works written by the English, of the emerging legal and institutional world of medicine, and of the medical ideals present among the educated and social elite.

Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, by Ann Van Arsdall (2002)

This book presents for the first time and up-to-date and easy-to-read translation of a medical reference work that was used in Western Europe from the fifth century well into the renaissance. Listing 185 medicinal plants, the uses for each, and remedies that were compounded using them, the translation will fascinate medievalist, medical historians and the layman alike.

The Surgeon in Medieval English Literature (The New Middle Ages), by Jeremy J. Citrome (2006)

The medieval English surgeon was subject to a huge variety of cultural perceptions, ranging from that of pitiless butcher to sanctified healer. The bloody craft of surgery served as a uniquely encompassing metaphor for later medieval Christian identity, as defined by the urgent struggle between damnation and salvation articulated so vividly in Middle English poetry and prose. Citrome employs a variety of critical approaches to explain how surgical metaphors became an important tool of ecclesiastical power in the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Pastoral, theological, recreational, and medical writings are among the texts discussed in this wide-ranging study.

Medieval Surgery, with a Red-Hot Poker
Medieval Surgery, with a Red-Hot Poker

The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England, by Barbara A. Hanawalt (1989)

In the near-glut of historical family studies, this is the first clearly focused on evidence about families medieval, English, and peasant. Hanawalt uses 3118 coroners’ inquests into accidental deaths (mostly 14th century) and manorial court records (13th to early 16th century) to explore families’ material environments, wealth, economic activities, life cycles, and surrogates. Nuclear groups created without good evidence of the so-called “Western European” or “Malthusian” marriage pattern lived in conjugal households where spouses were partners. Despite sociocultural changes, human biological needs made the family a tough and flexible institution. Hanawalt’s sharp empirical corrective to much theoretical scholarship is informed with a humane understanding of medieval peasant life and belongs in college and public libraries. (Library Journal review)

The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (The Middle Ages Series), by Monica H. Green (2002)

Medieval medicine Trotula
Trotula Plataerius (Trotula of Solerno)

The Trotula was the most influential compendium of women’s medicine in medieval Europe. Scholarly debate has long focused on the traditional attribution of the work to the mysterious Trotula, said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno, just south of Naples, then the leading center of medical learning in Europe. Yet as Monica H. Green reveals in her introduction to the first English translation ever based upon a medieval form of the text, the Trotula is not a single treatise but an ensemble of three independent works, each by a different author. To varying degrees, these three works reflect the synthesis of indigenous practices of southern Italians with the new theories, practices, and medicinal substances coming out of the Arabic world.

Be sure to look at the list of primary sources in the Bibliography of Medieval Medicine from the University of Maine. But there are many more such pages, many created by university professors for their students, such as the one from Dr. Brian Regal of Kean University. For medieval medical images at UCLA, click HERE. (There’s a browsing feature that’s helpful regarding index terms to use in the SEARCH field.)

*Comments come from product descriptions provided by the publishers, unless otherwise noted.

Medieval medicine Aristotle

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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