These gorgeous illustrations capture a less glamorous medieval life

What kind of images come to mind when you think of medieval art? Knights and Ladies? Biblical scenes? Cathedrals? It’s probably not a wretch in the throes of vomiting.

It might surprise you to learn that this scene is found in a luxurious book from the Middle Ages made with the highest quality materials, including an abundance of gold leaf. Known as an illustrated manuscript, it was entirely handmade, as virtually all books were before the adoption of the printing press.

The body diet describes a variety of ways to maintain health by keeping the body in balance. The Painter Butecirca 1285. MS Arsenal 2510. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

Why would such an opulent art form depict such a mundane subject?

Scholars believe that around 1256, a French countess commissioned the creation of a health manual to share with her four daughters as they formed their own household. Known as the body diet, or “body diet”, the book was widely copied and became extremely popular throughout Europe during the late Middle Ages, specifically between the 13th and 15th centuries. Over 70 unique manuscripts survive today. They provide a window into many aspects of daily medieval life – from sleeping, bathing and preparing food to bloodletting, leeching and purging.

I am an art historian who recently published a book called Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art and Knowledge in the Regimen of the Body on these magnificent illustrated copies. What fascinates me about body diet This is how he depicts the responsibilities of women in wealthy medieval households – and how advice for household management was passed between them.

In a chapter on the care of one’s complexion, two women exchange a remedy. The body dietaround 1265-70. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

Seeing relationships

Illustrations, which are usually found at the beginning of each chapter, convey information not often found in other historical documents. Even if the images are idealized, they reveal an extraordinary amount of clothing, objects and furniture of the time. They also show interactions between people that reflect the culture and society in which these books were made.

A potential nanny is assessed by another woman. The body diet, 14th century. Ms Fr. 12323. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

In a scene accompanying the chapter on caring for one’s newborn, two women are shown facing each other. Closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman on the right reaching out and grabbing the exposed breast of the woman in a simpler outfit. This scene – apparently a scene of assault and violation – represents the assessment of a potential nanny.

Wet nurses were used throughout the Middle Ages by some elite families who could afford them, but choosing a good wet nurse was essential, fraught with life and death implications. Aldobrandino of Siena, the author of body diet, warns that an unhealthy nurse can “kill children right away,” underscoring a very real anxiety around this important decision. The different clothes and head coverings communicate the social status of each woman. The elite woman’s gesture also makes it clear who has power on the stage.

On the other side body diet manuscripts, upper-class women are presented with clothes, objects and gestures that convey authority, often in dialogue with those who are presented as laborers of various sorts. Servants within elite households are also illustrated, especially in the chapters on various foods and their health benefits.

Two servants with sacks of grain. The Painter Bute, The body dietcirca 1285. MS Arsenal 2510. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

Men and women are shown sifting rice, making wine and managing livestock. The creators of the manuscripts chose not only to make such mundane and repetitive work visible, but to treat the high-level doctor and milkmaid as equally valid subjects for representation.

Medieval health maintenance

In the Middle Ages, the health of family members from infancy to old age was maintained through a variety of strategies that aimed to balance the body. The body diet recommended a wide range of treatments, including the release of bodily fluids by purging or bleeding to maintain this balance.

Cupping, or the placement of heated glass cups on the skin, was among the procedures supervised by surgeons, as it involved scraping or puncturing the skin before applying suction. On the other side body diet manuscripts, it is not uncommon to see male physicians and other practitioners depicted, implying that elite households employed such professionals.

A woman administers cupping therapy. The body diet, circa 1265-70. British Library, MS Sloane 2435. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

But women are also shown administering treatments, including in several cupping scenes. A practitioner’s humble clothes and hairstyle signal her class as a worker.

Such images show that medieval health care involved many tools – medicine, surgical treatment, food, prayer and charms – and that a wide range of people offered their services both inside and outside of the House. Women sometimes administer this care professionally, but they also do so by supervising their own households.

A 15th century copy body diet open to a section on food. British Library, MS Sloane 2401. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

The body diet offered homeowners images that reflected their world – showing women asserting their authority over the care of their families, providing treatment and contributing to a well-run household. The elite owners of these exquisite books enjoyed an additional advantage: the possession of such manuscripts was undoubtedly a symbol of status and evidence of conspicuous consumption.


Jennifer Borland is a professor of art history at Oklahoma State University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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