Timeless (and Terrible) Advice From the Middle Ages

© British Library Board
© British Library Board

As much as we like to think we're so much more advanced than people in the Middle Ages, we’re actually not too different. 

1. Letting Your Boss’s Wife Down Easy

“Sorrye I cannot tryst with thee Sharon, I have byne taken ill.” © Italian School

The Book of the Civilized Man by Daniel of Beccles (13th century) is one of the first English courtesy books, or books of etiquette. It covers faux pas like, say, mounting your horse indoors rather than outdoors or stealing the silverware at a banquet, and delineates who gets to urinate in the dining room (only the host, obviously). Its advice is often timeless, such as in this case:

If the wife of your lord turns her eyes on you too often and
wantonly looses shameful fires against you, letting you
know that she wants to have intercourse with you; if she says,
“The whole household and your lord, my husband,
shall serve you for ever, you alone shall be my darling, you
shall rule everything, everything which belongs to your
lord shall be open to you”... consult me, my son; what I
counsel is planted in your heart; between two evils, choose
the lesser evil; your safer plan is to feign illness, nerve-
racking diseases, to go away sensibly and prudently.

Next time you feign a cough to delay an unwanted suitor, think about Daniel of Beccles and remember that history is full of little white lies.

2. How to Judge a Man by His Feet

A medieval job interview. © Seton Hall University 

Another section of the Secretum Secretorum addresses the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which is based on the idea that a person’s outer appearance directly corresponds to their behavior and personality. The text identifies all variations of a person’s features, from the shape of the eyes to the length of the arms, and pretty much arbitrarily assigns positive or negative traits to each. So exhaustive is the text that even the feet aren’t left out. After all, no king wants to have an advisor with foolish, shameful calves.

Similarly, broad and fleshy feet indicate ignorance and love of oppression, and small and soft feet indicate wickedness. The best feet are those of moderate size and symmetrical of form, with little flesh, sound nails, and symmetrical toes. Thinness of the ankles denotes timidity, and their thickness indicates courage. And fullness of the calves and ankles denotes foolishness and shamelessness. Likewise too full thighs show weakness and softness.

Take this advice to heart when making new friends and you’ll never have to worry about your buddies betraying you because of the wickedness of their tiny, perfidious feet.

3. The Way to a Woman’s Heart is Through Her Ravenous, Shameless Munchies

A woman about to eat a whole cauldron of ramen in bed with her giant scary cat. Courtesy stravaganzastravaganza.

The 12th century text De amore (The Art of Courtly Love) does not have many positive things to say about maidens. In fact, its author, Andreas Capellanus, takes pains to emphasize that women are duplicitous, fickle, and envious. Among his list of the weaknesses of women is one item, though, that sounds familiar:

Woman is also such a slave to her belly that there is nothing she would be ashamed to assent to if she were assured of a fine meal, and no matter how much she has she never has any hope that she can satisfy her appetite when she is hungry; she never invites anybody to eat with her, but when she eats she always seeks out hidden and retired places and she usually likes to eat more than normal.

The similarity this description bears to today’s popular Everywoman characters like Liz Lemon is pretty striking. Although the advice here is that a woman will do anything for a meal, the second part of this statement shows us something timeless. As misleading as Capellanus’s other judgements on women can be, this observation seems to be directly alluding to how, almost a millennium later, a girl’s best friend is often a whole family-sized thing of snacks, eaten alone in bed.

4. Camel’s Froth Will Mess You Up

© British Library Board

Magia Naturalis, or Natural Magic, was one of the most popular books of science in the early Renaissance/late Middle Ages period. Written by Giambattista della Porta in 1588, it covered medicine, cooking, geology, beauty, and chemistry, as well as numerous other disciplines. It was not, however, a particularly accurate resource on most of these topics. Many of the recipes for cosmetics involved poisonous ingredients such as quicksilver, or required the disembowelling of a pretty exorbitant amount of livestock for a facewash.

In the culinary section, Natural Magic contains a perplexing piece of advice on encouraging inebriation:

Make men drunk.
The fruits of the Arbute, and the Lote tree, being eaten, will make men as though they were Drunk. Also dates eaten in too great a quantity, cause Drunkenness, and the pain to the head. Sowbread with Wine, makes a man Drunk. Amber-greese, or Musk, put in Wine, exasperates Drunkenness. The filth of a dogs ear mingled with Wine, makes one Drunk, as Albertus says. But Rhases, out of whom he took it, says, that Wine, wherein the seeds of Ricinus are Infused, if anyone drink it, it will inebriate them. Camel's froth, drunk with water by a drunken man, will make him mad, as possessed with a Devil.

It seems a bit like the wine is doing most of the legwork here, but camel’s froth sounds like the real deal.

5. Vomiting Every Morning: For Your Health!

Edward III, looking healthy and cheerful. © British Library Board

Some advice manuals or books of counsel, called “mirrors for princes,” were specifically geared toward kings and rulers. These included philosophy of governance, tips on who to trust, dietary regimens, and strategies for war and peace. The Secretum Secretorum [PDF], or the Secret of Secrets, is a text on royal conduct from 1326/1327 that was presented to Edward III when he was beginning what would prove to be a long and relatively successful reign. The text is most likely an adaptation of a far older Arabic text. However, it claims to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great.

The Secretum Secretorum gives an exhaustive catalogue of things that can affect the health of a king, from the seasons to astrology to when wine is consumed during the day. This leads to a curious list of dos and don’ts:

Those things that fatten and cheer and add flesh to the body are: moderation in cohabitation ; eating wheat bread, and the flesh of fat chickens. Vomiting every morning with sweetened vinegar, in summer ; riding on easy-paced cattle and drinking out of new and sweet-smelling vessels. And those that emaciate and weaken the body are : excessive anxiety and sorrow, wakefulness, occupation of the mind, excessive love, sleeping on the ground, sleeping with old women, and looking at disagreeable and unavoidable sights. But the worst of all are evil thoughts and pursuing anxieties.

So, remember: vomit every morning, and avoid doing anything unpleasant. That is, apart from vomiting every morning.

6. Cure Baldness with Onions

A gentleman asking for directions to the onion store. Note: That hairstyle is actually called a “tonsure” and was a sign of religious devotion. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Like many medieval texts that went through multiple rounds of translation, the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum is likely derived from an Arabic work. In fact, this same original text, Sirr al-asrar, is the source of the medical material in the Secretum Secretorum.

The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum provides a wealth of advice on various herbs, foods, treatments, and household matters. It includes information on the properties of mustard seed, fennel, milk, meats, and wines, as well as this dental care tip: “Likewise take care of your teeth: gather the seeds of the leeks, Burn them with the juice of the henbane, And direct the smoke toward your teeth through a funnel.” The Regimen also has a surprising solution to an age-old problem:

"The doctors do not seem to agree on onions.
Galen says that they are not good for those of choleric humor,
But he teaches that they are quite salubrious for phlegmatics,
And especially good for the stomach and the complexion.
By frequently rubbing your bald spots with ground onions,
You may restore your head of hair."

Say what you like about the smell, but anyone familiar with hair plug malfunctions knows that there are more barbaric ways to combat baldness.

7. This One Easy Weight Loss Trick

“More dung wine, please.”

The Trotula is a collection of three texts, composed by a 12th century female physician known as Trota of Salerno, which dealt mainly with medicine and women's health. It’s a fascinating text, which acknowledges the existence of female desire, but it contains a good deal of what we think of as hocus pocus as well. Take, for example, this weight loss advice:

"If, however, the woman is fat and seemingly dropsical, let us mix cow dung with very good wine and with such a mixture we afterward anoint her. Then let her enter a steambath up to the neck, which steambath should be very hot from a fire made of elder [wood], and in it, while she is covered, let her emit a lot of sweat... We also treat fat men in another way. We make for them a grave next to the shore of the sea in the sand, and in the described manner you will anoint them, and when the heat is very great we place them halfway into the grave, halfway covered with hot sand poured over. And there we make them sweat very much. And afterward we wash them very well with the water of the previous bath."

On the one hand, yes, it sounds stupid. But on the other, an experimental spa could probably get away with charging celebrities $3000 for this.

8. Dirty Dancing

Kissing that bird isn’t going to help your game either.

Early 16th century dance theorist Antonius de Arena really didn’t mince words when it came to the fine points of social etiquette. Although his text The Rules of Dancing is meant to be an instruction in the basse style of dancing, there is a very pointed digression that makes you wonder what kind of crowd de Arena was dealing with.

"Furthermore never fart when you are dancing; grit your teeth and compel your arse to hold back the fart... Do not have a dripping nose and do not dribble at the mouth. No woman desires a man with rabies. And refrain from spitting before the maidens, because that makes one sick and even revolts the stomach.  If you spit or blow your nose or sneeze, remember to turn your head away after the spasm; and remember not to wipe your nose with your fingers; do it properly with a white handkerchief. Do not eat either leeks or onions because they leave an unpleasant odour in the mouth."

Yeah, don’t eat leeks or onions before the dance! You’re going to need them for your bald spot.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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