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.

The Question that Baffled Britain's High Court: Are Pringles Chips?

iStock/eskaylim
iStock/eskaylim

Are Pringles potato chips? From 2007 to 2009, that question plagued judges at three different levels of the British judiciary, leading to a series of head-scratchingly comical legal proceedings. The stakes, however, were nothing but serious: The ruling put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The question revolved around Britain’s value-added tax, or VAT. According to the 1994 VAT Act, any product that is “wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato” was subject to a 17.5 percent tax. In 2007, Britain’s VAT and Duties Tribunal determined that Pringles fell under the tax’s umbrella—and demanded the chipman payeth.

Procter & Gamble, who owned Pringles at the time, vehemently disagreed. They argued that Pringles were only 42 percent potato flour, with the rest mostly a slurry of wheat starch, corn and rice flour, and vegetable oil. The snack food, they said, could not be classified as a potato chip because, unlike a real potato chip, its overall contents and shape were “not found in nature.”

In addition to being unappetizing, this argument was a marked shift from the company's original position. When the snack first hit shelves in the mid-1960s, Pringles were proudly marketed as “potato chips.” (More specifically, as newfangled potato chips.) They did this despite reported complaints from competing chip-makers, who argued that the snack food—which is cooked from a thin, mashed potato-like dough—should be classified differently.

But now that millions of dollars were on the line, Procter & Gamble’s lawyers wholeheartedly embraced Pringles's unique place as a “not-really-a-chip” chip. The VAT and Duties Tribunal, however, didn’t buy it. In a decision that sounds more like a Zen kōan, the tax masters argued that Pringles were chips because they were “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour.”

To that, the British High Court of Justice basically replied: Wow, that's confusing! Now, excuse us, we would like to top it.

The following year, the High Court stepped in and reversed the Tribunal's decision. First, the Court argued that Pringles were more akin to a cake or bread than a chip. (Who, of course, can forget their first birthday Pringle?) Furthermore, the Court declared that a Pringle—which we should emphasize is, in fact, mostly made from potatoes—was not “made from the potato." Their reasoning invoked Greek metaphysics, claiming that Pringles did not possess the required amount of (and this is their word) “potatoness.”

The controversy didn’t end there. In 2009, the case moved up another judicial wrung, this time to Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature. The lower court's metaphysical arguments about "potatoness" were enough to make Aristotle's brain hurt, the justices moaned. They criticized the previous ruling for its “overelaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis” and dubbed the topic at hand a “short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”

Procter & Gamble’s lawyers bore down anyway. They claimed that a product made from “a number of significant ingredients ... cannot be said to be ‘made from’ one of them.” Lord Justice Jacob called this argument hogwash. If that were true, he argued, then “a marmalade made using both oranges and grapefruit would be made of neither—a nonsense conclusion."

After working itself in and out of semantic pretzels, the Court said the easiest solution to Chipgate was to appeal to a hypothetical child: If you asked an 8-year-old to explain what a Pringle was, what would he or she say?

The question of a Pringle’s identity, the Court argued, “would probably be answered in a more relevant and sensible way by a child consumer than by a food scientist or a culinary pedant.”

In other words, a chip is a chip is a chip—Pringles among them. With that, Procter & Gamble had to pay $160 million in taxes.

Though common sense prevailed, it doesn’t always end that way: Around the time of the great Pringle debate, the state of Oklahoma was busy confidently declaring watermelon a vegetable.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1932, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. HE HAD A FRONT-ROW SEAT TO RENAISSANCE POWER STRUGGLES.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. HE WROTE THE PRINCE TO REGAIN LOST STATUS.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. HE COMPARED THE NEED FOR LOVE TO THE VALUE OF FEAR.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. THE PRINCE’S RUTHLESSNESS MADE IT NOTORIOUS.

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF/a>], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. SHAKESPEARE CALLED VILLAINS “MACHIAVELS.”

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. THE PRINCE WAS BANNED BY THE POPE.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul VI established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. HE COLLABORATED WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN A JUST GOVERNMENT.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER