8 Pieces of Timeless (and Terrible) Advice From the Middle Ages
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. Here are a few pieces of advice from that era—some you might want to follow, and some you should definitely not.
1. Feign Illness to Put Off a Suitor
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. Vomit Every Morning For Your Health
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, 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 catalog 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.
3. Judge a Man by His Feet
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.
4. Woo a Woman With Food
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 judgments 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.
5. Avoid Camel Froth at All Costs
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 disemboweling 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.
6. Cure Baldness with Onions
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. Lose Weight With Cow Dung and Wine
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 $3000 for this.
8. Don’t Fart While Dancing
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.
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2021.