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 Violent Shootout That Led to Daryl Hall and John Oates Joining Forces

Hall and Oates.
Hall and Oates.
Michael Putland, Getty Images

As songwriting partners, Daryl Hall (the blonde one) and John Oates (the mustachioed one) were tentpoles of the 1970s and 1980s music scene. Beginning with “She’s Gone” and continuing on through “Rich Girl,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “I Can’t Go For That,” they’re arguably one of the biggest pop act duos in history.

Unfortunately, it took a riot and some gunfire to bring them together.

Both Hall and Oates were raised in the Philadelphia suburbs in the late 1950s and 1960s. After high school, both went on to Temple University—Hall to study music and Oates to major in journalism. While in their late teens, the two each had a doo-wop group they belonged to. Hall was a member of The Temptones, a successful act that had recently earned a recording contract with a label called Arctic Records; Oates was part of the Masters, which had just released their first single, “I Need Your Love.”

In 1967, both bands were invited to perform at a dance event promoted by area disc jockey Jerry Bishop at the Adelphi Ballroom on North 52nd Street in Philadelphia. According to Oates, the concert was a professional obligation: Bishop had the ability to give songs airtime.

“When Jerry Bishop contacted you, you had to go,” Oates told Pennsylvania Heritage magazine in 2016. “If you didn’t, your record wouldn’t get played on the radio.”

That’s how Hall and Oates found themselves backstage at the Adelphi, each preparing to perform with their respective group. (Oates said Hall looked good in a sharkskin suit with the rest of his partners, whereas he felt more self-conscious in a “crappy houndstooth” suit.) While Oates had previously seen The Temptones perform, the two had never met nor spoken. It’s possible they never would have if it weren’t for what happened next.

Before either one of them had even made it onto the stage, they heard gunshots. A riot had broken out between two rival factions of high school fraternities. They “really were just gangs with Greek letters,” Hall later told the Independent. Peering out from behind the curtain, Hall saw a fight involving chains and knives. Someone had fired a weapon.

“We were all getting ready for the show to start when we heard screams—and then gunshots,” Oates said in 2016. “It seemed a full-scale riot had erupted out in the theater, not a shocker given the times. Like a lot of other cities around the country, Philly was a city where racial tensions had begun to boil over.”

Worse, the performances were being held on an upper floor of the Adelphi. No one backstage could just rush out an exit. They all had to cram into a service elevator—which is where Hall and Oates came nose-to-nose for the first time.

“Oh, well, you didn’t get to go on, either,” Hall said. “How ya doin’?”

After acknowledging they both went to Temple, the two went their separate ways. But fate was not done with them.

The two ran into each other at Temple University a few weeks later, where they began joking about their mutual brush with death. By that time, Oates’s group, the Masters, had broken up after two of its members were drafted for the Vietnam War. So Oates joined The Temptones as a guitarist.

When The Temptones later disbanded, Hall and Oates continued to collaborate, and even became roommates. Hall eventually dropped out of Temple just a few months before he was set to graduate; Oates went traveling in Europe for four months and sublet his apartment to Hall’s sister. When he returned, he discovered she hadn’t been paying the rent. The door was padlocked. Desperate, Oates showed up on Hall’s doorstep, where Hall offered him a place to sleep. There, they continued to collaborate.

“That was our true birth as a duo,” Oates said.

Hall and Oates released their first album, Whole Oats, in 1972. Using a folk sound, it wasn’t a hit, but the rest of their careers more than made up for it. More than 50 years after that chaotic first encounter, the two have a summer 2020 tour planned.

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2020.

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