Medieval advice for students living away from home

By Laurentius de Voltolina - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

From “what to eat” to “how to stay fit,” 14th-century style.

Most parents just can’t give enough advice to their kids when they see them leaving home to go to college a gazillion miles away. And most kids just neglect all these valuable pieces of motherly wisdom until they realize — often too late — that Mom was right after all.

But this, far from being a “kids these days” kind of issue, is perhaps as old as humanity itself. Just take a look at your Bible and you will find a bunch of stories involving kids disregarding their elders’ advice (hey, just think of the Prodigal Son for a second), and parents handing out advice and warnings by the pound.

Dr. Pedro Fagarola, a Valencian physician of the 14th century, was no exception to the rule: in 1315 he sent his sons, who were then studying at the University of Toulouse, a list of tips to take care of themselves while they were away from home. We wanted to transcribe some of them, included in Daniele Cybulskie’s great article for, so you can either forward it to whomever you think might need them, or take them into account for your own student’s life.

How to eat and drink properly.

Dr. Fagarola’s advice is not far from what almost every single nutritionist, dietitian or even any fitness fan would say nowadays: avoid eating too much before going to bed, and try to avoid dairy, meat and nuts, “for they are bad and difficult to digest”

On water, Fagarola recommended drinking as much as possible but only during meals and  just after boiling it: “It would be better once in a while to drink too much at table than to drink away from table. Don’t take wine without water and, if it is too cold, warm it in winter. For it is bad to grow used to strong wine without admixture of water.”

So yes, it might sound quite medieval, but the whole idea of accompanying your wine with water can save you from quite a few dangers (including public embarrassment due to involuntary intoxication or painful hangovers). But we must admit some of Fagarola’s advice might not be quite accurate. For instance:

Beware of eating milk and fish, or milk and wine, at the same meal, for milk and fish or milk and wine produce leprosy. 

How to sleep.

To begin with, oversleeping, according to Fagarola, “is a sin.” However, not getting enough sleep — you might know this all too well — is counterproductive for anyone, but perhaps especially for a student’s brain.

Fagarola’s advice is simple: “Sufficient and natural sleep is to sleep for a fourth part of a natural day or a trifle more or less. To do otherwise is to pervert nature. Given the fact that the day has only 24 hours – you wish there were more, don’t you? Especially during mid-terms and finals — a fourth part of it would be just six hours. Our contemporary habit of sleeping eight hours a day, apparently, is unnatural and sinful, Fagarola would say.

Here’s another important detail: do not eat right before bedtime, or “vapors will rise to the head and fill it with rheum and steal away and cut short memory.”

How to stay fit.

The key recommendation is to walk twice a day, morning and afternoon, rain or shine. If it’s cold, then run: it’ll warm you up, says Fagarola. If you just ate, walking slowly is just fine. And if it is raining outside, then just walk up and down your dorm’s stairs:

If you cannot go outside your lodgings, either because the weather does not permit or it is raining, climb the stairs rapidly three or four times, and have in your room a big heavy stick like a sword and wield it now with one hand, now with the other, as if in a scrimmage, until you are almost winded. This is a splendid exercise to warm one up and expel noxious vapors through the pores.

If you can’t seem to get enough of Fagarola’s advice, feel free to read the whole article on

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