Contemporary diets, when they don’t openly contradict one another – oscillating from strict vegetarianism to paleolithic gastronomical recommendations – just tend to repeat themselves, as if they were (as they are) produced en masse: “Eat the fewest possible carbohydrates, include as many vegetables as possible, combine with healthy proteins, eat small portions many times a day, and drink generous amounts of water.”
Medieval diets were quite different, and not only because of the all too common substitution of beer for water.
The most famous diet of them all was the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (The Salernitan Rule of Health), allegedly originating at the University of Salerno in Italy but most probably written by physicians serving the English crown. Like most contemporary Mediterranean diets, it recommends drinking red wine and eating fresh eggs, figs and grapes. But in more than one way, the Sanitatis Salernitanum is quite contrary to what most health gurus recommend today: it insists on the consumption of bread and meat, and prescribes only two large meals a day.
Based mainly on the physician Galen’s theories, which assume that the human body is ruled by four main humors, or fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), the Sanitatis Salernitanum doesn’t talk that much about the benefits of eating vegetables either, although it does point out that both garlic and radishes are antidotes against mild poisons, that cabbage broth has laxative properties, and that turnips are great diuretics. On grains, it simply points out they are “rather good,” with no further details.
Considering that falling ill in those days was almost equivalent to a death sentence, the diet tries to keep the person as healthy as possible, adding accompanying practical advice for daily life: never taking a nap in the afternoon, always diluting wine with some water (to avoid dehydration by alcohol), refraining from tantrums, and getting rid of unnecessary worries. In fact, the text clearly states that “to stay healthy, one needs a cheerful mind, rest and a moderate diet.”
To read the original Latin text of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, click here.