Some notes on Early Modern Bodies and Modern Diet Culture

Welcome to Tiny Histories which aren’t as tiny as I expected them to be. The end of August brings us some thoughts and notes on early modern bodies and our modern day diet culture. Each Tiny History will come towards the end of the month and will vary in length and seriousness. If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to explore drop a line and I’ll see what I can do.

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NB on Dates: When I say “early modern” I’m referring to the period running from roughly 1400-1800. I know some medievalists would like to claim the first fifty years of the 15th-century but I won’t let them have it. They can fight me for 1400-1450. I’ll win. I would personally argue that the early modern period ends in 1820/30 but it’s more traditional to have it end in the late 18th-century (late 1700s).


In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions John Donne writes, “man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world.”
Today we distinguish between theological understandings of the human body and medical; the early modern period saw no need for delineation. That said, one can parse between the two but in doing so we are creating an arbitrary distinction that would not have existed in the minds of the average person from 1400-1800. (And before, I believe the Medieval period also had a similar approach wherein the spiritual and medical were bound up in one another.)
Theologically, the body was believed to be an imperfect representation of God. The body, however imperfect, housed the soul and these two things were both separate and discrete from one another while, simultaneously, being intimately bound up in each other.
Donne’s poem, “The Extasie,” addresses the fraught union of body and soul:

“Our bodies why doe wee forbeare?
They are not ours, though they are not wee, Wee are
The intelligences, they the spheare.
So must pure lovers soules descend
T’affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
To’our bodies turne wee then, that so
Weake men on love reveal’d may looks;
Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body in his booke.”

Donne’s union between body and soul is ecstatic but rather a necessary, yet fraught, marriage. For Donne the body has a dual identity – it is negative in that it is a prison and it is positive in that the soul’s experience in the body is necessary to ascend to heaven.
The tension between the body as necessary prison and the body as a representation of God complicates the understanding of physicality. If we are like God, and God is a cosmic whole, our physical forms then necessarily must represent a cosmic whole. Yet, we know from the Original Sin, the human form is corrupted and incomplete. The human body is corrupt yet at the same time it represents God since we were made in his likeness.
There is no gentleness in this duality.


Our body is a fraught place upon which to read identity, relation to space, spirituality and community. It’s even a difficult space to read understandings of sexuality and gender, two aspects of our modern concept of identity we think would be intimately tied to the physical being. And they are and they are not.
The body as a space to achieve perfection is not new in Donne’s lifetime. His poem was merely expressing a common theme wherein we are understood to be imperfect yet were made in the image of perfection. Donne’s poetry long struggles with the marriage of the spiritual and physical and what this means for life-after-death. The need to render perfection when humans by our nature are imperfect is a phenomenal amount of stress to hold within ourselves.
In modernity it’s more often physical perfection we seek rather than spiritual. Although the two – physical and spiritual perfection – have historically been linked. The belief that someone’s physiology reflected their spiritual and moral self has a long and sordid history. The better looking you are the more moral and spiritually correct you must be. This approach, where morality is expected to be represented in our physical being, is what lead to the Cult of Monstrous where people born with differently shaped bodies were thought to be representations of God’s ability to create evil. Thus “ugliness” is “monstrous” which is “evil.”
This concept of outward beauty equating spiritual perfection would later inform racist scientific practices which sought to explain “white superiority” by seeking to show how the white body was more perfect than non-white bodies. This would then give birth to the horror that is eugenics and so on and so forth.
Currently, Western society’s view of perfection most often seeks to conform bodies to a model that is white, thin, able-bodied (not handicapped), “unblemished,” “whole,” and youthful looking. This is what it means to be “good.” Diet literature is the most egregious when it comes to linking self-worth and goodness to the physical form. Especially diets that marry any form of faith to eating habits. We remain like John Donne, reading a desire for purity and perfection into and onto the physical being.
To achieve perfection we have stuffed our bodies into girdles, corsets, stomachers, and compressors of all types. We have worn hair shirts, flagellated ourselves, starved ourselves, gorged ourselves, cut off chunks of ourselves, deposited our body onto hospital floors because we think it undesirable. We think of our body incessantly. We inflict pain on ourselves in order to be more like God, whatever God looks like to you. There’s a strong chance God resembles some unattainable, Western, white beauty standard with no room or acceptance for diverse bodies.  
In doing all of this, we become monstrous to our bodies and each other. How often are we taught to compare ourselves to one another, itemizing how we are less or more perfect than the person next to us. This undermines friendships, family relationships, and causes untold amounts of harm – most often to the people we care about the most.  


Like their Classical and Medieval predecessors, early modern medical professionals (such as they were) subscribed to the humour theory, which informed and was informed-by the theological view of the body.
The humour theory states that there are four humours that make up the human body and in order to achieve perfection one must balance all four. On top of that, and borrowing from the Platonic notion of Ideal Forms, early modern medicine believed there to be only one human body. However, the one human body could exist in two possible forms which were differentiated according to their supposed degrees of perfection (which was informed by the balance of their humours).
In On the Nature of Man, a treatise believed to have been written by Hippocrates, he describes the human body in the following terms:

“The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.”

The humour theory was popularized by Galen, a 2nd century Roman physician, who laid out the foundations of the theory in his work, On the Temperaments. Medieval and early modern writers built out from there.
The nut-shell version is that there are four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each of these then corresponds to a temperament.
Black bile = melancholia
Yellow bile = choleric
Phlegm = phlegmatic
Blood = sanguine.
Alongside temperaments, the humours correspond to elements, qualities, age, and organs.
A rough breakdown is below:
Black bile = earth & cold and dry & adulthood & gallbladder
Yellow bile = fire & warm and dry & youth & spleen
Phlegm = water & cold and moist & old age & brain and lungs
Blood = air & warm and moist & infancy & liver
If you were ill it was thought that there was an imbalance of the humours and so treatment focused on restoring balance. Much of the early modern person’s understanding of the world was based on the four humours. It informed what they ate, how they understood gender, medical advice provided, pregnancy, animal taxonomy, and more. Food and rank were also bound up in each other so if you ate above or below your station it was believed that you were increasing your possibility of becoming ill.  
An example comes from the late 14th-century diarist Gregorio Dati who wrote his son advice on how to best avoid the plague. One of his strictures was to encourage the young man not to eat melon. His logic was that melon grows close to the ground and is therefore cold and wet which could cause an imbalance to the man’s natural hot and dry humours making him susceptible to illness. If he must eat melon let him have it with either a dry red wine (which corresponded with hot and dry qualities) or with prosciutto (also hot and dry) to counter balance the negative effect of the melon.
This is, coincidentally, possibly why we eat prosciutto with melon today.
For health diet advice from the early modern period included eating within your rank so as to not become ill. If you’re poor eat food that grows closer to the ground such as turnips, lentils, cabbage. If you’re wealthy eat food that is further from the ground – apples, swans, anything that flies, and so on. Your humours will be better balanced if you eat according to your rank which means your body will be closer to perfection. If you’re ill remedies will depend on your malady – so if you’re feverish you might be advised to eat fish which is cool and wet, if you’re faint you might be advised to drink a warm, dry wine. Weight was rarely a consideration for the early modern person, rather the balancing of your body.


Although we might think it odd, early modern diet advice reads as little different from our modern approach to perfection. The variance is in the end purpose. They sought spiritual purity and to avoiding illness; ours is to perfect the physical aesthetics of our body based on some arbitrary standard imposed upon us by some higher being (HBO’s bad sex scenes; Laguna Beach; Biggest Loser; “Body positive” Instagram accounts run by very tiny white girls). Altering what you intake is key to both approaches.
One common cure for illness from the medieval period through to the 19th-century was purging. This could come in the form of bleedings, inducing vomiting, cuppings and enemas. It was believed that doing so would rid you of the excess humours that were causing an imbalance. Later, as the humour theory went out of fashion, it was believe you were removing general “impurities” that made you susceptible to illness. To purge was to make yourself more balanced, more pure, more perfect.
This is little different than modern “cleanses.” The “juice cleanse’ is perhaps the most ubiquitous. Juice cleanses can range in extremity from drinking only hot water with a little honey and hot pepper flakes in it to having a complex, intense schedule of juices you drink throughout the day. In the end, almost all dieting is about “purging” yourself of “toxins” or fats or carbs in order to make your body more balanced. This form of thinking is right in line with our early modern and medieval ancestors. Both exhibit the belief that purging is a form of perfection and both also exhibit a lack of understanding of how the human body works.


“Ideal” health attained through kale smoothies or leeches. Perfection to be attained through controlled eating whether it’s to balance your humours or to fit arbitrary beauty standards.
Hilary Mantel calls our obsession with extreme dieting a “Holy Disorder” equating our quest to disappear our bodies with the spiritual quests starving nuns went on in the early modern period. Indeed, the length to which we push ourselves in order to achieve spiritual, physical, moral perfection is often unhealthy. This is the case for ourselves and our ancestors. For John Donne and his spiritual counterparts across Christianity – from Protestant to Catholic – hurting yourself physically was a way to become more like Christ. To achieve some piece of God by sharing in the pain of the crucifixion. Suffering in such a way was also a means to alleviate the sins of others. Saint Margaret of Cortona once said, "I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor."
The spiritual and humoural purification through achieving balance is no different in its rituals as our diet culture. We seek to conform in 1418 the same as we seek to conform today. We look at bodies and judge them for their failings. I’ve sat in rooms with women flipping through Facebook pages judging the bodies of relatives saying “I can’t look at her she’s so fat.” I’ve sat in rooms with women lamenting girls who are anorexic, or have other disordered eating, staring at their bodies which are now too skinny.
Hilary Mantel asks us, “Are we threatened by flesh or its opposite?”
“Our bodies why doe wee forbeare? They are not ours, though they are not wee […]” Bodies are not ours, Donne means to speak of God, but we in modernity can look at those lines and understand that our bodies are not ours in that we cannot control them. Our bodies are also not us (though they are not wee). They need not be our only sense of worth and definition. We remain entangled in that fraught relationship between physical and the not-physical; our flesh and our morality.
There will be no perfection.
After all, man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world. How can anyone think to contain that?