Home » Late medieval
Category Archives: Late medieval
In the Middle Ages, old age was recognised as a major cause for physical and mental impairment. The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1294) compiled all existing remedies against the ‘accidents of old age’ and thus produced the ultimate medieval guide to prevent and cure old age. Intriguingly, one of his remedies involved cooked dragon flesh.
How to cook your dragon
Roger Bacon was one of the great scientific minds of the thirteenth century. A professor at the universities of Oxford and Paris, Bacon was an expert in various fields, ranging from grammar to logic, astronomy and philosophy. He also had a keen interest in the occult, alchemy and medicine. Prompted by Pope Clement IV (d. 1268), Bacon wrote the encyclopedic Opus Majus, a work that deals with virtually all fields of medieval science. In book VI of this work, on ‘Experimental Science’, Bacon touches briefly on how to cure old age, noting a particularly effective remedy made from the flesh of dragons which are only known to the Ethiopieans:
For it is certain that wise men of Aethiopia have come to Italy, Spain, France, England and those lands of the Christians in which there are good flying dragons, and by secret art they possess lure the dragons from their caverns. They have saddles and bridles in readiness, and they ride these dragons and drive them in the air at high speed, so that the rigidity of their flesh may be overcome and its hardness tempered. Just as in the case of boars and bears and bulls that are driven about by dogs and beaten in various ways before they are killed for food. After they have domesticated them in this way they have the art of preparing their flesh, similar to the art of preparing the flesh of the Tyrian snake, and they use the flesh against the accidents of old age, and they prolong life and sharpen their intellect beyond all conception. For no instruction that can be given by man can produce such wisdom as the eating of this flesh, as we have learned through men of proved reliability on whose word no doubt can be cast. (Roger Bacon, Opus Majus, trans. Burke, pp. 624-625)
The Ethiopeans, it seems, are the dragon-riders of the Middle Ages and the flesh of their domesticated dragons could cure old age! In his Opus Majus, Bacon does not touch upon the preparation of the dragon flesh, noting only that it is to be prepared in the same manner as that of other snakes.
Fortunately, Bacon also compiled another work, entitled De retardatione accidentium senectutis [Concerning the slowing down of the accidents of old age] which was translated by Richard Browne in 1638 as “The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth”. This compilation of existing medicinal writings on senescence (e.g. by Galen, Avicenna and Aristotle) does reveal how one is to prepare the flesh of serpentine beings so as to cure the “accidents of old age”:
… let four inches be cut off the Head and Tail, let the Guts be taken out, let them be washt very clean with Water and Salt, and let them be boiled again and again in Water and Salt, till the Flesh may easily be pulled and separated from the Bones, then let them be beaten in a Mortar, let the Flesh be anounted with the Oyl of Balm, and dryed in the Shade.
And a Man must take heed, that the Sunbeams do not fall upon the Flesh before it be dried, nor afterwards; For the Sun by his Power doth spoyl the Flesh of its Vertue, so that it expels no Poyson received either by Bite, or in any Drink. (trans. Browne, p. 114)
Bacon further notes that you can spice up your dragon flesh by adding “Cloves, Nutmeg, Mace, Citron-Rind, Zedoary and a little Musk” (trans. Browne, p. 118). You can mix all this with wine and then make rolls and little tablets (p. 145). Mmm.
Bacon’s occult remedies for old age
Eating the flesh of Ethiopean dragons (or other serpentine beings) is not the only occult remedy for old age mentioned by Bacon. In all, Bacon includes seven ‘secret’ substances that may prolong life and cure old age:
4. Drinking human blood of young people
5. The bone of a stag’s heart
7. Flesh of a snake [viper, tyrian snake or dragon]
A number of these occult remedies are examples of what may be termed ‘sympathetic magic’, a type of magic based on imitation or correspondence. The stag, for instance, was rumoured to live for a very long time and, so, the bone of its heart would prolong life as well; snakes seem to renew their youth by changing their skins and, therefore, their flesh has rejuvenating powers; gold was incorruptible and was considered a cure against corruption. Bacon’s advice to drink the blood of young people may be explained by what he, and may other medieval thinkers, considered to be the ultimate cause of old age: the loss of natural heat and natural moisture. Blood, according to ancient humoral theory, was both hot and moist and, therefore, a good supplement for the elderly who were typically cold (the elderly were also associatied with a loss of natural moisture, but an increase of extraneous moisture, i.e. phlegm, etc.).
Accidents, causes and remedial activities
Bacon’s De retardatione accidentium senectutis is not just a work of occult magic. It also outlines the various symptoms of old age, most of which still ring true today:
The Accidents of Age and Old Age are, Grey Hairs, Paleness, Wrinkles of the Skin, Weakness of Faculties and of natural Strength, Diminution of Blood and Spirits, Bleareyedness, abundance of rotten Phlegm, filthy Spitting, Shortness of Breath, Anger, Want of Sleep, an unquiet Mind, Hurt of the instruments, that is, of those, wherein the Animal Vertue does operate. (trans. Browne, pp. 22-23)
For each of these ‘accidents of old age’, Bacon mentions a specific cause: wrinkling of skin, for instance, is caused by heat and often found among those who work over a forge (therefore, ladies are advised to turn away their faces from a fire, if they want to retain their beauty). Other causes of old age include “touching cold things”, “superfluous Drunkenness”, “frequent Washing”, “frequent sports of Venus”, “immoderate Blood-letting” and “frequent and daily drinking of Water” (trans. Browne, pp. 78-79).
Throughout his work, Bacon also provides a number of activities that may undo or prevent the effects of old age, such as:
1. Vomit once or twice a month, especially in the afternoon (p. 82)
2. Anoint oneself with oil every morning, preferable mixed with sheep’s fat (pp. 123-125)
3. Live in warm places, avoiding cold and moist places (p. 139)
4. Bathe once a week, or once every 10 days (p. 141)
5. Avoid violent labour and exercise (p. 142)
6. Experience “Wrath, Joy, Mirth, Anger, and what ever provokes Laughter, as also Instrumental Musick, and Songs, to converse with Company which discourse facetiously, to look on precious Vessels, the Heavens and Stars, to be clothed with Variety of garments, to be delighted with Games, to obtain Victory over ones Enemies, to argue with ones most dear and beloved Friends.” (trans. Browne, p. 128)
Many of these activities, as Bacon relates, will cause your blood to flow and, in the case of vomitting, will get rid of the cold and moist humor that is prevalent in old people (Phlegm).
A medieval diet for old men
Bacon notes that remedies such as the ones that he has provided will do an old man no good if he does not also take care of what he eats and drinks: “Diet without Physick dometimes did good, but that Physick without due order of Diet never made a man one jot the better” (trans. Browne, p. 15). Here is a sample of the range of foodstuffs Bacon prescribes for the elderly:
1. Salad with lettuce, esp. against want of sleep (p. 34)
2. Flesh: Calf, kid, lamb, young goose, small birds; avoid: beef and goat. (p. 139)
3. Herbs: Pepper, ginger, cloves, saffron; avoid: mustard, garlick (p. 140)
4. Fruit: Figs, grapes, raisins (p. 140)
5. Nuts: Almonds, pine nuts (p. 140)
5. Avoid mushrooms, mulberries, melons and cucumbers (p. 140)
Note how the elderly are advised to eat the meat of young animals, which may be another example of sympathetic magic.
Wine is like a dragon
A typical advice for healthy aging today is to drink wine (e.g., see here). Roger Bacon, too, deals with the anti-aging effects of wine and notes that there are five healthy properties to wine: “1. Heats the whole Body; 2. As it were pierceht the Members; 3. Tempers the Humors; 4. Excites Natural Heat; 5. Chears the Heart” (trans. Browne, pp. 103-104). Not all types of wine are equally beneficial, however. Bacon notes that sour and old wine should be avoided and that white wine should only be drunk with a great deal of water. The best sort of wine is red wine, since it increases blood (the loss of which is the cause for old age) more than white wine does. Listing the beneficial effects of red wine, Bacon notes how “it will preserve the Stomach, strengthen the Natural Heat, help Digestion, defend the Body from Corruption, carry the Food to all the Parts, and concoct the Food till it be turned into very Blood: It also cheers the Heart, tinges the Countenance with Red, makes the Tongue voluble, begets Assurance, and promises much Good and Profit” (trans. Browne, p. 106).
Drinking too much wine, Bacon warns, will have a contrary effect, since it will darken the understanding, affect the brain, bring fortgetfulness, weaken joints, “Weakness of the Genitals” and “Destruction and Ruin of the Seed” (trans. Browne, p. 107). As such, Bacon concludes, wine “imitates the Nature of the Serpent, which taken immoderately, and not as Phsyicians advise, is mortal: of which well prepared, Antidotes are made that cure Diseases” (trans. Browne, p. 108). So, if you ever do catch that Ethiopian dragon, do make sure to cook it according to Bacon’s instructions and do not bite off more than you can chew!
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:
- Anglo-Saxon aphrodisiacs: How to arouse someone from the early Middle Ages? (a blog post that also features examples of sympathetic magic)
- Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons (a description of my PhD-thesis on old age in Anglo-Saxon England)
Works referred to:
- Browne, R., trans., The Cure of Old Age and Preservation of Youth by Roger Bacon (London, 1683)
- Burke, R. B., trans., The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon. Vol. 2 (New York, 1962)
Since today is #InternationalCatDay, I figured it was time to reboot the following blog post, which appeared three-and-a-half years ago on medievalfragments and is my most succesful blog post so far. In this present blog, I have added the rather entertaining aftermath of the blog post (I was contacted by The International Cat Association!), as well as a better version of the image of the medieval manuscript that was peed over by a mischievous feline in fifteenth-century Deventer…
Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts
Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel revealed that this is nothing new:
Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky. A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:
“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi catti venire possunt.”
[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]
Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
(You can read the full poem here)
The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.
Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]
So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.
The aftermath: My first paw-reviewed article
The blog post above was ridiculously succesful and has been viewed over 75,000 times over the last three-and-a-half years. Various bits of the blog post have also been floating around on the internet, including my own translation of the Latin along with the image of the cat-pee manuscript (sometimes with, but more often without attribution!). The success of the blog post, obviously, boils down to a mix of popular ingredients. The internet has always had a unique relationship with cats, with several websites being devoted only to clips and pictures of our feline friends. The Middle Ages, too, are gaining in popularity with the ongoing success of medieval fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and Vikings. People are fascinated by medieval culture and like learning more about the world of our ancestors a thousand years ago. Combining medieval stuff with cats? The key to success!
About two years ago, the blog post reached its apex of fame, when I received an e-mail from The International Cat Association (TICA). Apparently, they had read my blog post and now wanted to publish it in their magazine. This magazine, TICA TREND with its tagline ‘For Fabulous Felines, Fun and Friendships!’, is shipped to over five thousand cat owners worldwide! My piece was indeed published in the June/July issue of 2015, which also featured the winner of the 2013-2014 Best Household Pet Kitten of the Year’ (you can read it here).
While I am aware that the little publication in TICA TREND is not an academic achievement worth boasting too much about, it does introduce the fascinating world of medieval manuscripts to an audience outside of academia. In all, therefore, I am quite pleased with my first ‘paw-reviewed’ article, even if something appears to have gone wrong in the printing process. The article’s title in the magazine reads ‘Paws, Pee and Pests: Cats among Medieval Century Manuscripts’ and the word ‘Century’ obviously shouldn’t have been there. Perhaps, the error was caused by a cat walking all over the editor’s keyboard – a problem a medieval scribe could relate to!
A better image of the cat-pee manuscript
The image of the manuscript with the scribe’s apology for feline urine that has circulated the Internet for the past three-and-a-half-years was taken with my IPhone from a photographic reproduction of the manuscript in a book. I was pleased to learn that the manuscript has since been digitzed (you can access it here), allowing me to present the Internet with a better quality image. Enjoy:
Gashed gatherings, bodged bindings and faltering flyleaves. The current state of medieval manuscripts, either good or bad, reflects the manner in which manuscripts have been retained and used over the centuries. Nowadays, the concern over the preservation of books leads to ever stricter regulations on access, handling and storage. But what about the Middle Ages? Did contemporary makers or users of books set any rules on how to treat these objects? This blog post calls attention to a late medieval Middle Dutch text which provides guidelines as to how to preserve books ‘to last forever’ -some of these rules remain topical today!
Caring for books in the Middle Ages
Medieval, written sources on the care of books are relatively scarce. An interesting case is the Philobiblon, written by Richard de Bury (1287-1345). In this work of passionate bibliophilia, Richard expresses his profound love for books. He also shows an awareness of the dangers that threaten a book’s well-being. Not least of all, Richard laments the maltreatment of manuscripts by snotty youths, who, rather than wipe their noses, stain their books:
You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. Would that he had before him no book, but a cobbler’s apron! (De Bury, ch. 17)
In monastic libraries, some measures were taken to prevent damage to books. Most monasteries appointed a so-called armarius, a librarian avant la lettre, who was responsible for managing and preservation of the manuscripts (Clark 1902: 57). According to the fifteenth-century monastic rules of the St. Paul’s house for the Brethren of the Common Life in Gouda, the armarius was also supposed to take into account the dangers posed by bookworms and dust (Lem 1991). Other monasteries add dirt, and damage caused by humidity and/or fire to these instructions (Clark 1902: 61). None of these monastic rules provide any practical advice, however, as to how these risks could be minimised.
‘How one shall preserve all books to last eternally’
Specific rules and practical advice on book conservation is provided by the author of the text entitled ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ [How one shall preserve all books to last eternally]. This unique text, in the Dutch vernacular, outlines eight rules on access, handling and storage. The text is found in The Hague, KB 133 F 2: a miscellany on 180 folia of 120x79cm, written entirely by one hand. Various ownership inscriptions, in the hand of the main text, suggest this book was made in 1527 and that it belonged to ‘Margrieten van der Spurt’ from Ghent, in present-day Belgium. The contents of this manuscript suggest that this book was used as an educational treatise for children. Most texts have a didactic nature, such as a text entitled “eenen gheestelicken A.B.C.” [a spiritual A.B.C.], while others focus on the ways in which children should treat their parents, bearing running headers such as “in quade kinderen sal niement verblijden” [evil children will not make anyone happy] and “vader ende moeder moet men in alder noot bijstaen” [one must help one’s father and mother in every need].
The text ‘hoemen boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’ immediately follows the first ownership inscription and is the first stand-alone text of the manuscript. The prominent place of this text within the manuscript may attest to the educational import of conveying rules of book preservation to a child of the first half of the sixteenth century.
So what does the text actually tell us to do? In the introduction, the author remarks that, if the reader followed his guidelines, books would last “menich jaer[…], ja te minsten twee hondert jaer” [many years…, yes, at least two hundred years]. In short, his eight rules run as follows:
- Store your books in a dry and dustless place.
- Do not handle your books with dirty fingers.
- Do not let your books lie near the fire or leave them open for too long.
- Never pull the pastedowns off the boards.
- Preserve books from mold and decay, by, for example, not drying it in the winter or touching it with wet fingers.
- Do not tear out a page or quire.
- Do not doodle or add texts in the margins.
- Do not give your books to children.
For each of these rules, the author outlines what would happen if the reader did not follow the rule. For the third rule, for example, the author notes: “want aldus soude den rugghe metten banden crempen ende naermaels ter stont breken” [because this would make the spine shrink with the cords and would make it break immediately].
Do not give your books to children!
Interestingly, the eighth rule (in violation of the seventh rule) was added in the margin only after the text was finished: “Ten 8sten, men sal huut gheenen boucken diemen ter heeren hauwen wilt, de kinderen laten leeren. Want wat in haerlieder handen comt, soe wij sien het blijfter oft het bedeerft.” [Eighth, one should not let children learn from any books that one wants to preserve. Because whatever comes into their hands, as we see, it either stays there or it is ruined]. The rule was added by the same scribe who wrote down the first seven rules. Given that this manuscript was probably used as an educational treatise for children, the addition of the eighth rule may have been due to ‘progressive insight’ on account of the author.
Nevertheless, the fact that, with the exception of the original binding, the book that contains these eight rules is still available in the Royal Library in The Hague in the twenty-first century, proves that the manuscript has far exceeded its expected 200-year life span. We can only conclude, then, that the contemporary and later users of this manuscript abided by the rules outlined above and that they took to heart the moral which was added at the end of the text:
“Men pleegt te segghene an de plume sietmen wat vueghel dat es ende an eens cleercs boucken sietmen wel wat cleerc dat es. Ende alsoe weetmen gheware an de boucken van de lieden of se reijn van ijet te beseghen, goddelic ofte duechdelic van levene sijn.”
[They say that one can recognise a bird by its plumage, and one can recognise a clerk by his books. And so it will be revealed by the books of people, whether they are clean, god-fearing or good of living.]
For those interested in the text ‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene’, an edition and introduction have been published (in Dutch) as: T. Porck & H.J. Porck,‘Hoemen alle boucken bewaren sal om eewelic te duerene. Acht regels uit 1527 over het conserveren van boeken’in: Jaarboek voor Nederlandse Boekgeschiedenis 15 (2008), 7-21. A thoroughly revised, English version of the article, featuring an English translation of the text, is published as: T. Porck & H.J. Porck, ‘Eight Guidelines on Book Preservation from 1527: How One Should Preserve All Books to Last Eternally’, in: Journal of PaperConservation 13(2) (2012), 17-25. The English article is available on Academia.edu.
Works referred to:
- Clark, John (1902). The Care of Books. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- De Bury, Richard. Philobiblon. Ed. and trans. by E.C. Thomas (1888).
- Lem, Constant, (1991). ‘De Consuetudines van het Collatiehuis in Gouda.’ Ons Geestelijk Erf 65, 125-143.
This is an edited version of a blog previously posted on the medievalfragments blog.