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Medieval and Modern Ideas of Diet and Health

Despite certain differences, ideas of balance and equilibrium in diet were as important in the Middle Ages as they are today. Medieval people believed in humoral theories based on keeping the body’s fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) in balance, whereas we now typically focus on unseen constituents of food (vitamins, for example) and the properties of food that are believed to encourage disease (things like sugar or gluten). In both medieval and modern cultures, food has been considered primarily in relation to “wellness,” a vague yet more positive concept than mere freedom from sickness. As medieval historian and food enthusiast Paul Freedman explains in this engaging lecture, the opposite of “wellness” is not just “illness,” but what at various times has been called stress, melancholy, or neurasthenia conditions experienced as negative feelings rather than immediate physical sensations. The quest for wellness has thus typically involved not simply attention to diet, but also to regimens founded on spiritual exercises: yoga in the modern world or prayer in the medieval one. 

Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale 

Paul Freedman specializes in medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, peasantry, trade in luxury products, and the history of cuisine. His book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination looks at the desire for spices in the Middle Ages. He is also the author of Ten Restaurants that Changed America. He received a PhD in history from UC Berkeley.


Medieval Matters is a series of public lectures co-sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies, the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and the community group The Sarum Seminar. It explores the relevance of medieval history and culture to understanding the modern world. 

Thursday, 02/21/19


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Rm 370

Main Quad
Stanford University, CA