The hen in winter

Researchers have found the oldest known collection of medieval food recipes:

The recipes, which include both food and medical ointment concoctions, were compiled and written in Latin. Someone jotted them down at Durham Cathedral’s monastery in the year 1140.

It was essentially a health book, so the meals were meant to improve a person’s health or to cure certain afflictions. The other earliest known such recipes dated to 1290.

There really was no distinction between food and medicine in the thirteenth century, or for several centuries thereafter; every food was thought to have properties that affected health. So even the recipe for “hen in winter,” which a researcher says is just a seasonal formula relying on herbs available in cold weather, looks to me like a preventative for colds and flu: “Heat garlic, pepper and sage with water.”

For an explanation, I’m going to excerpt from a talk I gave last year on “Herbs for Meate and Medicine”:

All this stems from a worldview that linked food, the human body, nature, and the occult. The ancient Greeks, in trying to understand the natural world, decided that everything in the universe was made of four elements in varying proportions: earth, water, air, and fire. Those elements in turn had certain core properties that described everything made of them: they were hot or cold, and moist or dry. Thus earth was cool and dry, water cool and moist, air hot and moist, and fire hot and dry.

There’s more. The Roman physician Galen codified an understanding of the human body built around four essential humors, or fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (or choler) and black bile. And each humor shared the properties of one of the four elements, and was thus linked to it: blood was hot and moist like air; yellow bile hot and dry like fire; black bile cold and dry like earth; and phlegm cold and moist like water. Because balance was critically important to the ancients, it seemed obvious that maintaining health should require maintaining a balance of those four humors in the body.

But how to do that? One way to restore balance, once the balance had been upset, was to forcibly remove the excess humors — hence the bleeding of patients, to remove excess blood, and various emetics and purges that would encourage the emission of other humors. The less said about most of that, the better. But a better way to maintain balance in the first place was by paying careful attention to what one put into the body — food. Each food, being made up fundamentally of the four elements in varying proportions, could be described as hot or cold, moist or dry, and consuming foods with particular properties caused the body to produce more of the humors that shared those properties — or less of those that opposed them. Thus eating foods that were cold and moist could encourage the production of phlegm, a bad thing if one had a head cold — especially since the humors were the cause, not the symptom, of the disease. All that snot caused the head cold, it wasn’t merely produced by it, and so it was crucially important to dry it up — by eating foods that were, by contrast, hot and dry.

Now note that “hot” and “dry” don’t only describe the temperature of the food or how much moisture it contained; they also describe inherent properties and the effect of the food on the body. And those properties should be balanced in cooking. So, for example, pork (cool and wet) should properly be roasted (thus warming and drying it), while rabbit (which was warm and dry) ought better to be boiled. Why pork should be thought cool and wet while rabbit was warm and dry is, thankfully, beyond the scope of this discussion; suffice to say that it was.

Of course, foods might also be combined to achieve the proper balance. Pork could be paired with ginger, which was hot and dry—as it was in something called Mortreus de Chare, which mixed ground pork into a paste with bread crumbs, ale and egg yolk along with ground ginger. And this was especially important for one already sick — for one whose humors were out of balance. Eating too much fish when you already had a cold could push one’s body further out of balance and lead to pneumonia. Better to huddle in bed and drink spiced wine (hot and dry). Or to eat gingerbread — very hot and dry indeed, with all those spices.

There’s more. An excess of one or another humor produced various personality types, and so one ought also to avoid too much cold, wet food if one’s temperament tended towards the phlegmatic. The other humors, too, gave their names to their characteristic dispositions. Too much blood (hot and wet) made one sanguine (expansive like air); yellow bile (hot and dry) caused choleric, and black bile (cold and dry) caused melancholy. Their qualities also linked the humors to the four elements and to the four seasons—blood to air and spring, yellow bile to fire and summer, black bile to earth and autumn, phlegm to water and winter. In winter, therefore, the cold and wet climate stimulated the body to produce more phlegm, which led to the diseases characteristic of winter. Most of this theory dates to ancient times—both Galen and the Greek physician Hippocrates based their systems of medicine on it—but it reached its fullest expression in the high Middle Ages, when it was also linked to astrology. (That link survives in the four suits of the tarot, which evolved into the clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts of modern playing cards.)

the four temperaments

What about hen in winter, then? Nicholas Culpeper, whose herbal was the most popular reference on the subject in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England and Anglo-America, considered garlic to be warming and drying in the fourth degree (very much so, in other words), and sage hot and dry in the second or third degree. Culpeper wrote a few hundred years after the cookbook in question, but the theories didn’t change much. Preparing chicken with lots of sage and garlic would thus have dried up phlegm and prevented nasty winter colds. See? It all makes perfect sense.

In any case, I’ll be interested to see what else turns up in the translation they’re planning. Meanwhile, if you like this sort of thing, check out this pair of fifteenth-century cookbooks.

1 thought on “The hen in winter”

  1. That is the most concise description of the humors I’ve ever seen. Would love to read (or watch a video of) the full “Herbs for Meate and Medicine” essay.

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