These magnificent illustrations capture a less glamorous medieval life

What type of images come to mind when you think of medieval art? Knights and ladies? Biblical scenes? Cathedrals? It’s probably not some unfortunate man in the throes of vomiting.

It might surprise you to learn this scene is found in a luxurious book from the Middle Ages made with the highest-quality materials, including abundant gold leaf. Known as an illustrated manuscript, it was made entirely by hand, as virtually all books were before the adoption of the printing press.

Le Régime du corps described a variety of ways to maintain health by keeping the body in balance. The Bute Paintercirca 1285. MS Arsenal 2510. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

Why would such an opulent art form depicting such a mundane topic?

Scholars believe that around 1256, a French countess commissioned the creation of a health manual to share with her four daughters just as they were forming their own households. Known as the Regime du corps, or “regimen of the body,” the book was widely copied and became extremely popular across Europe in the late Middle Ages, specifically between the 13th and 15th centuries. More than 70 unique manuscripts survive today. They offer a window into many aspects of everyday medieval life—from sleeping, bathing, and preparing food to bloodletting, leeching, and purging.

I’m an art editor who recently published a book called Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art, and Knowledge in the Régime du corps about these magnificent illustrated copies. What’s fascinating to me about the Regime du corps is how it depicts the responsibilities of women in wealthy medieval households—and how domestic management advice was passed down among them.

In a chapter on caring for one’s complexion, two women exchange a remedy. Le Régime du corpscirca 1265-70. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

Glimpsing relationships

The illustrations, which are usually located at the start of each chapter, convey information not often found in other historical records. Even if the images are idealized, they reveal an extraordinary amount about the clothes, objects, and furnishings of the period. They also show interactions among people that reflect the culture and society in which these books were made.

A potential wet nurse is assessed by another woman. Le Régime du corps, 14th century. MS Fr. 12323. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

In a scene accompanying the chapter on caring for one’s newborn, two women are depicted opposite each other. Closer inspection shows the well-dressed woman on the right is reaching across and grabbing the exposed breast of the woman in more simple attire. This scene—seemingly one of aggression and violation—depicts the evaluation of a potential wet nurse.

Wet nurses were used throughout the Middle Ages by some elite families who could afford them, but choosing a good wet nurse was critical, loaded with life-and-death implications. Aldobrandino of Siena, the author of the Regime du corps, warns that an unhealthy nurse can “kill children straight away,” pointing to very real anxiety around this important decision. The different clothing and headwear communicate each woman’s social status. The elite woman’s gesture also makes clear who has the power in the scene.

Across Regime du corps manuscripts, upper-class women are presented with clothing, objects, and gestures that convey authority, often in dialogue with those who are shown as laborers of various kinds. Servants within elite households are also illustrated, especially in the chapters about various foods and their health benefits.

Two servants with sacks of grain. The Bute Painter, Le Régime du corpscirca 1285. MS Arsenal 2510. [Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France/courtesy of the author]

Both men and women are shown sitting rice, making wine, and managing livestock. The manuscripts’ creators chose not only to make such mundane and repetitive work visible but to treat the high-status physician and milkmaid as equally valid subjects for depiction.

Medival health maintenance

In the Middle Ages, the health of family members, from infancy to old age, was maintained through a variety of strategies that aimed for balance in the body. The Regime du corps Recommended a wide range of treatments, including the release of body fluids through purging or bloodletting to maintain such balance.

Cupping, or the placement of heated glass cups onto the skin, was among the procedures supervised by surgeons, because it involved scratching or perforating the skin before applying suction. Across Regime du corps manuscripts, it is not uncommon to see physicians and other male practitioners represented, implying that elite households made use of such professionals.

A woman administers cupping treatment. Le Régime du corps, circa 1265-70. British Library, MS Sloane 2435. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

But women are also shown administering treatments, including in several cupping scenes. A practitioner’s humble clothing and headdress signal her class as a worker.

Such images show that medieval healthcare involved many tools—medicine, surgical treatments, food, prayer, and charms—and a wide range of individuals offered their services both within and outside of the home. Women sometimes administered such care professionally, but they also did so through oversight of their own households.

A 15th-century copy of the Regime du corps open to a section on food. British Library, MS Sloane 2401. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

The Regime du corps Offered owners images that reflected their world—showing women asserting authority over the care of their families, providing treatment, and contributing to a well-run household. The elite owners of these exquisite books were provided with an added benefit: Possession of such manuscripts was undoubtedly a symbol of status and evidence of conspicuous consumption.

Jennifer Borland is a professor of art history at Oklahoma State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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