These magnificent illustrations capture a less glamorous medieval life

What images come to mind when you think of medieval art? knights and ladies? Biblical Scenes? cathedrals? It’s probably not an unlucky man throwing up.

You might be surprised to learn that this scene is found in a luxurious book from the Middle Ages, made from the highest quality materials, including copious amounts of gold leaf. Known as an illustrated manuscript, it was made entirely by hand, as were virtually all books before Acceptance of the printing press.

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

Why would such an opulent art form depict such a mundane subject?

Scholars believe that around 1256 a French countess commissioned the creation of a health manual which she shared with her four daughters just as they were starting their own household. Known as regime du corps, or “Körperregime”, the book was widely copied and became extremely popular throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, particularly between the 13th and 15th centuries. Today more than 70 unique manuscripts have survived. They offer an insight into many aspects of everyday life in the Middle Ages – from sleeping to bathing and preparing food Bloodletting, leeching and purging.

I am a art historian who recently published a book entitled Visualizing Household Health: Medieval Women, Art, and Knowledge in the Régime du Corps about these magnificently illustrated specimens. What fascinates me about it regime du corps Thus it represents the responsibilities of women in wealthy medieval households – and how advice on housekeeping was passed down among them.

In a chapter about complexion care, two women exchange a remedy. Le regime du corpsaround 1265-70. [Image: The British Library Board/courtesy of the author]

insights into relationships

The illustrations, usually found at the beginning 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 this period. They also show interactions between people, reflecting the culture and society in which these books were created.

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

In an accompanying scene to the chapter on caring for the newborn, two women face each other. Closer inspection shows that the well-dressed woman on the right reaches over and grasps the bare breast of the woman in simpler clothing. This scene – apparently one of aggression and hurt – shows the evaluation of a potential wet nurse.

Nurses were employed throughout the Middle Ages by some elite families who could afford them, but choosing a good nurse was crucial and had implications of life and death. Aldobrandino of Siena, the author of regime du corps, warns that an unhealthy nurse can “instantly kill children” and points to very real concerns about this important decision. The different items of clothing and headgear communicate the social status of each woman. The gesture of the elite woman also makes it clear who has power in the scene.

About regime du corps Manuscripts are presented to upper-class women attire, objects, and gestures that convey authority, often in dialogue with those shown as laborers of various kinds. Servants in elite households are also featured, particularly in the chapters on different foods and their health benefits.

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

Both men and women are shown sifting rice, making wine, and raising livestock. The creators of the manuscripts not only chose to make such mundane and repetitive labors visible, but also treated the high-ranking physician and the milkmaid as equal subjects for depiction.

Medieval health care

In the Middle Ages, the health of family members from childhood to old age was maintained through a variety of strategies aimed at maintaining balance in the body. the regime du corps recommended a wide range of treatments, including the release of bodily fluids through douching or bloodletting, to help maintain this balance.

Cupping, or placing heated glass cups on the skin, was among the procedures overseen by surgeons because the skin would be scratched or perforated prior to suction. About regime du corps It is not uncommon in manuscripts for physicians and other male practitioners to be represented, suggesting that elite households employed such professionals.

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

But women are also shown performing treatments, including in several cupping scenes. A practitioner’s modest clothing and headdress signal her class as a working class woman.

Such images show that medieval health care included many tools – medicine, surgery, food, prayer, and magic – and that a variety of individuals offered their services both inside and outside the home. Women sometimes performed this care professionally, but they also did so by supervising their own households.

A 15th century copy 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 the owners images that reflected their world—they showed women asserting authority over the care of their families, providing treatment, and contributing to a well-run household. An additional advantage was offered to the elite owners of these exquisite books: possession of such manuscripts was undoubtedly a status symbol and evidence of conspicuous consumption.

Jennifer Borland is Professor of Art History at State University of Oklahoma. This article is republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article. These magnificent illustrations capture a less glamorous medieval life


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