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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Food for Thought

Hospital food. Who has not felt a rapid decline of appetite on being presented with an overflowing plastic bowl of lukewarm, watery vegetable soup or an overcooked piece of meat garnished with under-seasoned salad? Well, of course, one does not go to hospital with expectations of haute cuisine. And, as I have observed over the better part of a week, when illness strikes there are more substantial things on one's mind than satisfying the desire for an appetising meal. My brief hospitalisation impressed on me the high quality of medical care that is provided today, even if, admittedly, modern medicine for all its advances remains stumbling in the dark with regard to many aspects of human afflictions and bodily deterioration. And how can you not be impressed by the machinery. Undergoing cardiac catheterization one feels one has somehow wandered into a science fiction space movie set and is being subjected to a somewhat disconcerting but nonetheless intriguing and impressive procedure dreamed up by a deranged sci-fi nerd.

In the Middle Ages things were rather the other way around. The food was good, but the capabilities of medicinal treatment were limited. A doctor's comprehension of what he was doing, notwithstanding the achievements of classical and Islamic medicine, was often questionable at best and the equipment at a doctor's disposal was primitive and limited.* It was probably these facts, and the awareness that the best that medicine could do for a patient was most often to do nothing at all, that led the infirmarers in Templar convents to give their sick brothers abundant quantities of the best available food. A statute in the Templar rule states that the Commander of the Victuals should distribute food fairly among the brothers "but to the sick he may give two or three pieces of the best meat he has, and when the healthy have only one dish the sick should have two..."**

The importance of food and drink was recognised by medieval doctors who followed the precepts of Hippocrates and Galen. Not only were they awareness that fresh and adequate food was essential in maintaining health and preserving human life. It was also realised that making adjustments in food and drink was a safer means of treating a patient than physical intervention or medication, or, as one scholar has put it, it was regarded as a "gentler" form of treatment.*** For advice on diet for the maintenance of a healthy body, medieval physicians made use of the Latin Regimen sanitatis (Rule of Health), a didactic poem of domestic medical practice composed in the twelfth or thirteenth century and subsequently translated into many European languages. Today, when medicine is nothing short of miraculous in what it is capable of doing, we can be grateful as we gingerly raise that spoonful of insipid fare to our lips, that food is no longer regarded as the safer alternative.

* For some informative, amusing and probably exaggerated examples of medical practice in the crusader states see Usama Ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation, Islam and the Crusades, trans. Paul M. Cobb, London, 2008, pp. 145-46.

** J.M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Temple, Woodbridge, 1992, 'The Hierarchical Statutes', no. 152, p. 57.

*** Susan Edgington , "Medical Care in the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem", in Helen Nicholson, ed., The Military Orders, vol. 2, Welfare and Warfare, Aldershot and Brookfield, 1998, p. 30.

Luttrell Psalter, f. 207v © The British Library

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