Welcome to my blog. Please feel free to roam around and learn a bit more about Portuguese History. To find your interests, please, have a look at the right side of the page, where you can find all the posts arrenged into labels, such as "Society", "Politics", etc. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Health, Hygiene and Diet in the 18th century

Being already in the X-mas season, I thought that a post about health and diet would be very appropriate and being this a blog about life in Portugal at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, I expect it shows some of the main reasoning on the subject back then.
I hope you'll enjoy it!

Taken from the book “A Mesa dos Reis de Portugal” (The Table of the Portuguese Kings), chapter “Dieta e gosto na mesa régia” (Diet and taste at the regal table) pages 350 to 380, by David Felismino.

Although many of the health treaties written in Portugal at the time where in agreement with the scientific advances in Europe, it didn't meant that it had reached mainstream thinking of the country. In fact, William Beckford wrote in his diary about his travels in Portugal, in 1787, that Portuguese food was heavy, greasy and to much for one person to handle (I hope to be able to find a copy of this book in the National Library and to write a post about it in the future). Quite the opposite of the “food revolution” that had happened in remaining Europe, mainly France and England, which preferred lighter meals and lesser courses. The only real change in Portuguese diet came with the maritime discoveries that brought so many new produce and made was today we call as traditional, although not always for the better in the 18th century health science thought.

"Tratado das Drogas e Medicamentos das Indias Ocidentais" (Treaty fo the Drugs and Medication of the West Indies) by the Portuguese naturalist Cristovão da Costa, 1619, where he talks about the medicinal properties of different spices and plants, such as nutmeg and cinamon.

Back to the beginning. According to the book, early modern age diet was based on philosophical and metaphysical conceptions, that saw the human body as part of one of the elements of the Universe and therefore food was there to correct it's natural “flow”, or in that time's language, humors. It was a line of thought that came directly from the classics and that persisted equally before that during the Middle Ages.
The body was seen as having in it the representations of the 4 primary elements (water, fire, wind and earth) and the humors where a secondary element in result of the their combination. So, Air was represented by the heart, Fire was the liver, Earth was the spleen and Water was the brain, (putting it very simplistically). So balance between all of these was necessary and they way to achieve that was through food and hygiene.
In the Portuguese case, there was a contradiction between a highly structured society and what scientist said what healthy was; a contradiction between tradition and modernity, as said before. And this was even more so at the regal table, where rules of representation and ostentation had to be followed but also the health and longevity of the monarch. And even so, and perhaps because of it, in Portugal the health treaties where one of the most published fields, taking advantage of our Greek, Latin, Moorish and Hebrew past and influences. The 1st ever known treaty to have been written by a Portuguese author was Liber de Conservanda Iuventus by Arnaldo De Vilanova, circa 1242 – 1311, without forgetting the innumerous translations of classical and foreign authors.

"Apontamentos para a Educação de hum Menino Nobre" (Notes on the Education of a Noble boy), by Martinho de Mendonça Pina e Proença, 1784, original in the National Library in Lisbon.

But even though our different cultural influences, it was the main classical thought that reigned in Portuguese Universities and, therefore, it was a barrier to anything different according to the author. Don't forget a previous post I've published on this blog about Portuguese society and how church and moral values had this rigid and stiff characteristic that made it impossible for change in this country. And when there's such a impermeability towards new ideas, tradition has a higher importance. If I think about it, food and diet is still a traditional aspect in Portugal, where people still rely their own happiness on what grandmother cooks. There's nothing like returning back from a trip , vacation or business, and eating “normal food” again. Celebrations are about food; a wedding isn't a good one if you don't burst out of your seams. And it was only in the 1990's that the potato and rice served together on the same dish completely disappeared.
In rest of Europe, the 18th century brought a big change in hygiene and diet, transferring all the intellectual writing into the public sphere. Things like medicine, conservation and storage of food, water quality, etc were now politically and socially valid. Therefore, moderation was one of the 1st rules in the harmony of the humors, written above, followed by food conjugation (not only how certain produce worked better with others, but also variety). A distinction between produce that took shorter time to cook, food easy on the digestion, ingestion of vegetables and fruits where new considerations that became the basis of modern medicine and diet, such as more and smaller meals a day and avoiding to many sweets.
Nothing seen at the, not only king's table, but also at any ceremonial table, whether it was the receiving the common guest to the religious celebrations through out the year, where ostentation of food was so big that it became a theologist's concern of gluttony.

No comments: