Mary DeCoste

Gluttony. It’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and one most of us have been guilty of at one time or another. But it meant something a bit different during the Middle Ages.

“Now we think of gluttony as eating too much,” says Italian studies professor Mary DeCoste, “but in the Middle Ages, it meant enjoying your food too much. The sin is not in overeating, it’s in taking too much pleasure in your meals.”

Just as people today often feel guilty about over-indulging and refer to desserts as “sinfully good,” people living during the Middle Ages felt guilty if they liked their food too much. Such physical pleasures were considered distracting from the desired spiritual focus of life.

DeCoste says: “Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have sprinkled his food with ashes in order to destroy any pleasure he might have taken in its taste.”

During the Renaissance, though, there was a shift and it became acceptable to enjoy food. That led to a new emphasis on cooking.

The first cookbook printed with a printing press was published in 1470, a reprint in Latin of a cookbook written a few years earlier in Italian. The title, which translates into English as On Right Pleasure and Good Health gives an indication of the contents, says DeCoste. “The original Italian version was basically just recipes, but this version gives information on health and medicine as well.”

For example, wild thyme is recommended as an antidote to snake bite, and the cookbook’s author adds that the herb can also be cooked in vinegar and then smeared on the forehead to treat a headache. Also according to the book, thistle tea helps infertility and arugula arouses the passions.

DeCoste finds it amusing that in some sections of the book, the dire warnings overshadow the recipes. “In one part it explains how to cook pork, and then concludes by saying that pork is not healthful, no matter how it’s cooked.”

At the end of this story, she offers a recipe for a hearty meat pie made not from pork but from veal or capon.

The addition of these nutritional notes to what was previously a collection of recipes is part of DeCoste’s current area of study; she’s examining the different ways that science was communicated during the Renaissance.

“Science was at that time a social activity for educated men of leisure,” she says. “But they had an understanding that no one investigator could discover much all on his own, so communicating was an important part of being a scientist.”

DeCoste has recently returned from a three-month stint in Italy at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence; she was awarded a fellowship to conduct research there. She looked at these unusual approaches to sharing scientific knowledge and points out that, for many, “there is no exact equivalent in modern science.”

One form of communication used during the Renaissance involved letters written from one person to another that were intended to be passed on to others interested in the topics. Another was poetry.

“Poems were used to disseminate information on new agriculture practices, such as crop rotation, cover crops, fertilizing and developments in the use of pruning and grafting,” says DeCoste. “Poetry doesn’t enjoy wide readership now, but it did during the Renaissance, so it was effective.”

The medical tips in the cookbooks are another way that scientific information could be shared, she adds, and points out that the Renaissance interest in cooking tasty and appealing foods is similar to the current Slow Food movement that originated in Italy in the 1980’s.

Giving an example, Decoste says, “Castelvetro, who was born in 1546, was exiled from Italy for being Protestant. He went to England and wrote about how good Italian food was and how terrible the English food was and tried to get the English to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

Founders of the Slow Food movement, like the Renaissance food writers, try to contradict earlier ideas about food and eating. “Slow Food is meant to be a counterweight to the food we gobble down in a hurry because it’s cheap and we’re hungry,” she says. “The idea is that food isn’t sinfully delicious, it’s just delicious.”

Meat Pie

Boil the meat of veal, or kid, or capon. When it is boiled and the sinews taken out, cut up finely and pound in a mortar. Add to it a little fresh cheese, an equal amount of ground aged cheese, a little cut-up parsley and marjoram, fifteen well-beaten eggs, sowbelly or calf’s udder (cut up and pounded), a bit of pepper, a little more cinnamon, less ginger, and enough saffron to create colour. Take care that it be cooked in the same way in which we described white pie. Let Scaurus and Caelius eat this, who would willingly exchange their excessive thinness for fatness, for it is exceptionally nourishing, fattens the body and helps the liver, but it also makes obstructions and stones.

Recipe from On Right Pleasure and Good Health