We’ve all had the experience of buying a book to indicate the kind of person we’d like to become: a French cookbook that sits proudly on a kitchen shelf, a guide to meditation that ends up just collecting dust.
If it feels like a frivolous modern condition to hold these kinds of visions of ourselves, we should take heart — our medieval forebears suffered them, too.
“There seems to be an increasing investment in aspirational culture [at the time],” says Lisa Cooper, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin. “An everyday merchant might have had an interest in a book on the right way to do bloodletting in the left arm. I might have a desire to know how to plow a field, even if I don’t own a field.”
Instructional texts are nearly as old as books themselves. Virgil’s “Georgics,” published in 29 BC, is a literary classic that presents as a poetic manual on the best way to run farm. But in Western Europe, the how-to genre really began to take off in the late 14th and 15th centuries as books migrated out of largely church and university settings. At the same time, the rise of a middle class of merchants and craftspeople, along with the first widespread adoption of English as a public language, created a market for instructional guides.
Many of the topics that interested medieval readers don’t capture us today. In addition to treatises on bloodletting and plowing, popular books from the period provided guidance on how to perform alchemy, how to operate an astrolabe (an instrument for mapping the positions of celestial bodies; perhaps in some ways the equivalent of the never-used telescope you got for Christmas), and tips for how to make a man appear headless. Then there’s one of Cooper’s favorites, a quizzical list of factors deemed dangerous for one’s eyesight, from a medical text:
. . . lechery, looking too much at bright pictures, and reading too many small letters; sleeping at noon after lunch. . . all manner of meat that is salty and sharp, and strong wine that is turgid, and thick leeks, onions, ripe olives, dill, cabbage, figs, garlic, wine, beans, smoke, fire and its fumes, anger, a lot of work, laughing, cheese, weeping, pepper, blows, mustard, and waking up too much at night.
Today, we’re more at ease consuming figs, though our preoccupations haven’t changed entirely over the last 500 years. Take for example these tips for getting into shape, which wouldn’t be that out of place at your neighborhood CrossFit gym.
“One instruction was about taking a big stone and kind of walking with it around your house as a way of increasing bodily strength,” says Cooper, who is at work on a book about medieval instructional texts. “Another is about tying a rope to a beam and climbing up that rope.”
What makes this aspect of medieval culture most familiar, however, is the likelihood that many of these personal aspirations ended up going nowhere. Kellie Robertson, an expert on medieval literature at the University of Maryland, observes that truly practical books from the period were “very small, very ugly books that showed signs of wear.” By contrast, many popular how-to texts were more obviously for display purposes.
“They tended to be large, illuminated books. You don’t carry a large illuminated book out into the field with you,” Robertson says.
By that token, just like it’s instructive to look for flour splotches on a friend’s glossy cookbooks, it was once advisable to know whether your neighbor’s plowing guide really showed any signs of soil.Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.