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Item 31, The Dietary: Introduction


1 On the varieties of English medicine, and the differences between these “Greek” and “folk” strands, see Getz, Medicine in the English Middle Ages, pp. 1–19, and Gottfried, Doctors and Medicine, pp. 168–206. Both Getz and Gottfried stress the impossibility of making sharp distinctions between these two categories, which is why I place the terms in quotation marks. On the Secret of Secrets tradition and its relation to the kind of text presented here, see Getz, pp. 53–64.

2 For the relationship between The Dietary and the Flos medicinae, see Förster, “Kleinere mittelenglische Texte.”

3 See Getz, Medicine in the English Middle Ages, pp. 87–88.

4 Sponsler, “Lydgate’s ‘Dietary’ and Consumer Conduct,” pp. 16–19.

5 For the most influential account of these beliefs, see Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, pp. 31–69. A fine literary model of moderate diet may be seen in the “sklendre” meals of Chaucer’s “poure wydow” in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, whose “attempree diete was al hir phisik / And exercise and hertes suffisaunce” (CT VII[B2]2838–39).

6 It is worth noting that although the surveys of Lydgate’s work by Ebin, Pearsall, Renoir, and Schirmer all suggest that what they see as the eclectic mix of dietary advice and moral didacticism in The Dietary is characteristic of Lydgate, the combination is entirely typical of other work in this genre by anonymous writers.

7 Blanchfield, “Idiosyncratic Scribe,” p. 101.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

John Lydgate’s Dietary was one of the “best sellers” of the fifteenth century; it survives in fifty-seven manuscripts and was printed by each of the first three major English printers — Caxton, de Worde, and Pynson. Besides his major secular and religious works, such as The Fall of Princes, The Siege of Thebes, The Troy Book, and The Life of Our Lady, and his many occa­sional poems (panegyrics, mummings, etc.), Lydgate wrote an astonishing number of shorter didactic pieces that were of considerable popularity in the century following his career. The Dietary can claim to be among the most popular of these, and it seems to have filled an important niche in the market for Middle English writing.

The English employed many different kinds of medicine in the later Middle Ages, which can be divided roughly into two categories: the medicine of the university-trained physicians and the “folk” medicine that had developed over centuries. The former was generally expen­sive, the privilege of aristocratic patients, and based on written authority, particularly the Greek writings of Galen as interpreted by Arabic science and translated into Latin. “Folk” medicine was applied by a very wide range of practitioners, and derived from a mixture of sources, including very old Roman practice, folk customs of the Anglo-Saxons, and the pop­ular Secret of Secrets tradition (itself an Arabic compilation).1

This “folk” medicine often stressed that medical care of any kind could be avoided by keeping to a careful regimen of diet and exercise, and that strongly-held belief lies behind the popularity of Lydgate’s Dietary. The text offers itself as a remedy for the failures of professional care — “Iff fysyke lake, make this thy governans” (line 16) — but it must have appealed to many who hoped to avoid the expenses of “lechys” altogether (line 9). Though based on var­ious ideas derived from learned sources, the text presents a bluntly pragmatic regimen that likely seemed the antithesis of the arcane theories of the university-trained physicians, whom many distrusted. And although Lydgate’s text is a fairly close translation of the twelfth-century Latin Flos medicinae, it presents itself as a mixture of commonsense proverbs and English practicality.2

The Dietary discusses much more than food and nutrition. The theoretical under­pinnings of the text derive primarily from a view of the body as composed of four humors (blood, choler, phlegm, and melancholy) which were seldom, if ever, in perfect balance. The body was also affected by “non-naturals,” external influences that included food, drink, excretion, sleep, air, exercise, emotion, and sexual intercourse.3 At various points The Dietary touches upon all of these factors and in each case proclaims the essential virtue of moderation. Using the Middle English sense of “food,” a much broader term than ours that encompassed all forms of susten­ance, Lydgate closes with the proclamation, “Mod­erate fode gyffes to man hys helthe, / And all surfytys do fro hym remeve” (lines 75–76).

Claire Sponsler has argued that this doctrine of moderation may have been a response to specific trends in the late medieval economy, with its new forms of surplus and consum­erism.4 The Dietary, she argues, defines bourgeois restraint as a new virtue opposed to older models of extravagant aristocratic consumption. Though some evidence supports this claim, the text’s emphasis on moderation would not have received the enthusiastic embrace of the reading public had it not been based on long-held beliefs, including survi­ving traditions of Roman Stoicism and Christianity’s insistent balance of feasting and fasting.5

As Lydgate’s poem makes clear, moderation could indeed be understood as a social virtue, not simply a physical one. The poem makes no distinction between moderate eating and moderate behavior more generally; this would now be called a “holistic” view of medi­cine, but it was quite common for pragmatic medieval treatises, which viewed pros­perity, emotional stability, and the restraint of sinful vices as essential parts of good health.6 Avoiding flatterers, gamblers, melancholic pensiveness, and arguments with neighbors meant just as much to the well-being of the body as the avoidance of fevers or digestive disorders. As the last stanza suggests, the maintenance of the body’s well-being was in any case a secondary task compared to the maintenance of the soul (line 77).

Manuscript Context

The only surprising aspect of The Dietary’s appearance in Ashmole 61 is its placement. The text makes a perfect complement to the conduct literature earlier in the manuscript, including Dame Courtesy (item 8) and the adaptation of Lydgate’s Stans Puer ad Mensam (item 7), a text that appears with The Dietary in several other manuscripts. But instead The Dietary interrupts a series of closely-related religious pieces, without an obvious explanation. It does not begin or end a new quire, which rules out explanations that it was used as filler material or that it represented a new direction that Rate failed to develop. Perhaps, as Blanchfield suggests, it appears here because it was intended for an audience of adults, rather than the children addressed by the earlier material.7 But the most likely explanation is that Rate simply found his copy-text at some point after he had composed the first eight texts in the collection. Ashmole 61 is generally more thematically organized than most miscellanies, and thus the interruption created by The Dietary should not be seen as unusual.


As noted above, The Dietary survives in fifty-seven manuscripts and several early printed editions; no attempt to collate all the manuscripts in a critical edition has yet been made. In most manuscripts, the text contains twenty-one stanzas, whereas Ashmole 61’s text has only ten. This is not the result of Rate’s abridgment, since other manu­scripts preserve a simi­larly reduced text (including Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.86 [R], which shares several other texts with Ashmole 61). Rate’s text is fairly corrupt and includes errors that suggest both a faulty copy-text and hasty copying on Rate’s part. In one stanza, Rate may have engaged in his characteristic revision, but without significantly altering the substance of the advice (see note to line 37).

Printed Editions

Caxton, William. Governal (In This Tretyse That is Cleped Governayle of Helthe). The Eng­lish Experience 192. Amsterdam: Da Capo Press, 1969. [A facsimile of Cax­ton’s 1489 printed edition; The Dietary appears after a prose text on the same subject.]

Förster, Max. “Kleinere mittelenglische Texte.” Anglia 42 (1918), 176–92. [Collates ten MSS and Pynson’s early print, along with the related stanzas of the Flos medicinae.]

Lydgate, John. The Minor Poems of John Lydgate. 2:703–07. [Prints the text of British Library MS Lansdowne 699, and collates several other MSS.]

Robbins, Rossell Hope, ed. Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Pp. 73–76. [Prints the text of R.]

Reference Works

MWME, 2092–94
See also Bynum, Ebin, Getz, Gottfried, Mullet, Pearsall (1970 and 1997), Rawcliffe, Schirmer, and Sponsler (2001) in the bibliography.

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