Friday, February 21, 2014

A FOURTEENTH CENTURY DIETETIC: 4. Brother Leonard on behavior and attitude

This is one of several posts exploring a dietetic written in the fourteenth century by a certain “Brother Leonard” at the monastery of St. Jacques in Liège (today in Belgium). In 2007, Geneviève Xhayet published a transcription, with notes and commentary, of this Latin work and these posts reference that transcription. The other posts are:

1. What is a dietetic?
2. Brother Leonard on diet and health
3. Belgian (Walloon/Liègeois) food in the fourteenth century

Leonard's work is a dietetic, not a manual for meditation or manners. But it includes hints on both actions and attitudes rarely found in works this early.

Right from the start, he sounds more like a fretful mother than a Benedictine monk:
Beware cold in the morning and evening. In the summer, however, [beware] the heat of the noon-day. In autumn, the chill of twilight. When you go to the fields in the summer, to do your work, go fasting and wearing a cloak. In the winter, always have dry feet. Always seek the shade in summer. In winter, exercise by walking a great deal as much as you can, so that you may have heat. Carefully cover the head at night in winter, for fear of sneezing.
Later he advises again: “As you must sleep warm, keep your clothes on;” “At noon or at the warmest moment cover yourself well, otherwise, you cannot sleep.”

If Leonard does not quite say to brush one's teeth in the morning, he does offer similar advice: “Very carefully immediately after sleep wash your face and eyes causing you to awaken. Proceed to clean the mouth after eating using this to extract phlegm from the throat and the chest and so clear the voice.”

His advice above to “exercise” is explained as a way to stay warm. But overall he seems to find a walk outside beneficial. Later in the document he recommends relaxing, then getting some air: “After the Blessing at the table sit a little and immediately get permission to go outside, take off your shirt and if you can if you have a cap do not burn your face in the sun.” Again he shows an almost maternal concern, here that the person he is addressing protect themselves from the sun, as before against the cold in winter. At another point, he says to “leave if you are too hot, and take off your shoes” and at yet another to “[go] outside to cool off as much as you can”.

He also advises both moderation and a proper mental state while working: “Do not work so much that you tire yourself or quickly sweat, but with much peace of mind occupy yourself with something pleasurable and work towards completion.”

Often his advice recalls that perennial favorite, Max Ehrmann's Desiderata (“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”) Early on, he writes: “When certain people are speaking many words and loudly, speak little and humbly, turn aside their shouts and cries by walking an hour alone in the church.” On “the Scholar's day”, he says to “speak softly and in few words” and elsewhere “beware of speaking much”.

Part of his concern seems to be not only that his subject himself be too talkative, but that he be drawn into what seems to have been the less than serene sociability of his fellow monks: “Do not remain in the conversation in the same place at any time, because brothers often abound in many words and arguments easily arise, better watch your speech and go from there;” “After supper flee the noisy chatter, because the brothers freely speak excessively.”

In fact, the impression one gets of their fellow monks in general is that they could be downright rowdy; loudly competitive and even unkind: “Do not abound in words after nor compete with players.” In one case he advises going straight to bed “in order to avoid the cries and chatter of the players, and do not play at games so that others can mock you.”

Leonard is also concerned with simple propriety: “Do not drink in the hall in the evening, but watch your appearance.” More than once too he veers into advice on etiquette: “Be gentlemanly with the roast with your companion. Take of cheese above all, and do not empty the fruit plate;” “Of boiled fish politely share with your companion, leaving a whole piece, above all if eating with outsiders.”

Leonard already expresses a key concern found in later etiquette manuals: the proper behavior with one's superiors. “If you are a junior, always put the best pieces from your bowl before your superior.” Compare this to Courtin's eighteenth century advice: “Excuse yourself [from accepting food] if someone of greater quality is visiting, or finally take it if necessary, but offer it at once oneself to those one wants to honor.” Unlike the later writer, however, Leonard expects some reciprocity: “If however superior, do not accept but half of the good part, and in the same way for fruit.”

This is not his only advice on how to act while eating. Some shows practical concern: “Beware of hot food. Do not hurry while eating, do not eat everything, avoid becoming full;” “Be slow to begin, the first to finish eating;” “Consider also being temperate in what you take of cheese, not three or two, but only choose one of the best of all.”

Centuries later, Erasmus would write: “There are people who, barely seated, put their hands on the dishes. This is to be like wolves or these gluttons who take the meat from the stew pot and devour it before one has, as the proverb goes, made libations to the gods.” Leonard says, more succinctly, to “refrain from devouring greedily,” though perhaps more out of concern for the eater's health than good manners.

These are brief remarks, almost lost in the flood of specific advice about specific foods which makes up most of the work. But they are rare for their time and yet another valuable aspect of this unique work.


de Courtin, Antoine, Nouveau traité de la civilité que se pratique en France parmi les honnêtes gens, augmenté de la civilité chrétienne 1766

Erasmus, Desiderius, La Civilité puérile 1877

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