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Marianela Spicoli (Universidad Nacional de La Plata/Vrije Universiteit Brussels): The multicontextual use of natural products: food and medicine for the nutrition and health of women in the Roman world

Women faced many situations throughout their life cycles that imposed challenges to their nutrition and health: menstruation, conception, pregnancy, delivery, postpartum and lactation implied changes in their physiological conditions and were accompanied by different forms of healthcare and therapeutic interventions. Food and nutrition studies in Classical Antiquity have traditionally focused on the role of “staple foods” (grains, meats, pulses) and offered ideas about human nutrition that pointed to specific nutritional requirements, while reinforcing the association between women and malnutrition. In this presentation I propose to follow a tridimensional definition of nutrition that allows for the consideration of the multicontextual uses of a broad range of natural products (both as foods and as medicines) in the Roman world as part of the relationships established between humans societies and the natural environment for the purposes of food and health. I draw from the concept of a “continuum between food and medicine”, originally from ethnobotanical studies (Etkin and Ross, 1982, 1993), but considered from a historical perspective by Totelin (2015), to analyze the contents of Pliny the Elder’s work Naturalis Historia. Furthermore, I present Pliny’s treatment of four natural items, which were (and still are) readily accessible, and that do not feature prominently in current accounts of the “Roman diet”. I suggest considering the items which are part of the food and drug continuum as belonging to the realm of food, since through their consumption, women would have been exposed to their nutritional and medicinal properties at the same time.

Eileen Morgan (Notre Dame): Beyond Dietetics: Medieval Food and the History of Science 

The relationship between medieval food culture and medieval dietetic literature is thoroughly established. The relationship between food and other aspects of medieval scientific culture has been less thoroughly examined. Through a thorough reading of both medieval recipe collections and writings on the order and structure of nature produced throughout Europe during the later Middle Ages, in this paper I argue that medieval food may be understood in terms according to the science of the time that go beyond dietetics to encompass naturalized social hierarchies most directly understood through recourse to the concept often referred to as ‘the great chain of being’. Beginning with God and descending to angels, humans, animals, plants, and finally minerals, the hierarchy of the great chain of being reflected both the macro and microcosm. Accordingly, certain foods were most suitable for the wealthy and others for the poor. This chain extended to assumptions about the digestive capacities of individuals according to social status, but it also created troubling opportunities for disruption of the social hierarchy, which might be humorous or dangerous depending on context and extent of the “violation”. Comparison with surviving household expense accounts books, what is known about the diet of most people during the Middle Ages who were not in a position to keep written records, accusations of witchcraft and heresy invoking diet, and comic literature that deals with gustatory transgressions reveals the extent to which these scientific ideas about food were enacted—and subverted—in daily practice.

All welcome - This event is free, but booking is required.