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Eat What You Are: 16th century medical advice

The poem reads:

All sorts of fish, big and small, young and old,

Are all moist and in addition also cold,

River trout and bullheads are best to eat,

In January when the farmers thresh their wheat.

Image: Bayerische StaatsBibliothek 

This is a page from a 1557 book on fishes from Lake Constance by fish fanatic Gregor Mangolt. A former priest turned protestant, Mangolt had to flee his native Germany and ended up in Switzerland, where he met and befriended the scholar Conrad Gessner, who like Mangolt happened to be fascinated with fish. This turned out to be fruitful encounter.

A few years earlier Gessner had published a calendar together with the local physician and all round celebrated literary, political and medical writer Jakob Ruf. Gessner supplied the images while Ruf supplied the text. Each month of the year was illustrated with a depiction of two local fishes and a short poem. The poems dispense advice on eating fish, reasoning from a medical perspective.

At the time the dominant medical theory was humouralism. This states that people’s personalities and their physical condition depend on the presence of four different fluids in their body: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm.  If one of these is present in excess, body and mind are out of balance. The balance can be restored (or disturbed even more!) by the consumption of certain foods.

Since fish live in water they are, as the poem states, cold and wet. These are qualities that increase the amount of phlegm in the body. The eating of fish was consequently tricky business.

An excess of phlegm made a person phlegmatic, a condition that was best avoided. On the other hand, if a person had an excess of certain other fluids but a lack of phlegm, eating fish could restore balance. It could change aggressive personalities and people who tended to drink and eat to excess into more moderate people. In order to decide what you should eat, you should therefore first consider who you were. In order to make sure the right people ate fish, and others did not, the calendar provides playful instructions through the included poems.

When Gessner read Mangolt’s book of fish, which provides descriptions of a range of local species, he felt this would go well with his fish calendar. Mangolt did not provide illustrations and his text is rather dry, the addition of Gessner’s calendar certainly made it more lively. On the other hand, Gessner’s calendar provided little serious information and Mangolt’s text could provide a welcome balance.

There was only one problem, Mangolt did not want his fish book published.

This however did not deter Gessner. He asked to borrow the manuscript and took it to his cousin, Andreas Gessner, who was a printer. The Gessner cousins then proceeded to mix the calendar and Mangolt’s text to create a joint publication. The above image is one of the first pages of the end result. When the book was printed the Gessners listed Mangolt as the sole author on the title page.

We can only guess how Mangolt felt about this. However we do know that the book was reprinted at least twice, it appears therefore that he put his reservations about publishing his work aside.

That being said, the calendar was removed from the later two editions…


Further reading:

  • Keller, Hildegard Elisabeth: Edition, Einleitung und Kommentar der Fischsprüche. In: Keller, Hildegard Elisabeth (Hg.): Jakob Ruf. Leben, Werk und Studien, Zürich 2008 (Jakob Ruf, Leben, Werk Studien Vierter Band), S. 967-993.

Also see: Conrad Gessner Historiae Piscium – Rare Fish Books

Sophia Hendrikx and Fishtories, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Fishtories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content




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