The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ancient Cookery

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Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné
Jeff Berry
(Number 41 in the Series, September 2009)

A Humorous Look at Some Common SCA Foods

(This article originally appeared in The Seahorse, the newsletter of the Crown Province of Østgarðr)

The wisdom of the ancients passed down to us in the works of Galen and Hippocrates prescribe and proscribe foods that are essential and detrimental to health and bodily weal. Sadly, many foods commonly seen at our feasts are not conducive to the greatest health and may in fact be dangerous, upsetting the humors and contributing to physical and mental degeneration.

Man, as is well known, partakes of moistness and warmth, both in the first degree out of four. Foods of that nature and gradus are to be encouraged whilst others should be eschewed. But how are we to know which foods are healthy and which are not? Fortunate indeed are we to have the various tacuinum sanitatis and regimen sanitatus to guide us. Let us proceed first by examining some common dayboard items:

Honey Butter - this nearly ubiquitous condiment contains butter, butirum, which is warm and moist, making it suitable for most uses, and sheep's butter is the very best. Honey, mel, however is warm and dry, both in the second degree. Thus honey butter is warm, possibly in as much as the third degree and dry in the first! While eating honey butter is not likely to be immediately fatal, it is likely to cause undue heating and leading to an excess of yellow bile. Under no circumstances should it be eaten with fine white bread! The bread, being also warm in the second degree, could lead to dangerous excesses of yellow bile. Thin, leavened bread of whole wheat, cooked sub testo, is cold in the second degree, being much like boiled wheat which has dried. Thus honey-butter on thin, whole wheat, leavened bread, while still a bit dry is no longer dangerously warm.

Hard-boiled eggs - The eggs of chickens, ova galinarum, are composed of the whites and the yolks. While both are humid, that is to say moist, in the first degree, the whites are cold and the yolk is warm. The overall egg is therefore simply moist. Boiling will enhance this but still the egg is only moist in perhaps the second degree and not dangerous in moderation. Be warned, however, they cause freckles!

Cheese - Fresh cheeses are warm and moist, whilst old cheese is dry and warm in the second degree. Thus soft new cheeses are good in all ways, while old cheese may be dangerous. Old cheese should not be eaten with fine white bread for much the same reasons as honey-butter should not.

Pickled cucumbers - Squash, cucurbite, are cold and humid in the second degree. Vinegar, accetum, is cold in the first degree and dry in the second. Thus it is apparent that pickles are dangerously cold. Fortunately most often the pickles served are dill pickles, and dill, anetum, is warm and dry in the third degree. So dill pickles are no longer a danger for their temperature, but may be unhealthily dry.

The typical SCA dayboard, therefore, is rife with danger! It is only by chance that we have not yet had someone become seriously ill from a surfeit of honey-butter or dangerously overheated from an excess of dill pickles. I urge all to be careful when eating at dayboards lest their health suffer. Except for eggs, of course, unless you fear freckling.


This article is not really a serious examination of the humoral qualities of food. Although I have used the qualities of ingredients as well as I could find them, I haven't made any real attempt to account for quantities - how much honey in relation to the butter does it take to warm it from the first degree? I used simple addition, which is almost certainly wrong - honey warm in the second degree will probably not raise butter to the third degree. I have not been able, as of yet, to find a more precise method of determining overall humoral balance, and the humour rather than the humoral value of this piece was what I was aiming for. Hopefully it was humourous-funny even though it is not humorous-healthy.

The main source for the qualities of food is Luisa Cogliati Arano's "Medieval Health Handbook."

The first part is a set of color plates with associated documentation, numbered with Roman numerals.

The black and white plates and their documentation are after the color plates and are numbered sequentially.
Discussion of humors and humoral theory occur to some degree in many books concerned with medieval cookery, but one is particularly useful, "Medieval Dietetics" by Melitta Weiss Adamson.


Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Medieval Dietetics : Food and Drink in Regimen Sanitatis Literature from 800 to 1400. German Studies in Canada. Vol. Bd. 5. Frankfurt am Main ; New York: P. Lang, 1995.

Cogliati Arano, Luisa. The Medieval Health Handbook Tacuinum Sanitatis [Tacuinum sanitatis.]. New York, N.Y.: G. Braziller, 1976.

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Comments are welcome.
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné, Jeff Berry,

Copyright Jeff Berry
Originally webbed: 9 September 2009
Last modified: 9 September 2009