Poky Pigges and Stynkynge Makerels

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A fish with the head of a pig. Ortus sanitatis, 1491 (EPB Incunabula 5.e.13)

The next seminar in the 2014-15 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 3 February.

Speaker: Prof Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia)

“Poky Pigges and Stynkynge Makerels”: food standards and urban health in later medieval England’


There is still a widespread assumption that medieval men and women smothered their meat and fish with spices in order to conceal the stench of decay, and rarely consumed anything that was fresh or wholesome. The problems facing a society that lacked refrigeration, the means of transporting food rapidly from producer to consumer and, of course, the microscope, should not be underestimated. But nor should we assume that medieval Englishmen and women were indifferent to the quality of what they ate, or unaware of the dangers posed by contamination. On the contrary, the profusion of evidence in national and local archives of attempts to regulate markets and victuallers, and the growing number of vernacular texts devoted to dietary health would suggest that food standards were something of a late medieval obsession.

In certain respects, such as the insistence that bulls should be baited before slaughter, ideas about what actually constituted a threat to survival were very different to our own, yet they were no less logical, being based upon what then appeared to be sound physiological principles. Successive outbreaks of plague, from 1348 onwards, gave an added impetus to the sanitary measures introduced by urban authorities, since it was understood that poor nutrition would render communities more vulnerable to infection. The religious imperative that obliged the rich to provide food for their less affluent neighbours also played a vital role in this regard.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE. Doors at 18.00, seminar will start at 18.15.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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