Take your crusader medicine!

Have you ever heard of an idea called ‘bake your research’/’bake your thesis’? If you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like: the challenge of interpreting your work through the medium of baked goods. (Not baking bits of your research into a cake. I don’t think picking bits of paper out of your teeth would be very nice).

We had a ‘bake your research’ challenge in my department very recently, for a very good charity cause. I’d recently come across a recipe, thanks to fellow historian of the crusades Guy Perry, for a Sicilian delight called fior di mandorla — literally, flowers of almonds. Various recipes are available online, but the one I used contained ground almonds, sugar, honey, cinnamon, lemon, and egg whites.

Anyway, Guy doesn’t call these little confections fior di mandola. He calls them ‘crusader sweets’ because the mix of ingredients is evocative of the fusion of cultures, culinary and otherwise, that characterised the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, and other locations where different Mediterranean cultures — Latin, Arabic, Greek — met, including the states of Outremer.[1] Almonds from France, lemons from Iberia, sugar from Outremer and Egypt, cinnamon brought along the Silk Road… perhaps, just perhaps, this recipe is the modern version of a medieval blending of the foodstuffs traded across the Mediterranean, to be enjoyed by those wealthy enough to be able to afford the ingredients?

Looking at the ingredients, though, something else struck me. Every one of the ingredients used in these fior di mandorla would have had significance in medieval medical understanding. Medieval medical theory was based on the idea of the four humours: that health was determined by the balance of four substances (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) in the body. Each of these substances was characterised in terms of heat and moistness, so blood was thought to be hot and wet, for example. Too much or too little of any of these substances was thought to cause ill-health. One way of treating such imbalances was by altering the diet, since foodstuffs were thought to have these properties of heat or moistness too (there’s a nice explainer on this here). To confirm my musings, I checked out one of my favourite books which itemises the properties foodstuffs were thought to have in the medieval period: Food in Medieval Times, by Melitta Weiss Adamson.[2] Here’s some of what Adamson’s book told me:

Almonds: humourally warm and moist, very nutritious and served to invalids.

Sugar: also humourally warm and moist, and good for invalids. Very expensive and therefore a luxury product.

Honey: a healthful food, though less easily digestible than sugar. Humourally warm and dry.

Cinnamon: a very expensive luxury product from Sri Lanka. Humourally warm and dry and used to aid digestion. An important ingredient in Arabic cookery.

Lemon zest: humourally warm and dry, and recommended to aid digestion. Another important ingredient in Arabic cookery.

Egg whites: humourally cold and moist. Good for the sensitive stomachs of convalescents.

A couple of other snippets bring the ‘crusader’ element of this ‘crusader medicine’ back into focus. We know that almonds were bought in quite astonishingly large quantities for consumption in the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (managed by the Hospitaller Order during the crusader period).[3] And various chroniclers mentioned the crusaders’ first taste of sugar in the Holy Land in 1099. In fact, William of Tyre, who chronicled the crusades of the twelfth century, said that sugar was ‘most necessary for the use and health of men’.[4]

Oh, and did I mention that they were really tasty?


[1] Outremer, literally, ‘the lands over the sea’, is the preferred term for the twelfth- and thirteenth-century states often called the ‘Crusader States’: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

[2] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004).

[3] Piers D. Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 68.

[4] William of Tyre, A History of Deeds done Beyond the Sea, trans. by E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey (New York: Octagon Books 1976; first publ. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), I 13:3, p. 589.

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