The Physician’s Speech from Wittenwiler’s Ring

Another source! Distracting things going on, so I may again miss out on a few postings. Have a lengthy instruction on healthy living from Wittenweiler’s early fifteenth-century poem Der Ring to make up for the disappointment:

Front page of Wittenwiler’s poem Der Ring courtesy of wikimedia commons (and yes, I think Bertschi, the dapper fellow on the left, is doing exactly what it looks like he’s doing. It is that kind of poem)

Straubel answered like a knave: ”Nobody likes to ride himself into hell” he said “You know I am a man who can only earn his living from unhealthy, stricken and wounded people! That is why I will not tell you how to stay healthy. My art and my pharmacy would otherwise be ruined.”

Bertschi said: “You are a villain who only looks to his pennies. See, here you have three old haller, now tell me fully what it is like.”

Then the physician reconsidered and began his teachings thus: “No medicine was ever as good as this: Guard against too little and too much. Health demands moderation. Especially be keen to have good, clean air, neither too hot nor too cold. If the wind is too harsh, you need many silken, linen or cotton garments that are tightly woven (dick) and well made. Air is also good for sleeping people, that is why it is wrong to sleep where no air can reach you. But if you live at ground level and the earth is moist, guard yourself in winter with a bright fire that gives you heat. In summer, open the door so the moisture may escape and air enter. The chamber must also be sufficiently strewn with herbs that must not be mossy or waterlogged.”

“The second that is good for health depends on the work that a person does. Thus know, the wise man speaks: A man who does little work must have light foods. But we advise those who move about much and work hard also must eat substantially (grosseu speis er haben wil). Know that it is better for you if you walk before eating than if you sit, but do it without tiring yourself out. This frees you from superfluous matter. After eating, you may stand or walk about a little. That is always good until the food has settled.”

“The third thing that nature demands is washing and bathing. You shall remember that we distinguish two kinds of bath: the sweating bath (swaisspad) and the water bath (wasserpad). Have a sweating bath prepared when you have superfluous matter between the flesh and skin. The water bath, prepared with noble herbs, lukewarm and not too hot, makes you pretty and chubby (faiss). Always keep warm while bathing if you value your body. You shall wash your head at most once a week, thus you are acting correctly, but at least once a month without protest, that is the custom. The feet, I believe, should be washed frequently and very thoroughly with lukewarm water. You should always wash on an empty stomach. Thus you have heard the third.”

“Fourth you shall know that food serves you better when you are hungry than at any other time. But do not fill your stomach entirely full! Leave a little empty space in your stomach so the food can be better digested. If you do not wish to rue your meal, you must chew it well and thoroughly. Many courses will cause you suffering, they sap your strength and vigour. But if you will not forgo them, partake of the second dish right after the first, with no pause. Observe the rule in eating that the coarsest comes first, and take the most tender food last, unless it is soft fruit like cherries, figs, or raisins – these must be served first. After the meal, my rule says, harder fruit is served that press down the food. Those are peaches, good pears, and other foods that have the same effect. Cheese after meat and nuts after fish shall be served to us at every table.”

The fifth is that one must drink to quench thirst. Know that I mean proper thirst that affects the healthy after eating only, not before, through the heat in the esophagus. And what manner of drinking should there be? Moderate, not too extensive, white and clear or rosé in summer, and not too heavy. In winter, you may drink a glass of strong red wine. And if it is sweet and well-tasting, it is pleasing to your stomach. Also believe that a new, clear, and fine wine is much better than the old. But if your stomach is too cold, drink some hohen wein (Mediterranean luxury wines) in the morning, that will help. But I beseech you, if you wish to be healthy, above all avoid adulterated wine (gmachten wein).”

“The sixth is what we all need: It is sleep, which nature has ordained for us to rest. But if you have just filled yourself with food, do not succumb to sleep like a beast, even though the desire overcomes you. You must oppose it with pleasant activity, with sitting, walking, or standing, until sleep overcomes you a second time. Then it is healthy to sleep in complete quiet until you eye is without sleepiness. Then seek to rise and go to stool, and relieve yourself of your water. You shall also cough and clear your throat, wash quickly, and throw out all dirtiness (unflat). Comb your head, scratch your limbs, and clean your ears. But if it pleases you to sleep in daytime, especially in summer, lie down without worry where it (the air) is freshest and it is dark, without shoes and under a blanket. You shall also know that the head must be covered better while sleeping than while waking. First, you shall only lie down on your right-hand side. Nobody praises sleeping on your back, when the head hangs down in the straw. Those whose stomachs have become cold may lie on their bellies.”

“The seventh thing that serves your health is a joyful heart. That is why everyone must guard against dismay (ungemüet) and anger (zorn) that burns the blood. Dismay dries and anger consumes, and both harden flesh and bone. But a little anger can be quite good if it freshens the blood. Fire also serves this purpose, for it gives us joy and aids our lives. But do not turn towards it, because it harms your eyes. And if you become too warm from it, it will rob you of your vigour.”

“Finally, know one thing from me: What a man loves to sing from the joy of his heart, that is his song. What he joyfully drinks is his drink. What he likes to eat is his food. That is why the wise man tells us: Voluptuousness and custom thwart our abilities and our proper living. They twist nature to the point that a nobleman may become a peasant and a peasant a nobleman if he knows how to act accordingly.”

(lines 4204-4401)

This is a very conventional view of gfood health, but the workaday nature of much of it is endearing. The frank admission at the beginning also sheds light on the way the medical profession was perceived.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem ‚Der Ring‘ (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with enough command of German to read it in its entirety.

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