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Kenneth B. Albala. Eating Right in the Renaissance.

(California Studies in Food and Culture, 2.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. x + 12 plates + 316 pp. index. illus. bibl. $39.95. ISBN: 0-520-22947-9.

Medical treatises on diets have been used by food historians ever since a social and cultural approach to this field emerged some twenty years ago. Among the first authors to have drawn attention to how important this type of source could be was the late Jean-Louis Flandrin followed by many of his doctoral students. Although the vast resources of diet literature were not used in any systematic way in the early stages of food history, a great deal of work on this kind of document has been done in the past two decades. Two relatively recent books on this same subject should be mentioned here. The first to have been published is Melitta Weiss Adamson's, Medieval Dietetics: Food and Drink in Regimen Sanitatis Literature from 800 to 1400 (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), followed by the more recent volume by Heikki Mikkeli, Hygiene in the Early Modern Medical Tradition (Helsinki, 1999). Ken Albala's book is, nevertheless, the first to explore diet literature primarily from the point of view of the medical discourse(s) on food and the advice this literature broadcast to its readers.

The time frame taken into account is roughly posterior to that examined by Melitta Weiss Adamson and is based on printed diet literature published from the 1470s to circa 1650. The book is subdivided into eight chapters, beginning with a useful though brief overview of the genre. The second chapter describes how doctors imagined the human body and the physiology of its nutrition, an essential cornerstone in order to place dietary recommendations into a proper historical context. The next two chapters deal with what doctors called the "six non-naturals," beginning with a chapter devoted to food, its qualities, degrees, flavor, virtues, etc. followed by a chapter on the other five "non-naturals" grouped together: (1) air, (2) sleep and waking, (3) motion and rest, (4) evacuation and repletion of dietary texts and their rapidly developing popularity in the two centuries preceding the period chosen for this book, the author creates the erroneous impression of a genre that appears after 1470 and owes little or nothing to its medieval precursors.

In conclusion, some words of caution as to the use of dietary literature as a source. The rich and complex world these texts open up risks making historians forget the difference between these theoretical works and the reality of actual diets. Although dietary literature is without a doubt an important source that permits us to better understand the norms propagandized by doctors (and the society in which they lived), we also need to compare this prescriptive literature with what we can piece together concerning what foods people actually consumed on a daily basis. Last but not least, we need to do more work on the readership of this fascinating literature and its impact radius, notably by looking for echoes (and literal citations) that surface in such disparate places as in literary works, letters, cookbooks, and a variety of other texts.

<add> ALLEN J. GRIECO Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies </add>
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Author:Grieco, Allen J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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