Science, Medicine & Health

Getting in Shape in Early Modern Germany

Whether we are seeking to lose or gain weight, slim down or bulk up, modern advice about how to change the size of our bodies generally focuses on diet. Instructions concerning portion control, calorie counts and the consumption of particular food groups such as protein, carbs and fat, permeate current health advice on body size. Combined with exercise, food consumption is understood to be the central means by which we can alter the form of our bodies, yet this has not always been the case.

Recipe books and medical texts from early modern Germany contained wide-ranging advice for those wanting to increase or decrease the size of their body. While it may be assumed that the current obsession with body image, size and shape is unique to the modern age, this is far from true. Early modern people also worried about and took care over the form of their bodies. Those wanting to mould their bodies to conform with cultural ideals could turn to recipe books to help them achieve a fashionable silhouette. From the early sixteenth century, elite German men were increasingly shown with large and bulky bodies, their portraits presenting an image of wealth and power. Meanwhile, slenderness was consistently idealised for German women who were frequently depicted with narrow upper bodies signifying controlled eating, drinking and bodily comportment. Gendered ideals would therefore influence the recipes women and men might decide to follow to alter their bodies. While food was an important factor within such instructions, it was just one of a broader set of influences which were thought to dictate the form of the body.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Johannes Carion, c. 1530 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie. Public Domain.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Johannes Carion, c. 1530 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie. Public Domain.

These influences were structured around the six non-naturals of Galenic medicine, including food and drink, as well as air, motion and rest, sleeping and waking, excretion, and the passions or emotions. When the popular German medical author Walther Hermann Ryff (c.1500-1548) described the ‘external maintenance and care’ that could determine body size in 1545 he accounted for all such factors. Concerning air, for instance, Ryff stated that those wanting to become thin should alter the temperature of the air in their chambers, choosing either warm or cool air, as this would stifle the ‘attracting power’ that pulled nourishment onto the body. Taking this further he suggested that ideally, air temperature should regularly shift between hot and cold, to ensure the body remained in a constant state of unease. 

Discomfort was a consistent thread in Ryff’s advice for those wanting to lose weight. Concerning sleep, Ryff was clear that such people should not sleep too much, and in order to prevent excess sleep he made some interesting suggestions. Firstly, one needed to occupy oneself in the evening, doing increased exercise or spending time on hobbies or business so they didn’t get an early night. They should also practice a technique of rubbing the backs of their thighs to draw moisture down the legs as, according to Ryff, such moisture could promote sleep. Finally, he instructed readers to sleep in a hard bed, so that they were less comfortable and were unable to sleep peacefully. When he came to the passions or emotions, Ryff continued in this vein, stating that to become thin, one should load themselves with worries and business, and be ‘somewhat angry’, though he did warn ‘everything in moderation’. Losing weight in Ryff’s text was thus shown to involve those emotions, thoughts and sensations that were pretty unenjoyable, an understanding which many today may appreciate.

'The Proportions of the Body', from Walther Hermann Ryff: Architektur , 1547. Public domain.
‘The Proportions of the Body’, from Walther Hermann Ryff: Architektur , 1547. Public domain.

Ryff’s instructions for those who wanted to become fatter similarly drew on the non-naturals. In this scenario, a person’s chamber should be sprinkled with fresh water from a fountain which should be mixed with a little wine and vinegar to ensure it was not too dry. They should also make sure the chamber had a pleasant smell which could be achieved by mixing herbs and spices together with the natural gum ‘tragacanth’ and then placing these balls on glowing coals to create a sweet-smelling smoke. In place of exercise, to become fat, Ryff recommended rubbing various parts of the body, including the thighs, shoulders, arms and chest, which he said would strengthen these body parts ‘and nourishment will be applied to the same parts more forcefully’. For such rubbing, one should use a warm towel and continue until one gets ‘a warm feeling and the body parts begin to be visibly red’. Ryff thus emphasised the significance of the senses for increasing the size of the body, as he commented on creating pleasant smells and the warm sensation of rubbing the skin, causing it to turn red.

He also stated that the head should be combed with an ivory comb as this would remove damp and steam which could suppress the natural, digesting heat of the body. This was likely based on an understanding of the material properties of ivory. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) suggested that ivory could strengthen the heart and encourage conception and fertility, reinforcing the significance of this material for strengthening and replenishing the body.

For becoming fat, Ryff further commented that one should sleep for at least eight or nine hours, and if a person was unable to sleep for so long, they should ‘at least lie in bed and rest, and this should be in a soft and tender bed’. Reversing his instructions for losing weight, therefore, Ryff indicated the significance of bodily comfort for increasing body size and this extended to the emotions. He stated that any exercise that a person took should be ‘for no other reason than to encourage delight’, and that one must ensure ‘the patient remains happy’ to promote fatness.

Ryff’s texts outlined the material choices and material practices that a person needed to make and perform in order to alter their body size. They might need to rub their bodies with hot towels, comb their heads with ivory combs, sleep on either a hard or soft mattress or create balls of scent to smoke in their rooms and create pleasant smells. From his discussion, we see therefore how the size of the body could be implicated in the body’s entanglements with its material environment in this period, and this understanding shaped the instructions of other contemporary medical writers.

Barthel Beham, Portrait of Ursula Rudolph, 1528. © Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
Barthel Beham, Portrait of Ursula Rudolph, 1528. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Bathing practices in particular were often connected to body size. Johannes Wittich (1706-1767), for example, wrote that fat people should take hotter baths than thin people. The content of the bath was also important. Georg Pictorius (c.1500-1569) wrote of milk baths which, he stated, were very beneficial for thin people, as their humoral balance (in accordance with Galen’s teachings on the four humours of phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile) tended towards heat and could be tempered by the coolness of the milk. Milk baths would not be suitable for fat bodies, however, as they were already cool in temperament. Drawing on the Persian polymath Avicenna (980 – 1037 CE), Pictorius stated that the milk used in such baths should be that from which butter could be drawn but which was not sour, indicating how the material nature of the milk itself could dictate its effects on the body.

Similarly, Wittich commented on the use of steam baths for reducing fatness, stating that a broth in which herbs had been steeped should be poured on hot stones and coals to encourage the body to sweat out excess moisture. In this case, he specified particular kinds of herbs that would be useful for this purpose, listing calamint, oregano, hay flower, camomile, pennyroyal, wild thyme and lavender. The aromatic nature of these herbs again suggests how the senses could be deeply involved in methods to alter body size.

The understanding that external conditions and materials could influence body size is perhaps most interestingly demonstrated by Pictorius in his medical handbook from 1566. To ensure health, he suggested that even ‘the materiality of clothing should be considered’. He believed that linen, silk and cotton would cool the body, while fur acted on the body following the nature of the animal from which it came. For ‘those who are fat and want to be thin’ therefore, he recommended wearing the furs of animals which were warm and dry, like fox and marten furs, as this would counter the cool and moist complexion of fat bodies. Meanwhile, Pictorius stated ‘sheep’s wool is warm and moist, therefore it builds up those who are melancholy or are thin, as it disperses moisture throughout the body’. Since the properties of materials that came into contact with the body were understood to influence the nature of the body itself, they were also implicated in the alteration of body size and shape.

Bodily form in early modern Germany was understood to be a much more holistic entity than one which purely depended on food consumption. Some early modern instructions for altering body size may sound familiar to us, such as those which connect weight loss to stress or anxiety, a lack of sleep, or taking steam baths. Others appear more alien – few people today would be likely to connect the materials from which their clothes are made to the size of their bodies. Nevertheless, early modern commentators were clear in the view that food was not the only determinant of body size, but that an individual’s whole lifestyle and environment, as well as the innate tendencies of their body, needed to be taken into account. In this sense they were miles ahead of those today who simply connect fatness to greed and a lack of self-control.

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