Social Class and Health During the Renaissance Research Paper

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Social Class And Health During the Renaissance and Medieval Times


The Diet of the Rich and the Poor

What the rich and the poor ate in those times was vastly distinct (Cheng et al., 1999). The nobles and the wealthy could well afford and were served a wide variety of foods by cooks. Poor peasants, on the other hand, subsisted on a few and affordable types of meat and vegetables. Even the dishes they ate in common were nonetheless prepared differently. Those served to the rich and nobles were made from the best selected ingredients and carefully prepared, served fresh and more palatable. They were more varied than the ordinary, often with expensive spices from the Orient. The dishes prepared by peasants, on the other hand, had only little meat, which was also stored for long duration and served in the simplest manner. If spices were added, these were limited to salt and honey and wild herbs (Cheng et al.).

But the diet of both the rich and the poor in those times were not healthful. They did not eat as many fresh vegetables and fruits to insure good health (Cheng et al., 1999). Fresh fruits abounded but not many of these were eaten by either social class. Without a refrigeration technology, the people preserved food with salt or honey after harvest for use during the winter and early spring. And without proper knowledge about health, they consumed a lot of meat in the belief that it alone would provide the nutrients they needed. Not knowing the nutritive value of fruits and vegetables, these were ignored and eaten much less (Cheng et al.).

Social class distinguished the food of these centuries (MacDowell, 2011). The poor ate from what they could grow, gather or catch. The rich ate a wide variety of foods. The supplies used included tools and items for preserving foods and for seasonings (MacDowell). The rich ate lots of meat from domesticated animals, such as beef, pork and chicken (Cheng et al., 1999). These animals were raised by the peasants who worked for them. The rich also had a wide choice of fish. They ate carp and pike but without the foul smell of many fishes. These fishes were gathered from certain rivers reserved for nobles and the rich. Illegal fishing in these rivers was very strictly prohibited and punished. There were also castles with special pools from which the fishes were grown and caught for the upper class when catch was poor in the rivers. The upper-classes also consumed special grain products, which were much more refined than those eaten by the poor. The grains eaten by the rich contained carefully selected and properly ground before cooking and being served. Their wheat was softer and sweeter than that given or allowed to the poor and similar to the modern and refined wheat of the current day. And in addition to agricultural products, the rich and the noble also ate imported foods and goods, which the poor never tasted. These imported foods included dried foods and Asian spices from the Middle East at very high prices at that time. Examples were pepper, sugar, cinnamon, garlic powder and other spices. The dried fruits they enjoyed included almonds and other exotic fruits from Asia (Cheng et al.).

In contrast, the poor were reluctant to kill and eat the animals they raised because of their importance (Cheng et al., 1999). They obtained their dietary meat from hunting. Besides, they were allowed to eat meat only four days a week and obliged to fast on the other days. They were restricted to fishes when there were no restrictions to fishing and only in waters with low fish yield. These fishes were mostly herrings and eels and shellfishes. The diet of the poor and the peasants consisted mainly in grain products. They had buckwheat instead of refined wheat. They also had lots of oats, turnips, nettles, reeds, barley, rye, briars, pea shells and small corn (Cheng et al.).

The Life and Health of Peasants

A peasant's life in those times was a toilsome struggle for survival and the basics of health and comfort (Nash, 2012). Water was difficult to source. Peasants lived in "crunk" houses, made up of straw, mud and manure. Curtains covered their windows as there was no glass or wood yet in those times. Furniture was considered a luxury. A single bucket was used for toilet purposes and which was emptied every morning in the nearest river or lake. Dwellings were too cold in winter and too hot during summer. Their living conditions were dirty and uncomfortable. Water was scarce and could be taken only in small amounts once a day for cleaning and cooking in the house. It was sourced from the same river or lake where they drained toilet waste every morning. They also had limited bathing resources for the most basic hygiene. These conditions combined accrued to a high morbidity and mortality rates in those times (Nash).

Medical Practice and Public Health

The Dark Ages in Western Europe were characterized by social and political disintegration (Winkelstein, 2002; Porter, 1999) and, therefore, described as "dark." Large cities vanished and small villages took their place. The only surviving and unifying force was Christianity. Monasteries became the centers of learning and culture, which preserved them. As the only lasting symbol of civilization, these institutions were the only ones with piped water supplies, sanitary sewers, bathing facilities, heating and ventilation. They maintained hospices for travelers and the sick, although they practiced primitive health care (Winkelstein, Porter).

Leper Houses, the First Medical School

Leprosy was a major plague, which swept through the continent in the 6th to the 15th century (Winkelstein, 2002; Porter, 1999). Lepers were social outcasts who were separated from the community. Most lepers were kept in leprosaria or leper houses. Records say that there were about 19,000 such houses by the end of the 12th century. This ostracism is the first recorded public health practice and which survives today. Changes began to occur around 1000 C.E. with the secularization of education and increased interaction between the Crusades and Islam. Communal function moved from feudal lords and the churches to lay officials according to a hierarchy. The councils began to enforce rudimentary public health activities. The first medical school was established in Salerno, Italy in the 11th or 12th century. It was independent of the church and run by the laity. It accepted students of all races and some if its teachers were women who could have taught obstetrics. Constantine the African wrote many works for the school, prominently the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum. It consisted of lessons on personal hygiene, diet, exercise and temperance. It is considered the first "health guide" for average people (Winkelstein, Porter).

The Plagues during the Renaissance

The Renaissance was a resurrection from the Dark Ages. It was a time of great commercial, scientific, cultural and political revival and development (Winkelstein, 2002; Porter, 1999). But it was also a time of destruction when the Black Death, or bubonic plaque, razed and killed 1/4-1/3 of the populations of Europe and the Near East between 137 and 1351. Other plagues were syphilis, which swept through Europe in the 16th century and smallpox in the Americas, which reduced the population substantially. These sore events led to the three most important public health developments in response. These were the organization of health board, a theory of contagion, and health statistics. The plagues and their dreadful consequences made the cities of northern Italy realize that the inadequacy of councils in dealing with health problems. The permanent health boards would determine the existence of plagues, set up quarantines, issue health passes, arrange for burials of victims, fumigate houses, and supervision of quarantined places. These boards closely interacted with local physicians in providing medical care and preventive advice. The boards eventually controlled the markets, sewage systems, water supplies, cemeteries, and cleanliness of the streets. They also supervised professional medical practice, the sale of drugs and the activities of beggars and prostitutes. They established and implemented a system of death registration for contagious diseases and for all other diseases. Death figures became the source of mortality data in Italy from the Renaissance to the present time. An analysis of these bills was made and published by John Graunt in his work, the Natural and Political Observation Made upon the Bills of Mortality, in 1662. It became the basis of modern health statistics and the planning and evaluation of public health initiatives and activities. With the obliteration of the plagues, these health boards also disappeared. But they became the foundation of 19th-century public health concepts and activities (Winkelstein, Porter).

The Rich Woman vs. The Poor Woman

The impact of social class on health during these historical periods can be gleaned from the differences between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor women. The medieval woman, called a lady, in Europe during the time was quite distinct. Her life was completely…[continue]

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