A Fat Body: Social Perception of Obesity in the Middle Ages
Until recently, the social history of obesity was researched chiefly by students of contemporary history; medievalists abstained from the subject. Due to the fact that the topic is quite broad, only preliminary outlines of the undertaken project can be sketched here. Nevertheless, the materials already scrutinised leave no doubt that obesity met with unequivocally negative attitudes in the discussed period. One finds numerous examples of reactions towards fat persons, carrying disgust or derision. In the light of the aesthetic ideas dominant during the Middle Ages, a fat body was considered deformed and degenerated, thus evil. In accord with the rules of physiognomy inherited from the ancient philosophers, obese persons were to be characterised by numerous flaws: they were regarded as prone to sneer, slander and to be quarrelsome. Traditionally, obesity was also linked with inferior intelligence and slow thinking. Medieval medical opinion castigated excessive food consumption and advised moderation and regularity in eating. Medical treatises attribute serious diseases to gluttony, including problems with eyesight. Opinions that obesity resulted in complications with physical fitness were commonplace. Margrave Dedo, who assented to surgical removal of excessive body fat in fear that he would not stand up to the physical strain of a journey to Italy, is a case in point. This early example of “liposuction” unfortunately ended, as could be expected, with the margraves demise. Theological writings also convey a negative attitude towards overweight persons, considering them sinners who violated recommendations of moderate eating and drinking. People who devoted themselves to excessive consumption were compared to pigs — this was a method of explicit condemnation of the horrifying character of the transgression they committed. Iconographic sources also bring forth interesting insights into the problem. Even a superficial inspection demonstrates that corpulent persons appear nearly exclusively in negative roles. This is particularly evident in depictions of the Passion, like the Ecce Homo, in which one finds obese characters among the throng hostile towards Christ, the Jewish priests, and sometimes even the executioners. It is difficult to assess today, even without claim to precision, how numerous were overweight persons among the medieval society. Nevertheless, the collected instances seem to indicate that obesity was not very common, and usually related to the upper classes.