The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum is one of the most popular poems in the history of both medicine and literature. Written sometime during the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, there have been over 100 manuscript versions and approximately 300 printed editions. Although the work claims to be the product of the famous medical school of Salerno, Italy, and written for an anonymous English king, the true author is entirely unknown. The manuscript probably has its origins in an Arabic work, originally entitled Sirr al-asrar (which was by popular tradition associated with Aristotle as a piece written by him for Alexander the Great). The medical portions of the Arab text were translated into Latin in the twelfth century by John of Spain; this became known as the Secretum secretorum. Then, a solitary poet set to verse passages from this translation, and began the poem by citing the famed Salerno school, in order to advertise his work and give validity to it. One possible identity of this poet is John of Milan, who lived in the twelfth century and whose name appears in several of the manuscript versions.
René Moreau, a seventeenth century analyst of the Regimen, believed that Robert, son of William the Conqueror, was a patient at the Salerno school. According to Moreau, Robert stopped at Salerno on his way home from the Crusades in order to have a fistula cured. The doctors there not only cured him, but gave him a manuscript containing the cure along with an entire prescription for good health and diet. Robert was, then, the "English king" mentioned in the opening lines, as he was the heir to the English throne (though he never ruled). This, however, seems more of an apocryphal explanation, for historical records show that Robert did go on crusade but make no mention of a visit to Salerno. The identity of the king is just as uncertain as is the actual involvement of Salerno in the creation of the Regimen.
Various editions and versions of the Regimen were circulated throughout Europe, many with commentaries that added or removed material from the original poem. The work was translated into various languages and was continually contemporized for new audiences. Compare this Elizabethan translation written by Sir John Harington with the modern English version that appears on Page One:
Use three doctors still, first Dr. Quiet,
The poem itself became known as a highly revered and scholarly medical work and was still seriously discussed up until the nineteenth century. Most people today are still familar with much of the poem in the form of common sayings and practices which have been handed down as traditional beliefs, but most have never read or even heard of it. Expressions such as "bad humor," "bad blood," and "physical appearance to fit one's constitution" all stem from the Regimen. The work is filled with what is essentially common sense advice - don't eat too much, use moderate exercise, keep yourself clean, etc. For the modern enthusiast of the Middle Ages, the Regimen is an ideal source for information on daily life, beliefs, thoughts, and practices; it is also a source for authentic attitudes and prescriptions concerning every day foodstuffs, such as vegetables, herbs, and meats, along with advice on when to eat, how much to consume, and what foods were safe and which should be avoided to prevent disease.
The modern English version used here comes from A Critical Edition of Le Regime Tresutile et Tresproufitable pour Conserver et Garder la Santé du Corps Humain by Patricia Willet Cummins, published by the North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, Chapel Hill, 1976.
Cummins, Patricia Willet. A Critical Edition of Le Regime Tresutile et Tresproufitable pour Conserver et Garder la Santé du Corps Humain. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1976.
Gies, Frances & Joseph. Life in a Medieval City. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981.
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