The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Dining with the Hermaphrodites: Courtly Excess and Dietary Manuals in Early Modern France

A guest post by Kathleen Long

In 1605, a satirical novel, now known under the title L’Isle des Hermaphrodites (The Island of Hermaphrodites) was circulating on the streets of Paris. It was very popular at the time, according to contemporary accounts, and it was republished several times in the eighteenth century. Since its first publication, it has been read as being a criticism of the excesses of the French court during the reign of Henri III. But this view of the work erases the long section on the laws of the hermaphrodites, which comprises the longest portion of the book’s narrative and extends the satire to almost every aspect of French culture (religion, clothing, diet, kinship, forestry, farming…).

Frontispiece of L’Isle des Hermaphrodites (Folger PR1711.A68 H4 1605 Cage)

This novel begins with a frame narration in which the protagonist/narrator flees from the excessive violence of the Wars of Religion in France, only to be shipwrecked years later as he attempts to return home. This narrator then observes the hermaphroditic inhabitants of the island, and remarks on the excessive nature of their sexuality, the luxury of their clothing (one robe is covered with large pearls, six inches in diameter) and of their furnishings. These behavioral and material manifestations are also seen as elements of their effeminacy.

Their food, too, is presented with an eye towards excess. The opening image of the banquet scene is of the tablecloth “draped down to the ground”, as well as of additional tablecloths on top of that one, suggesting extravagance. The proliferation of tableware further conveys this sense.

“At the end of the lower part, there was a very long and fairly wide table, on which there was a large tablecloth spread out, draped down to the ground: on this table, someone had placed a little staircase made of wood, of only four or five steps, which occupied the whole length of the table, and on which staircase, someone had spread out another cloth that covered each of its steps. I wondered what this ceremony might mean, but suddenly some people came to arrange many kinds of silver vessels on it: like platters, chargers (shallow bowls), plates, basins, vases, water pitchers, and all of those were placed in very beautiful order, in such a way that this bore some resemblance to the altarpieces that are set up in our country, on Corpus Christi day.” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 149)

The table might have looked something like this:

From Gregory King and Francis Sandford, The History of the Coronation of the Most High, Most Mighty, and Most Excellent Monarch, James II, 1687 (Folger S652, plate 29)

The narrator even notes that the tablecloth mimics nature:

“… the tablecloth being of a linen that was very daintily damasked. But inasmuch as in this country the things which are in their natural state, whatever degree of perfection they might have acquired, are not at all agreeable to them, unless they are disguised, this cloth was folded in a certain manner, so that it greatly resembled some rippling stream that a light wind raised gently up. For among the many little folds, one saw a lot of broths (or: bubbles).”

This carefully folded tablecloth frames the most costly piece of tableware:

“At the very end of the table, there was a fairly large vessel of gilded silver, and engraved all over, made in the form of a ship [a nef de table], except that there was a foot to hold it firmly on the table, and this served, from what I could see afterwards, to place the fan and the gloves of the Lord-Lady of the place, when he had arrived. For the vessel opened and closed on both sides, and in one were the napkins, which the Hermaphrodite was supposed to exchange for a new one, and in the other were placed the objects I described above.” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 151)

Nef de Table [The Burghley Nef], Victoria and Albert Museum; French, 16th century
While the tableware might suggest the excessive nature of “hermaphroditic” culture, the food offered at the banquet seems to follow Galenic dietary advice of the period.

Ken Albala, in his book, Eating Right in the Renaissance, notes that “From the 1470’s to 1650 there was an immense outpouring of dietary literature from printing presses in Italy, then issuing from France, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and as far afield as Transylvania” (“Introduction,” 1). In France, many of these treatises are based on the works of Galen, but they develop Galen’s discussions of the properties of foods in significant ways.

An anonymous translation into French of Galen’s De euchymia et cacochymia (Le Livre de C. Galen traictant des viandes qui engendrent le bon et le mauvais suc [The Book of Galen on the foods which engender good and bad humors]) offers an example of how this work was absorbed into western European culture, often in idiosyncratic ways. This anonymous translator offers his personal responses to Galen’s advice.

Anonymous translation of Galen’s De euchymia et cacochymia, Paris, 1553; (Folger 166- 941q)

Similarly, Joseph Du Chesne’s Pourtraict de la Santé (held in the Rare and Manuscript Collection at Cornell University) offers Galenic dietary precepts, often modified to suit the court of Henri IV of France, where Du Chesne was a royal doctor. The fictional hermaphrodites seem to be following Du Chesne’s advice particularly closely.

Joseph Du Chesne, Le Pourtraict de la Santé, Paris, 1606
Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Collection, Cornell University, History of Science RA775 .D82 1606
photo by Kathleen Long

Bread was considered the foundation of a healthy diet. The banquet offers a wide variety of breads of different shapes, textures, and preparations:

“On the other side of this table, there was a large basket, and in this basket many types of bread: one made with risen dough, the other with kneaded dough, yet another with leavening; one was soft, swollen, and salted, the other all flat, and without salt; one was round, another long, another made with horns; one smaller, to the other a little larger. In short, there was bread of all ages, and of all types.” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 150)

The narrator presents the food as unfamiliar. The first course seems to be meat pâtés of some sort, so disguised as to be unrecognizable to the narrator, even though they are (and were) quite habitually consumed in France: “The meats of this first course were so finely minced, cut up, and disguised, that they were unrecognizable” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 158).

The narrator also presents as “foreign” some dietary practices that were actually recommended by dietary manuals, in this case not adding one hard to digest or fatty food to another (the unwillingness to eat pork products such as bacon or lard was seen as distinguishing Jews and Muslims from Christians in medieval and early modern Europe):

“All of these meats were so sophisticated, either because of the sauces or because of the preparation, that I am certain that I would bore you if I described it, along with the fact that I have forgotten about the better part of this course. I noticed only that several meats that we put bacon on in our country were not larded there; I thought that this was some Judaic custom” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 159).

As they eat, the hermaphrodites drink wine, to which snow and ice have been added:

“…beyond the gentleman servant who brought the glasses and tasted the wine, there were two more who brought the plates that I had seen on the credenza, which contained that snow and that ice, which the Hermaphrodites took, sometimes from one, sometimes from the other, as it struck their fancy, to put them in their wine in order to cool it.” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 161)

This behavior, presented as an affectation by the narrator, was actually fairly common in the early modern period, and even recommended in a number of dietary manuals. Wine was considered to be a “hot” beverage, not in terms of temperature, but in terms of its quality. This quality was best tempered by mixture with water.

The narrator mocks the hermaphrodites’ use of forks, a novelty in the late sixteenth century:

“…they took it with forks, for it was forbidden in this country to touch food with one’s hands, however difficult it might be to take up, and they preferred that this little forked instrument touched their mouths rather than their fingers. This course lasted a little longer than the first one, after which someone brought in artichokes, asparagus, and shelled peas and beans, and then it was a pleasure to see them eat these with their forks, for those who were not so nimble as the others allowed as much to fall into the platter, on their plates, and along the way, as they put into their mouths.” (L’Isle des Hermaphrodites, 162).

In keeping with dietary manuals, they only eat cooked fruit at the end of the meal (fresh fruit was considered insalubrious if eaten too late in the meal):

“After this, fruit was brought in, but this was the least natural thing that they had, for it was almost all disguised in tarts, liquid preserves, and other inventions. For they say that it is very damaging to the health when you eat fruit as it comes from beneath the tree.” (L’Isle des hermaphrodites, 163)

In presenting their diet as unnatural, the narrator is echoing moralizing satires of the court as a place of excess and perversion, such as Jean-Jacques Boissard’s emblem about the splendor of court life.

Jean-Jacques Boissard, Emblèmes, Metz, 1595 (Folger PN6349.B6 F55 Cage, leaf O1r (p. 105))

The hermaphrodites eat seemingly in accordance with the dietary manuals of the day, with bread as the unquestioned foundation of their diet, offered in larger quantity than any other food. The less digestible aspects of the meal, meat and fish, are served before the more digestible vegetables. And all of the meats and fish are prepared with spices, served with sauce, or marinated; such preparation was recommended for heavier food, to balance it with hotter or lighter condiments (Albala, 88-91).

They finish the meal with preserved quince or anise: these, too, are recommended by dietary manuals as digestive aids, to “close the stomach”. Thus, at every course of the meal, the hermaphrodites seem to be following the dietary advice of the day, particularly the Galenic materials, which present diet as a means of balancing the bodily humors and preserving health.

Even their long conversation after dinner and their games are part of a recommended regimen to preserve health:

“Those who have no other business, could pass the time in order to prevent themselves from falling asleep [the sleep after dinner being most often harmful] with tarots, chess or other pleasurable games, in which the body is not pushed too hard, and in which the mind can take some recreation. Music, and other playing of musical instruments, will be likewise sometimes a restorative exercise, and suitable for those who like it, enjoy it, and have the means to do it.” (Joseph Du Chesne, Le Pourtraict de la Santé, 140)

By being dismissive of this practice, our narrator thus seems to be taking a Platonic stance towards appropriate regimens and diets. Foucault summarizes Plato’s dismissal of diet as an affectation of an effeminate society (mollesse being a term used to designate effeminacy):

“La diététique apparaît…comme une sorte de médecine pour les temps de mollesse; elle était destinée aux existences mal conduites et qui cherchaient à se prolonger.” (Foucault, L’Usage des plaisirs, 132-33)

 [“Dietetics appears…as a sort of medicine for times of softness; it was intended for lives badly led and which sought to prolong themselves.”]

But in Hippocratic or Galenic terms, the regimen is a way of living a moderate, well-regulated life; diet is an important aspect of that self-control. Foucault observes:

“…le régime, est une catégorie fondamentale à travers laquelle on peut penser la conduite humaine; elle caractérise la manière dont on mène son existence, et elle permet de fixer à la conduite un ensemble de règles: un mode de problématisation du comportement, qui se fait en fonction d’une nature qu’il faut preserver et à laquelle il convient de se conformer. Le régime est tout un art de vivre.” (Foucault, L’Usage des plaisirs, 133)

[“The regimen is a fundamental category through which one can think about human conduct; it characterizes the manner in which one leads their existence, and it allows conduct to be tied to a collection of rules: a way of problematizing behavior, which constructs itself as a function of a nature that must be preserved and to which one must conform. The regimen is an art of living in its entirety.”]

So, what are we to make of the fact that the unruly hermaphrodites are in fact exercising a well-known manner of self-regulation in their dietary practices? They do not eat to excess, turning much of the food offered them away. They eat a diet balanced between heavy foods and lighter ones, between “hot” foods and cooler ones, between dry and moist offerings. They practice other aspects of the regimen, conversing and playing games after dinner to let the digestion do its work; taking more vigorous exercise later.

In many ancient discussions of diet, from the Hippocratic corpus to Plato’s Republic, the corporeal and moral are linked in a complex relationship. Care of the body is an aspect of moral behavior and supports moral or ethical conduct as well, but it should not be focused on too intensely; too great attention to bodily care is to be avoided. The goal is not to lengthen life beyond its natural limits, or to enhance performance as much as possible, but to make life as useful and happy as possible within those limits (Foucault, 137-39, summarizing passages from Plato’s Republic). Diets vary according to circumstances or environments, but should also prepare the individual for changing circumstances or contexts. This means that there is no strict codification of diet, but guidelines that remain mobile and situational.

Foucault observes that practicing a regimen is a way of constituting oneself as a subject with a moderate or measured care for one’s body. But given the necessary variety and mobility of dietary advice and combinations of food, the self that is constituted is thus also mobile and varied according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. It may well be that this mobility, evident already in the Galenic works and later in the early modern manuals that imitate them, constitutes precisely the identity of the hermaphrodites (after all, in the discussion of their clothing rituals, the narrator observes that “they do not cease to change every day”). But if this is so, it is not a mobility or inconstancy that is thoughtless or simply self-indulgent, but one that constitutes a carefully cultivated response to chaotic times, in which the circumstances change daily.

Du Chesne’s Pourtraict de la Santé is nearly 600 pages long, with nearly 300 pages of precise dietary advice. Diet has to be adjusted to suit the individual’s physiology and humoral balance, their state of health or illness, as well as the season of the year, the time of day, the social and work status of the individual, the region and particular environment in which they live, age, gender, sexuality, and a host of potential other factors. In other words, the physiological state and lived experience of the individual informs dietary decisions more than a set of fixed precepts might do.

This view of the relationship between the individual and lifestyle practices extends well beyond dietary matters. In the Hippocratic corpus, diet and hygiene are associated. This association appears in The Island of Hermaphrodites as the inhabitants of the island wash their hands carefully before and after dinner. This also evokes the historical context, in which contagion easily spread in the wake of the religious violence sweeping the country.

Thus, although the narrator presents the dietary behavior of the hermaphrodites as overly precious and finicky, their menu is in keeping with the dietary advice of the day. The similarity to the Du Chesne in terms of the order of the food in a banquet, the types of food served, and how they are prepared is striking. Nearly everything the novel represents about diet echoes Du Chesne’s treatise, and to some extent, the anonymous translation of Galen.

Their refusal to eat all of the meats presented to them could also be read as a reasonable response. In the case of food, the appetite could well be a reliable guide to what should be consumed. As Albala states, “Appetite was considered a sure signal that the previous meal had been completely processed” (54), but he also points out that there was an obsession with stimulating the appetite in the early modern period. In the end, diet was regulated by a combination of appetite, reason, and knowledge of the properties of various foods.

The banquet scene is the final scene in the land of hermaphrodites. The fact that it raises the question of appetite in relation to a culture whose denizens are criticized by the narrator for their sexual appetites (although all they ever seem to do is talk about sex and write laws about it that state that they should be allowed to do whatever they want) may give us food for thought.

If diet was supposed to be based on appetite, in relation to particular contexts and states of being, then what conclusions might we draw about sexuality, a much more heavily and rigidly regulated behavior in the period? For example, the hermaphrodites, being presumably both male and female in nature, are also bisexual in orientation; this behavior seems suited to their physiology, but is unacceptable in French society and law. By raising the question of the bodily nature of appetite, and the need for a flexible dietary system that will take into account bodily needs, is the novel raising questions about other forms of appetite and other modes of regulation?


Kathleen Long is Professor of French in the Department of Romance Studies at Cornell University.  As the 2019-2020 Folger Mellon Mowat Fellow, Professor Long is preparing a translation into English of The Island of Hermaphrodites (L’isle des hermaphrodites), a book on libertine literature in the wake of the Wars of Religion, and a book-length study on the relationship between early modern discourses of monstrosity and modern discourses of disability. She is also the co-editor for a series on Monsters and Marvels: Alterity in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Amsterdam University Press).

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