The Taste of Color

From medical knowledge to dietary choices in the long Middle Ages

Allen J. Grieco


Late medieval and Renaissance ideas about taste were inherited from Aristotelian concepts but were developed and successfully introduced into medieval medical theory. The tenets and terminology used to describe taste, a meta-linguistic exercise, were not confined to the realm of natural philosophy and to that of doctors. For a variety of reasons they became part of a general lay culture no later than the early 14th century and remained part of this culture to the end of the 17th century and even beyond. In fact, medieval terminology survived the 18th century semantic shift reassigning it from nothing more than sensory perceptions to a much more general meaning in the hands of 18th century philosophers. Despite this veritable eclipse some of the medieval terminology survived all the way to the Encyclopédie (1751-1765).
Based on the idea that the humoral characteristics of all foods and drink could be perceived only via the bodily senses it followed that three of these, in particular, stood out: taste, sight and smell. This meant that perceived tastes could also be named and classified. Similarly efforts were made to do the same in terms of sight, above all using colors as “markers” of humoral characteristics thus creating a chromatic theory that paralleled and reinforced categories of taste. Inversely the sense of smell seems to have posed greater difficulties since the only workable register emerging in the sources seems to have been that of intensity or lack thereof. Together the three were meant to allow doctors, but also common people, to understand the humoral nature of any given food or liquid they were preparing to consume. This deeply engrained mechanism for understanding our foodstuffs had become second nature in much of European culture and emerges not only in what medical literature in the 16th century expounded on. More interestingly it can be observed at work among travelers to South America faced with unknown kinds of fruit, vegetables and animals for which they did not trust imitating the customs of the natives. For such travelers it was necessary to situate these new foods within the framework of references they had learned and brought with them from the old continent.