Enhancing adults’ and children’s awareness of healthy eating today by using research into medieval ideas of healthy lifestyle and diet
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentHistory
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
Since June 2010, Dr Iona McCleery has led a programme of public
engagement activities including workshops in schools and museum
exhibitions. These activities enhance adults' and children's awareness of
historical food and diets and encourage participants to reflect on their
own diet through comparison with medieval lifestyles. Supported by the
Wellcome Trust, the work has been a highly successful example of original
historical research's ability to fire the public imagination and to
inspire children in formal education to follow a healthier lifestyle
(50,000 adults and children in Yorkshire have participated in the project
Iona McCleery (Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Leeds,
2007-present) researches the history of medicine in late medieval Europe.
Three elements of her research have had most impact, being used to
underpin exhibitions, school workshops, talks and web articles.
Theoretical ideas about health. McCleery researches the extent to
which medieval people put medical theories into practice. In Output 1, she
underlines the intimate relationships between diet, exercise, emotions and
sleep, four of the external factors (`non-naturals') that were believed to
cause illness or restore health depending on how they were balanced and
also considers the extent to which the medieval sick followed medical
advice based on these theories. Outputs 3, 4 and 5 consider medieval ideas
about illness, healthcare and the causes of death. The idea that a
balanced lifestyle was crucial in the Middle Ages correlates with modern
theories about nutrition: it is not just what you eat, but how, when and
where you eat, and what else you do that has an impact on health.
Healthy lifestyle. Outputs 1, 4 and 5 and Grant 2 interrogate the
emergence of debates about urban lifestyle choices between c.1300
and c.1500. These debates included the vulnerability of the poor
to ill-health, coping with food shortages, the vernacularization of
recipes and the need for public health systems. Output 3 considers the
variety of ways in which a number of illnesses were interpreted, including
gout, which is understood today to be partly caused by diet. Gout was once
thought to be a problem associated with elite status. Class is still
perceived to be a factor in modern dietary choices.
Foods in pre-modern society. Outputs 1 and 2 analyse the
prominence of Portugal in global trade, and the reception and impact of
new foods, or improved access to foods taken for granted today, such as
sugar and spices. Output 5 considers the role of women in food provision.
These outputs emerged from archival research carried out in Portugal in
2007-8, supported by Grant 2. Anonymous peer reviewers of Grant 1, which
has involved collaborative research with food scientists and
archaeologists, described the project as `really innovative and exciting',
and commented that `the vision is impressive'. Awareness of McCleery's
interdisciplinary approach led to the commissioning of Output 2 by a
leading medical journal, an article that explores the sensory impact of
environments and considers medieval theories of sensory perception,
As a historian of medicine, McCleery's research highlights the
social and cultural determinants of health in the medieval period: wealth,
status, location, religion, gender, age and fashion. Much of the impact of
her work derives from the fact that these determinants are similar to
those described by nutritional epidemiologists today. Although the
contexts of daily life have changed markedly since the Middle Ages, diet
continues to play an important role in healthcare and people continue to
eat in accordance with their customs and beliefs.
References to the research
1. Iona McCleery, `Both "illness and temptation of the enemy":
melancholy, the medieval patient and the writings of King Duarte of
Portugal (r. 1433-38)', Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1:2
(2009): 163-78. DOI: 10.1080/17546550903136041 (submitted to REF2014)
3. Iona McCleery, `Medical `emplotment' and plotting medicine:
health and disease in late medieval Portuguese chronicles', Social
History of Medicine 24:1 (2011): 125-41. DOI: 10.1093/shm/hkq107
(submitted to REF2014).
4. Iona McCleery, `Medical perspectives on death in late-medieval
and early-modern Europe' in: C. Krötzl and K. Mustakallio (eds), On
Old Age: Approaching Death in Antiquity and the Middle Ages
(Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 277-91 (submitted to REF2014).
5. Iona McCleery, `Medicine and disease: the female `patient' in
medieval Europe', in: K. Phillips (ed.), A Cultural History of Women
in the Middle Ages (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 85-104 (submitted to
All publications are deemed at least 3* by internal and external readers.
They are all outputs of Grant 2 (see below) and therefore the underpinning
research predated the impact activities that began in 2010. Output 3 was
submitted to the publisher in September 2008; Output 4 was submitted in
March 2010; Output 5 was submitted in January 2011.
1. 2010-13: Wellcome Trust Society Award (no. 092293): You Are
What You Ate: Food Lessons from the Past (PI: Iona McCleery,
This collaboration involves archaeologists, food scientists, cultural
officers and historians at the University of Leeds, the University of
Bradford and Wakefield Council (www.leeds.ac.uk/youarewhatyouate).
The historical content of the inter-disciplinary public engagement
activities is based on McCleery's research. Clinical, nutritional
and archaeological data, youth workers and museum collections are provided
by project partners.
2. 2007-8: Wellcome Trust Project Grant (no. 076812): Physicians
of the Body and Physicians of the Soul: Medicine in Late Medieval
Portugal (PI: Iona McCleery, £17,000).
This grant funded
archival work in Portugal on medicine, illness and welfare. The daily
lives of sick men and women from kings to peasants featured heavily. The
project emphasised the problems of famine, plague and war across the whole
of Europe, and the role of medical practitioners in maintaining
well-being, including the preparation and/or selling of food and spices
(especially apothecaries). Portugal dominated trade in sugar and spices in
Details of the impact
Between January 2011 and June 2013, 45 Wakefield state primaries
participated in a free workshop developed by McCleery and the
Senior Cultural Officer at Wakefield Council (a). This activity was
delivered in-house under the auspices of the You are what you ate
project (Grant 1), using McCleery's research from Grant 2. It was
experienced by 3,469 children aged 7-11 (b). In the workshop the pupils
were asked to think through medieval scenarios illustrating diet, food
budgets and health dilemmas and they made a basic herbal sauce. The
activities were structured to support the Key Stage 2 curriculum for
science and history.
Feedback obtained via a questionnaire from 61 participating teachers at
30 schools is entirely positive, indicating that the sessions encouraged
children to think about their own health and diet, as well as supporting
the curriculum by capturing imaginations, presenting new information and
consolidating prior knowledge about food. 90% of the teachers stated that
the workshop had addressed the issue of healthy eating very well (b). One
teacher working in a deprived area of Wakefield said: `A fantastic start
to our 'Healthy Eating' topic, with historical facts they found
interesting (or gruesome!). It was interesting to hear their answers which
reflected their attitudes to food, and the shift from certain opinions
once they had heard the facts or new ideas and participated in making
their own sauce. I learnt a lot too!' Another evaluation, again from a
teacher in a poorer district, observed `definite changes in attitude
toward food'. Another said: `The class was interested in the fact that the
idea of healthy eating was hundreds of years old' (b).
The workshop has been a major success. Wakefield Council's Senior
Cultural Officer said it attracted schools that had not previously
accessed Wakefield's cultural services, notably schools in poorer areas
(a). McCleery's track record as a researcher, enabling her to
secure Wellcome funding substantially enhanced Wakefield Council's
capacity to offer educational activities at a time of severe funding cuts.
The project as a whole has had a significant organisational impact on
Wakefield Council, raising the public profile of Cultural Services in
parts of Wakefield where users were not traditionally drawn and creating
links between schools, museums and the NHS that would be the basis of
future collaboration (a, c). The Wellcome Trust agreed in March 2013 to
extend Grant 1 until September 2014, awarding McCleery another
£15,000, allowing her to develop these links further.
McCleery's commitment to developing school curricula was
demonstrated in January 2013 by an invitation from the Prince's Teaching
Institute to speak at a training day in Altrincham for recently qualified
teachers nationally at Key Stage 3 and 4. McCleery's talk on
plague and famine drew on Grant 2 and was described by one teacher as
providing `excellent ideas that I can apply to the classroom to add value
and meaning for the students' (d). McCleery has since been invited
to speak at a conference in London in October 2013 organized by United
Learning, responsible for the largest group of academies in the UK.
Enriching cultural life and enhancing understanding of healthy eating
The work in schools is related to a much wider programme of public
engagement, aimed at encouraging personal reflection on modern eating
habits through exploration of the past. McCleery organized three
exhibitions: Sugar & Spice (2011), Dark Side of Eating
(2012) and Food For All Seasons (2013) at Wakefield museums under
the auspices of Grant 1. She wrote a large part of the text for the
exhibitions, including material from Outputs 1-5 and Grant 2 on famine,
gout, sensory perception, royal health and the use of spices, and played a
key role in shaping the content of the displays (f). The first two
exhibitions were visited by 37,000 people. Public response was
overwhelmingly positive, with evidence of visitors relating the historical
material to their own health. 80% of visitors who completed evaluation
forms for Sugar & Spice said they had been `inspired to eat a
healthier diet' (e).
The Director of Public Health (NHS Wakefield) commented that McCleery's
research had `caught the imagination of participating children and young
people in a novel way, and that learning from this would influence the
development of future interventions in this area [of childhood obesity],
which remains one of key strategic importance for the public health
service' (c). He described how Sugar & Spice had expanded his
own thinking, informing his `own knowledge about the introduction of sugar
into the British diet', giving `historical, social and cultural context'
to the work he leads. He invited the Director of Health and Well-being for
Public Health England to the Food For All Seasons exhibition. The
latter commented: `History can help uncover our country's rich food
heritage and may provide a sense of context for the current challenges of
unhealthy habits we now see' (f). These examples of McCleery's
research enriching the viewpoints of medical professionals were not
isolated. Output 2 led to an invitation for McCleery to talk about
medieval sensory perception to neurologists at Addenbrooke's Hospital,
Cambridge in March 2010. The hospital consultant who organised the talk
stated it `has universally been recognised as one of our best talks of
recent times' (g).
McCleery has been exceptionally active in ensuring her research
reaches beyond specialist audiences and formal education. While she has
engaged extensively in conventional outreach work (see below), she also
ran stalls at 18 markets in 2011-13 to reach a broader public. She made
all three elements of her research accessible through cooking
demonstrations, talking through displays of historical seasonal and
imported foods for rich and poor and providing printed information sheets.
10,104 members of the public were engaged by this activity; 82% of polled
adult visitors said they had learned something new (h). Questionnaire
responses such as `Spices were really expensive and hard to get hold of'
and `Rhubarb is from China' indicated reflection on the contrast between
current and historical eating habits and global agricultural and trade
patterns; today the Wakefield area is the UK's most important rhubarb
growing region and most people see it as local (h).
McCleery appeared on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour in May
2011 [RAJAR provides listening figures of 3.56 million] to discuss the
Sugar & Spice exhibition and the place of sugar in our culture. In
November 2012 she discussed the relationship between food and education on
BBC4's Calf's Head and Coffee: the Golden Age of English Food. In
February and April 2013, she spoke about taste, commerce and health on BBC
Radio Leeds [RAJAR=235,000].
McCleery authored web pages on www.leeds.ac.uk/youarewhatyouate,
explaining key themes of her research in an accessible way (9,353 unique
visitors since January 2011). She discussed her research from Grants 1 and
2 and Output 1 in talks entitled `The medieval healthy diet', `Medieval
famine' and `The king's stomach' at Clarke Hall Educational Museum (2011,
2012), West Yorkshire Heritage Forum (2011), Otley Science Café (2011) and
Hull Historical Association (2013). After a similar talk to Boston Spa
Archaeology and Heritage Group (2012), McCleery was described as
`infectious to share her subject', and its relevance to today was noted
Sources to corroborate the impact
a) Senior Cultural Officer, Wakefield Metropolitan District Council:
transcript of telephone interview 10/09/12.
b) Figures provided for each school on a table and a spreadsheet (for
feedback from teachers). Quotations are from anonymous teachers at Three
Lane Ends, Castleford; Methodist Junior and Infants School, Thornes in
central Wakefield; Ryhill Junior and Infants. These are all state primary
schools in deprived areas in the Wakefield region that were visited on
24/6/11, 14/9/11 and 16/11/11 respectively. These figures were collected
by youth workers delivering the workshop on the day, were amalgamated by
the project team and can be confirmed by the individual who also supplied
c) Director of Public Health (NHS Wakefield): transcript of telephone
interview 05/09/12 and face-to-face interview with follow-up e-mail
d) Letter from co-director of the Prince's Teaching Institute, 30/8/2013.
e) Reports embedded in e-mails dated 7/10/2011 and 5/12/13 written for Sugar
& Spice and The Dark Side of Eating by Wakefield Council
(can be confirmed by the individual who provided source a). The third
exhibition (began March 2013) ran until the end of September 2013.
f) Director of Health and Well-being, Public Health England: e-mail
g) Hospital consultant who organized the talk: email 14/04/10.
h) Report on festivals drawn up by project team: figures based on head
counts done at events by the team (= people who stopped and asked
questions or tried the food, not just passers-by), and on 196 adult
questionnaires. Quotations come from anonymous questionnaires from Leeds
Loves Food 2012 (26/05/12) provided in a spread sheet. The individual who
provided source a can confirm overall attendance figures which in some
cases exceeded 40,000 people: e.g. at the Pontefract Liquorice Festivals.
However, stall attendance could only be counted by the stall team present
on the day.
i) Anonymous quotation from questionnaire completed at event: 29/03/12.