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The Skinny By Elaine Langlois


Your Medieval Fitness Program

Spring is upon us, which means our days of being able to camouflage our bodies in Polartec are numbered. But even if you swore off the South Beach Diet last November, or ate your way through the holidays with reckless abandon, you can still drop a quick 30 pounds and feel just moderately horrible while doing it with the Medieval Fitness Program.

I discovered this amazing weight management system during a recent vacation in Wales, where I spent ten days visiting castles and lost weight. This despite daily stops in tea shops for scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, lemony squares dusted with confectioners' sugar, shortbread, and hefty slabs of caramel cake.

We can learn a lot about weight loss from medieval women. In paintings, most of them are very slim. Oh, there are some in voluminous gowns who have clearly overdone the tart and custard thing. But for the most part, these women are lean and lanky. They also have practically no bosoms, but then, you can't have everything, unless you are a Hollywood celebrity.

The Medieval Fitness Program begins with diet. A very popular diet for women in the Middle Ages was Ye Olde Atkins Diet. It called for lots of protein, though in forms that lack appeal for modern tastes, such as pigs' heads, eels, dogfish, and vultures. Or breams and pikes. Sounds like a couple of medieval hockey teams, doesn't it? A steady diet of vultures, however deliciously prepared, could be a pretty good incentive not to overeat.

Another way these women stayed so slender was, they walked around the castle. In fact, there is a part of the castle called the wall walk, and that is what they'd do: walk around the walls, except during attacks, when they could be found in the butteries, mixing molten lead to pour on the besiegers. You are right in thinking that wall walking was where mall walking began. In fact, if you look really carefully at paintings of women from the Middle Ages, you will see, peeping from beneath their gowns, tiny pairs of Reeboks.

An even more important part of the medieval fitness regimen was spiral staircases. Castle builders loved spiral staircases. They tried to build in one staircase for every two inhabitants, plus a garderobe, which I am not going to discuss here.

Kings spent so much money on castles that they had to skimp somewhere, and this was on the stairs. They are made of a loose, crumbly stone that, with great labor, could be crafted into an endless procession of narrow, uneven steps leading from a castle's cellars to the tops of its highest towers. There are something like 11,000 of these steps in every castle. This is probably an exaggeration because I stopped counting at 3,000.

There should be some sort of Olympic event that involves climbing castle staircases. They are poorly lit and lack handrails, though a rope is helpfully provided on one side for hauling yourself up and rappelling down. Along the walls there are places where the rock has been scraped out by generations of people scrabbling desperately for a handhold, which explains why women in the Middle Ages didn't bother with manicures.

With every jaunt around the castle involving a total body workout, you can see why medieval women didn't have to worry about their weight. You can also understand why people lived such short lives. They had heart attacks and expired right there, on a staircase. More people died on spiral staircases than in dungeons or torture chambers.

To avoid having to carry staircase victims down the stairs, and risking cardiac arrest themselves, the other castle inhabitants simply hurled the bodies over the battlements at an attacking army, or chucked them in the moat, where they were nibbled by eels or pikes or breams or Nessie or whatever lived in it, thus becoming part of the Castle Food Chain.

There is one more reason that medieval women were so good at controlling their weight. A lot of the time, they were too mad to eat. In paintings, these women rarely smile. In fact, they look grim, if not downright cranky. That was because society handed them such a rotten deal. They had to be subservient to their lord and master, run the castle almost single-handedly without getting any credit, and wear funny hats. They were second-class citizens in nearly every sense. And a special punishment awaited them in purgatory if they plucked their eyebrows.

Are you ready to shed your excess poundage with the Medieval Fitness Program? It's too easy! Just step up the protein, skip the elevator for the stairs, and take a few moments each day to think about the roles society hands to you.

© 2004 Elaine Langlois