Cantigas de Sanata Mari, No. 67. Source: Wikipedia

Medieval Chicken Soup – Good for the Soul

We all know that medieval chicken soup is a great healer for anyone suffering from pneumonia, asthma, or just a bland and ordinary cold. Who has not experienced this? But what is the mechanism behind?

Chicken Broth from the Book of Sent Sovi as Cooked by the Medieval Spanish Chef © Lord William
Chicken Broth from the Book of Sent Sovi as Cooked by the Medieval Spanish Chef © Lord William

Several modern scientific studies seems to have documented that there is indeed a physical explanation behind our faith in the healing administered by chicken soup. In a recent study conducted in 2000 by Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, laboratory tests were carried out, which showed that chicken soup probably had an anti-inflammatory effect. Other studies have demonstrated that patients imbibing this elixir will have their airflow affected to the better.

No wonder, then, that medieval recipes for chicken soup are some of the earliest preserved. Already in the second century AD, the Greek physician Galen recommended chicken soup for migraine, leprosy, constipation and fewer; and one of the first recipes for such a soup can be found jotted down in a Psalter from 8th century Italy. According to this, the soup should be cooked on fat chicken, lard, bone marrow, radishes, oil and honey and served to bolster one’s health[1].

When the Jewish philosopher of all times, Maimonides, in 1198 wrote a ‘Guide to Good Health’, he was obviously not treading on virgin ground when he noted that chicken soup was especially good for people suffering from leprosy and asthma. He suggested it should be served with whole grain wheat bread, and indeed, cooked with garlic, onion, and ginger; all three are ingredients, which from time to time are claimed to contain specific anti-inflammatory qualities. From then on chicken soup would become one of the staple ingredients in any household searching for ways to alleviate the illnesses, which continue to plague us in cold and damp winter weather.

In case, you have forgotten how to cook a decent chicken soup here are three medieval recipes from Spain:

  • Zîrbâja is one of the earliest recipes. It can be found in Kitāb al-tabīj fi l-Magrib wa-l-Andalus fi ‘asr al-muwahhudin li-mu’allif mayhul, an Arabic Cooking book from 13th century Andalusia [2]. Zîrbâja, a sweet and sour soup cooked on chicken, pigeon, dove or lamb, which we are told is a dish that regulates the humours and has nutritious powers, which should be praised. It is good for stomach and liver as well as women. In order to prepare such a soup you have to take a young and cleaned hen and put it in a pot with a little salt, and some pepper, coriander, cinnamon, saffron and sufficient vinegar and fresh oil. When cooking on the stove, take 40 gr of peeled and crushed almonds and 40 gr of sugar and dissolve in rosewater, which is poured into the pot and left to boil on slow embers. When the fat raises to the top, and the almonds and sugar have thickened the sauce or soup, it is ready to be served. As it says in the recipe: “It is the most nutritious of dishes and good for all temperaments”.
  • Another of the recipes, the Brou de Gallines, can be found in the Book of Sent Sovi, which offers numerous recipes from Catalonia and Northern Spain. Here the dish has more the character of soup: First take 250 gr peeled almonds, and crush them with a large bunch of parsley and strain the mixture into a pot. Into this put a whole chicken and leave it to cook. When cooked – and if the soup is to clear – blend into the broth, the chicken liver. The add taste in the form of saffron, ginger, and other spices (as to your liking). The chicken should be quartered and served in the sauce in bowls.[3]
  • Finally we learn from the Manual de Mugeres that chicken soup is perfect “For Weakness of the Heart”
    Take a chicken and kill it. And as soon as you kill it, skin it, and take out all the fat, and cut it into pieces. And put it into a pot covered by water. Then grind a mixture of eight grams of crushed walnuts, eight grams of cinnamon, and of four grams of cloves and four grams of ginger, and add it to the pot added to the pot, which should be put on fire. When cooked and the soup has thickened, serve the broth to the person, who is ill and he will heal [4].

These soups are very different. But all are heavily dosed by spices, while garlic is absent; but onion and garlic were probably staple ingredients, which were not worth mentioning. Some scientists actually believe that it is the spices, which act anti-inflammatory.

Comfort Food

IBN BUTLÂN , Tacuinum sanitatis, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol 42 v.
IBN BUTLÂN , Tacuinum sanitatis, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9333, fol 42 v.

But is chicken soup really just a kind of old Greek or Jewish Penicillin? Or is it perhaps something more? May it simply be that matter of chicken soup being good for the soul?

Yes, claims a group of psychologists who recently carried a double experiment out. In this study 111 graduates reported on a scale form four to six weeks before the actual experiment to what extent they on a scale form one to five considered Chicken Noodle Soup a ”Comfort Food”. A month later, the participants were randomly divided into two groups. The participants in one group were asked to consume a portion of chicken soup on their own, while the other group was told that the experiment would be carried out without any serving. The group, which received a serving where asked to rate the soup from one to five. Now, all the participants were asked to carry out a word-completion task. Among the fragments were a substantial number relating to relationships. After completing this task, all the participants were asked to report their current mood using a 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule.

The result of this experiment demonstrated that the participants who considered soup a comfort food and had been served soup in the initial part of the experiment, were significantly better at completing the fragments of relationship words than all the other participants. This was substantiated by a second experiment in which another group of participants were asked to take a test, which revealed how they related to other people: were they secure, dismissive, preoccupied, or fearful? Half were also asked to write a small essay (six min) about a small “fight” they had experienced with a close other; meanwhile the control-group did an inventory of items in their residence. Further, all were instructed to write about an experience with eating either comfort food or eating a novelty. At the end, they were all asked to do a test measuring their loneliness. The result of this second experiment was that individuals, who were securely attached to other people and who were invited to write about comfort food felt less lonely. Insecure people, on the other hand, did not get to feel less lonely even if they wrote about comfort food.

The scientists concluded that comfort food in these experiments showed its propensity to function as a kind of trigger and surrogate. If a person had experienced something as “comfort food”, he or she would be better to fight off feelings of loneliness. However, they also concluded that in itself it was probably not the exact type of food, which mattered.

Of course, the scientists concluded that this might be a dangerous state of affairs. We all experience situations, where we feel alone and isolated. When such situations arrive “the experience of a familiar comfort food” can be alluring. Under such circumstances, chicken soup may be “Really Good for the Soul”, they concluded; but perhaps less advantageous for the slim line.

Social comfort in the Middle Ages

Back to the Middle Ages, overweight was for most people not a threatening life condition. Loneliness, on the other hand, would definitely be life-threatening. It is at this exact moment, the benign mother or wife steps in with a bowl of hot soup, sit down on your bed and begin to feed the invalid with a spoon; or it may be the kind nurses in your local hospital, which offer you the warm comfort of company. It might even be the memory of the social meal, where soup was served and you mother called to tell you that you should hurry up; as soup tends to get cold soon.

Perhaps it is all very simple. You know, a pot of soup is great to gather around when it is cold and miserable out there!


[1] The recipe was jotted into the margin of an eighth century northern Italian psalter. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Pal. Lat. 187, fol 7 – see Lowe 1934, no 80b, p. 24

[2] From: Kitāb al-tabīj fi l-Magrib wa-l-Andalus fi ‘asr al-muwahhudin li-mu’allif mayhul – Treatise on cooking from the Maghreb and Al-Andalus during Almohad period by an anonymous author. Ed. and translated into English by David Friedmann and republished by Candida Martinelli. The recipe is found on page 93

[3] From: The Book of Sent Sovi. Medieval recipes from Catalonia. Edited by Joan Santanach, and translated by Robin Vogelzang. Barcino, Tamesis 2008. Brou de Gallines, pp. 90 – 91.

[4] Manual de Mugeres en el qual se contien muchas y diversas reçeutas muy buenas. Manuscript from c. 1500. Translation here


Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro.
By Ertl Rennard, Gl Gossman GL, RA Robbins and Sl Rennard.
In: Chest (2000), Vol 118, No. 4, pp. 1150 – 57

Chicken Soup is Really Good for the Soul: ”Comfort Food” fulfills the Need to Belong.
By Jordan D Troisi and Shira Gabriel
In. Psychological Science (2011) vol 22, No 6, pp 747 – 753

Beyond the Medical Text: Health and Illness in Early Medieval Italian Sources
ByClare Pilsworth
In: Social History of Medicine (2011) vol 24, No. 1.



Cantigas de Santa Maria. Cantiga 67, Source: Wikipedia