Gluttony and “Surfeit” in Early Modern Europe

By Carla Cevasco

From buttery stuffing to champagne, the holidays give us plenty of opportunities to indulge…and plenty of nutritional advice on how to avoid holiday decadence. Early modern Europeans likewise feared gluttony and offered remedies for overeating, but I can’t say that I’ll be too tempted to try any of them myself this holiday season.

In famine-wracked early modern Europe, gluttony was the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and as The Divine Physician warned in 1676, “Diseases are the Interests of Sin.”[1]  Medical professionals instructed their readers to restrain their appetites in the interest of physical and spiritual health. “Take heed of surcharging thy stomach,” Raymundus Mindererus cautioned in 1674, noting that there was “nothing more hurtful to health” than an “extravagant” appetite. Thomas Tryon’s 1698 The Way to Health recommended a kind of fasting cleanse, claiming that “a little gentle Hunger” cleared “superfluous Matter” from the digestive system (43). An 1816 print (shown below) by Thomas Rowlandson depicted an obese man dining with Death.

Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Dance of Death: The Glutton, aquatint, 1816.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Warnings against gluttony did not always sit well with readers. Louis-François Charon’s print “Le Médicin et la Malade” (shown below),  in which a gluttonous doctor instructed his patient to go on a diet, mocked medical professionals’ emphasis on moderation and suggested that they failed to practice what they preached.

V0011678 A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A doctor instructs his English patient not to eat as he does. Coloured engraving by Louis-François Charon. after: Louis-François CharonPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Louis-François Charon, “Le Medicin et le Malade,” colored engraving (undated).   Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Medical practitioners even recognized specific, pathological forms of overeating. Phillip Barrough‘s 1601 The Practice of Physick described the “Doglike appetite,” which caused sufferers to “devoure in meate without measure” before “vomiting like dogges” (110-11). For a curative diet, Barrough prescribed stale bread, herbs, “fat & oily” meat, mallows, and most of all, wine, to “heate the stomacke, and destroy the sharpnesse of humours” that provoked patients to a canine hunger.

For those unable to heed injunctions against overeating, many recipe books offered remedies for “surfeit.” A recipe “To Make Poppies Water which is Good for a Surfeit,” in Wellcome MS 4054, called for soaking “Corn poppys,” marigolds, gillyflowers, sweet marjoram, angelico root, raisins, licorice, aniseeds, white sugar, and rosasolis in aquavitae, then straining and bottling the resulting cordial. John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plants noted that “black Poppy drunketh in wine” stopped diarrhea; in addition, the opioid content of distilled poppy flowers or leaves would have eased the pain associated with indigestion (400-401). I would be interested in hearing from other scholars here about how the other ingredients of poppy waters might have affected their consumers.

Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from  Opiologia, or a Treatise...of Opium (1618).  Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Method of extracting the juice from the poppy. Woodcut Opiologia, or a Treatise....of Opium Sala (Angelus) Published: 1618 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Sala (Angelus), Method of Extracting the Juice from the Poppy, Woodcut, from 
Opiologia, or a Treatise…of Opium (1618). 
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In a world where people constantly risked lapsing into gluttony, and suffering ill health as a result, lack of appetite was also cause for particular concern. Medical writers identified several types and causes of loss of appetite. Barrough claimed that physiological defects, humoral imbalances, and/or sickness could result in a loss of appetite. In A New Practice of Physick, volume 1, Peter Shaw wrote that a patient might experience “anorexia,” or a long-term distaste for food, “from hard drinking, great heat, a fever,” or “consumptions” (170-71). Medical writers agreed that lack of appetite did not spontaneously occur in a healthy person, but rather could be linked to a hangover, hot weather, sickness, or bodily dysfunction.

To “provoke appetite againe,” Barrough suggested exposing the patient to pleasant odors, such as “wine infused, or decoction of quinces, or peares,” and anointing the patient with fragrant oils “of roses, masticke, and such like.” After aromatherapy, Barrough prescribed a diet of “diverse” foods “after the daintiest fashion,” including corn, eggs, “birds of the mountaines,” dates, and prunes. While medical writers blamed “variety of meats” and “curiously and daintily dressed” foods for gluttonous excesses, Barrough harnessed the appetite-stimulating powers of delicious smells and tantalizing nibbles to encourage those who had lost their hunger to find it again.[2]

Today we might reach for pink bismuth subsalicylate instead of a poppy cordial after a big meal, but early modern Europeans had many of the same questions that we do about how much to eat.

Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.
Pepto Bismol. Image Credit: Flickr user Herr Hans Gruber. Via Flickr.

[1] Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 114, 243-245.

[2] Nicholas Culpeper, Medicaments for the Poor; Or, Physick for the Common People (Edinburgh, n.p., 1664), 10.


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