Tag Archives: water

Water to Drink: Fit Only for Invalids and Chickens?

By David Gentilcore 

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730) © Bibliothèque nationale de France

When the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste Labat was captured by the Spanish in the 1690s, and offered water to drink aboard ship, he informed the chaplain that ‘only invalids and chickens drink water in my country’ (Labat 1722). Perhaps this comes as no surprise. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, historians generally assume, this was because the water was risky and potentially unhealthy, perhaps even fatal. But that is to project our own modern conception of water – for example, as a disease-carrying agent – into the pre-modern past. Labat’s aversion to water as a beverage, as expressed in this anecdote (and as the teller of the stories he always gets the best lines!), was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture. As a drink of the lower classes (and animals), water was often described in unflattering terms, especially when compared to what was considered the beverage par excellence – wine (Squatriti 1998). And indeed, in his account, wine is exactly what Labat goes on to request.

However, if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Not only does Labat then proceed, very laboriously, to temper his wine with water, as was the usual way of drinking wine in much of pre-modern Europe; his very successful published mixtures of travelogue, memoir and natural history positively abound with references to water. Every place he visits, Labat describes the nature of the fresh-water supply, and the varied techniques used to harvest, store and access it. In Labat’s eyes a town without its own reliable supply, like Cadiz, is one that would not be able to survive a siege. He is impressed by the technology of water, in particular aqueducts, but even more by water as display. This is evident in his detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of the ornamental fountains present in many Italian towns and cities. And he gets so carried away by his instructions on how to construct a rainwater cistern, the fruit of his own experience overseeing the establishment of a Dominican monastery in the French Antilles, that he repeats them in at least two separate works (Labat 1728; Labat 1730).

 

The Tivoli waterfall, as Père Labat might have seen it (not to be confused with Niagara Falls).

Even limiting ourselves to his account of Spain and Italy (Labat 1730: in eight four-hundred-page volumes!), Labat’s knowledge and curiosity regarding water and its uses is amply evident. How the clean, clear and pure water of Tivoli’s waterfall, which he compares to Niagara Falls no less, becomes full of silt and mud when it rains, making it unhealthy, or how the bouillantes (boiling) waters of a spring on the outskirts of Viterbo remind him of the spring of that name in Guadeloupe (French Antilles). Siena’s ‘magnificent’ fountain in the main square (the Fonte Gaia) provides a ‘prodigious quantity of very good water’, whilst the numerous fountains of Rome are both delightful and necessary, since the water from the River Tiber ‘is good for nothing’. He notes the high number of itinerant water-sellers in Naples, despite the public fountains on every street, and how in Spain they are registered and taxed, like all other shopkeepers and pedlars. He praises the ‘light’ waters of Bologna and the ‘admirable’ waters of Naples, in tune with the eighteenth-century Hippocratic revival of the importance of ‘airs, waters and places’ in the pursuit of health. He describes various healing springs and the different diseases they are good for, whilst noting that local doctors were rarely much in favour, since ‘nothing disconcerts doctors more than natural remedies’. He remarks on the priest so afraid of water that he wouldn’t even wash his hands, or the doctor who quickly realised that the best remedy for disease was fresh water to drink, rest, a change of air and, most of all, plenty of patience.

We know from a wide range of other sources that communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works, like aqueducts, conduits and fountains, to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in larger towns. If I gave drinking water rather short shrift in my recent study of food, diet and health (Gentilcore 2016), it at least means that I can now devote a research project entirely to the ‘water cultures’ of early modern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is already evident from work in progress that doctors went from being circumspect in their advice regarding drinking water, during the Renaissance, to great enthusiasts for table water as a ‘universal cure’, effective both in preventing and treating disease, during the eighteenth century.

Whatever his own personal drinking preferences might have been, the widely travelled Père Labat turns out to be a connoisseur of waters. Although his enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him – the water-sellers of Naples were actually a necessity in a city perennially short of fresh water – Labat provides a generally reliable and entertaining introduction to the importance of water and its provision throughout the early modern world.

David Gentilcore is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy. He is the author of seven books and his most recent monograph is Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (Bloomsbury, 2015). Our blog readers interested in the history of food might also be interested in David’s books on the potato and the tomato in Italy.

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Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage aux Isles de l’Amérique (Paris: Pierre-François Giffart, 1722), 6 vols. A heavily abridged translation by John Eaden was published as The memoirs of Père Labat, 1693-1705 (London: Frank Cass, 1970 [first ed. 1931])

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris: Guillaume Cavelier: 1728), 5 vols.

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730), 8 vols.

Paolo Squatriti, Water and society in early medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

David Gentilcore, Food and health in early modern Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)

 

American Bitters

By David Shields 

Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.

After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.

From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.

StoughtonsBitterslabel

What did these elixirs promise?

“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]

When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.

In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).

Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.
Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.

“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].

Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.

½ pound wormwood

1 dozen canella bark

1 dozen cassia

1 dozen coriander

1 dozen grains of paradise

¾ dozen cardamoms

1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers

4 dozen orange peel

½ dozen calamus

The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).

If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.

The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.

Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.

Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.

David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.

David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.