By Hillary Nunn
A composition class might seem an unlikely forum for discussing early modern recipes, and I have to admit I was wary to pencil them in. The class’s focus on the rhetoric of disease, however, made it hard for me to resist a quick foray into seventeenth-century ideas of health care – and in the end, I’m glad we took up the subject. My class’s brief consideration of early recipes for heart ailments helped students see the many ways metaphors influence perceptions of bodily health. By the end of our 50-minute class session, students could see that the terms associated with health conditions, both now and in earlier centuries, have an easily overlooked rhetorical power.
Before class, I asked students to read Natasha M. Wiggins’s editorial “Stop Using Military Metaphors for Disease” from the British Medical Journal. Wiggins argues that medical professionals rely too heavily on comparisons between disease and combat, ultimately leaving dying patients to look like “losers” who could not triumph in battle. My students were eager to debate this idea, some arguing that military language empowered patients while others countered that it could make weakened people feel even more hopeless and victimized. Students could see that such metaphors relied on images of conflict, and that the words strengthened the idea of competition between people and their own bodies.
From there, I asked students to consider the term “heart attack.” Is someone’s heart being attacked, I asked, or is it doing the attacking? As they debated, I handed out the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of the term, pointing out that it first appeared in 1836. It’s not like people didn’t have what we call heart attacks before then, I stressed. They just called them something else, described them in a different way. But how?
That’s where the recipes came in. We looked at two different seventeenth century recipes for dealing with heart ailments, both from Wellcome manuscripts. Not surprisingly, when students first read the recipe transcriptions, they joked about how little hope there was for the patients. I told them it wasn’t likely that either recipe treated what we would call a heart attack, but that their titles could show different attitudes attached to heart ailments.
The first recipe, “A fomentation to comfort the Heart,” lists herbal ingredients that promise to help the sufferer “find ease.” The students immediately picked up on the emphasis on resting, some seeing that as a contrast to the idea of “fighting” while others argued that calmness actually worked toward the idea of accumulating strength for the battle.
But it was the unexpected turns that came with the second recipe — “For the passion of the heart” — that made me see the strength of the exercise.
I asked them what they thought of the term passion. First came associations with love; others saw hints of stress. Soon, students linked both states to symptoms like elevated heartbeat, sweating, and even paralysis. They talked about emotion’s ability to affect physical health, a few even laughing in recognition when I brought up the 1970s TV character Fred Sanford’s tendency to fake heart trauma in tense situations.
So, I asked, what do these recipes say about the way that early modern people thought about their hearts? What does it mean to suffer passion of the heart rather than a heart attack?
And that’s where the unexpected happened. One student observed that passion treated the ailment more like something internal, more natural than an attack that could be fended off. Then, another commented that this went along with the idea of “ease” from the first recipe – that you had to live with your disease, not just fight it. “Like hospice,” I said before I knew it. I hadn’t planned that as part of the conversation, but there it was.
“What’s the language of hospice like?” I asked, only to find two students willing to talk about recent experience with the process. They both stated that hospice tried to make death “peaceful,” which students immediately contrasted with the warrior ideas Wiggins condemned, and which many of them had earlier defended. Hospice emphasizes when to stop fighting, a student remarked. But it doesn’t call anyone a quitter, another said, and another noted that it’s about making people comfortable.
In the remaining minute of class, I pressed the students to see how we’d returned to the idea of “ease” that came up in the first recipe. Maybe, I suggested, our culture is still working to find the right way to talk about these health issues, and I asked them to think about what later centuries might think of our metaphors.
While I wouldn’t say this exercise helped students gain any greater respect for the recipes I study, the discussion left students more aware of how words shape our perceptions, and level judgment, about illness even when we think we’re using objective medical terms. Just as importantly, the activity helped them to see that science has a history, and that the words we use suggest something fundamental about the way we think about our own health.