All posts by Amanda Herbert

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.

'Valerian'. Credit: Wellcome Collection:
‘Valerian’. Credit: Wellcome Collection:

Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’.[1] This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.

But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.

Remedies for 'Mygreyn' in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:
Remedies for ‘Mygreyn’ in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:

Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.

[1] Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6

Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.

Bibulous Erasmus

Brian Cummings

"The fower quarters of the yeare: Autumne," (London, 1643) ART 232- 608.3, Folger Shakespeare Library.
“The fower quarters of the yeare: Autumne,” (London, 1643) ART 232- 608.3, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Ars longa, vita brevis, as you hear every day in the tearoom at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This Christmas at the Folger I made a discovery which made me feel young: Erasmus’s favourite wine! The thought had been with me since I heard a disputation at the British Academy, years ago, between Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. All of a sudden, for once they agreed on something: that the Reformation was essentially a quarrel between beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers. You will be glad to know that the new Encyclopaedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation (New York, 2017) has a learned entry on Beer. And as Duffy and MacCulloch wound down into post-symposium revelries, already an Erasmian colloquium was forming in my mind, on whether Erasmus was a beer-drinker or a wine-drinker. After all, he was born in Holland, one of the great beer-drinking countries of the world, which even invented the world’s best drinking snack, bitterballen, precisely to go with monastic ales.

Frans Huys, Magnus ille Erasmus Roterodamus... (n.d.) ART Vol. a11 no.105, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Frans Huys, Magnus ille Erasmus Roterodamus… (n.d.) ART Vol. a11 no.105, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[Guide gastronomique [1]: De Jopenkerk, a converted church, Haarlem, NL – try “Malle Babbe”]

On the other hand, I felt sure that Erasmus preferred wine, just as, despite espousing reform, and flirting with the young Luther, he remained a life-long Catholic. Familiaria colloquia (1522) – where else – provides a definitive answer. It comes in the Convivium profanum, a dialogue between a variety of characters (chiefly Augustinus, Christianus, and Erasmius), who vie with each other in gluttony, and in describing foods and wines beloved of gourmets (or else people who just eat a lot). There are jokes at the expense of Stoics and other moralists, and worst of all, Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off raw vegetables and clear water. Kale, quinoa, and mesclun, are definitely off the menu at this particular feast.

Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum... (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum… (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the author.

[Guide gastronomique [2]: sweetgreen, 221, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, all-day kale]

At this point, Christianus asks what his friend likes to drink with a meal: does he prefer red or white (rubrum an candidum)? Augustinus replies: “The colour’s no hindrance provided the taste’s agreeable” (a classic wino’s quip). But something else is going on: how do we use words to describe sensory things? Verbal discrimination is deliberately elided by Erasmus into distinctions of taste, since food – and especially wine – is famously hard to put into apt words, at least without resorting to absurd metaphor. Christianus comments: “Yet there are famous gourmets who deny that wine deserves approval unless it pleases the four senses: the eyes by its colour, the nostrils by its fragrance, the palate by its taste, the ears by its name and fame.” Now he drops his foodie bombshell: Tantum, ut multi non stupidi palati vehementer probarint villum Louanio vernaculum quum crederent, esse Belnense. Many people with “not stupid palates” can’t tell a wine from Louvain from one of Beaune in Burgundy.

Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum... (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum… (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the author.

This is the joke that got me salivating. At first I thought it was a beer gag: because in Louvain these days you will not find Belgian wine (the very idea is an oxymoron) but plenty of Belgian beer, including Bourgogne de Flandres (which sounds like an Erasmian trope). But in the fifteenth century, the Dukes of Burgundy planted vines in their territories at Brussels, Namur, Mons, and Louvain. Still, the thought brings a sneer to the nose of Erasmus: who could make such a terrible mistake? And there is a theological joke, too: Louvain is home to the nastiest scholastics.

[Guide gastronomique [3]: Le troubadour, Louvain (nr. KU) – mussels with Bourgogne de Flandres]

So, is Beaune Erasmus’s favourite wine? Here I digress into a visite du vignoble via P.S. Allen’s great edition of Erasmus’s letters. Epistola 1342 to Marcus Laurinus is one of the most extraordinary in the 3000 letters that survive. Half of it is a defence of his position on the Luther affair, which was convulsing Europe; the other half is an itinerary of his odyssey around Europe in 1521, especially an uncomfortable stay in Constance and a long convalescence in Basel. In Constance he was very ill with fever and the gallstone, and nearly died (before we feel too sorry, remember that Erasmus is always nearly dying of something). But on return to Basel he is sent a half-cask of red Burgundy by Nikolaus von Diesbach, dean and bishop-designate. Erasmus makes a miraculous recovery: he felt reborn, renatus in alium hominem. Is this a sly dig at Luther, in a letter which is all about Luther’s evangelical doctrines, and how they are worse than any disease? Especially when he now claims that red Burgundy has had a direct medicinal benefit observed by the doctors, who say that his stone has disappeared. Happy is the name of Burgundy, he raptures: O felicem vel hoc nomine Burgundiam! In another letter he calls the wine a deus ex machina. He might move to France tomorrow, except that with fresh supplies he will not need to, as he reports in Ep. 1510, a year later: “I have done a deal with the vintner for three half-casks, one of old wine and two of new”.

[Guide gastronomique [4]: Domaine Albert Morot, négociant at Ave. Jaffelin, Beaune: several 1ercrus]

Can we locate what particular wine might have brought such magical results? Here we encounter a great aporia in epicurean history, which is that the technological revolutions of the eighteenth century – in bottling and especially in corks – mean that we judge wine by completely different standards. Beaune, with its beautiful coloured rooftops, is now the commercial centre of a multi-million-Euro industry. Wine is a science (oenology, a word Erasmus surely must have invented) which went from France to California and back again, transforming an everyday drink into the wine-tasting superlatives of today. Red Burgundy, some connoisseurs say, has typical aromas of horseshit [sic] and blackberry jam. What would Erasmus have made of that? I think he would have loved it, and cited it in De copia, his great book which makes a philosophical marriage between all the possible words, and all possible things in the world. But what did he taste? There are three references in the letters to a wine from Beaune, which seems to be the one he liked best; it “was of a most agreeable colour – you might call it ruby-red”; the taste was “neither sweet nor dry”, “neither cold nor fiery”, and so kind to the digestion that “it did very little harm” – even when taken in quantity.

Thomas Trevilian, Detail of grapes from the Trevelyon Miscellany (1608), V.b.232, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Thomas Trevilian, Detail of grapes from the Trevelyon Miscellany (1608), V.b.232, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[Guide gastronomique [4]: Chez Jeannette, Fixin, boeuf bourgignon; Beaune 1ercru «Les Cent Vignes»]

The mythology of French wine is based on a holy trinity of values: the grape; the vintage; and most mystical of all, le terroir. This untranslateable word means something like “all the best wine comes from France”. White wine in Burgundy is now dominated by the Chardonnay grape, which in unoaked form is still perhaps the most opulently elegant white in the world; but in Erasmus’s time almost certainly the whites of Burgundy were made from the Fromenteau grape, perhaps equivalent to Pinot Gris. As for reds, on the other hand, we have documentation: on 6 August 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, made the political decision of his life in banning the “vile and disloyal Gamay”, and giving precedence to the Noirien, a less high-yielding grape. This is the ancestor of the modern Pinot Noir, that most quixotic and awkward of grapes. For those who love it, it is the cutest grape in history, but it is very hard to grow in abundance, and likes poor soil, cool climates, and fairly steep hills. Since these are also the conditions that wipe out harvests in bad years, the Pinot Noir is a cruel mistress, although it has found renewed success in chillier areas such as Oregon, New Zealand, and Alpine Italy, as well as its native Burgundy. However, good red Burgundy also needs a bit of age in the bottle to develop its flavours, and nothing about wine storage in Erasmus’s time was much suited to ageing. He describes liking wine with a bit of age (perhaps two years), but after four he says most of the flavour has disappeared.

We are left with terroir. The intensity of the modern wine trade is such that individual parcels of land perhaps 30 metres wide are prized as having such a particularity of flavour that they are considered quite distinct from others only a hundred metres away. It is possible that for Erasmus “Beaune” meant nothing like that. Belnense might be a generic name for wine of the whole region, somewhat like “Bordeaux” or “Sonoma”. But it is also possible that Erasmus does mean the name of this particular village. So could we find his wine on a map? It got me thinking, and indeed googling, looking at wine maps, which have always given me a special kind of pleasure. There is something cartographically exciting about a wine map: all of those tiny parcels of land, and weird names, coloured in crimson for red wine, or yellow-green for white; in the case of Burgundy, with darker shading, the better the wine. So I googled this.

Screen capture courtesy of
Screen capture courtesy of

And it got me thinking: if any of these vineyards are really old, they will be close to the town but not part of it; for instance, those near the cemetery. The cemetery will always have been in the same place. And here I was excited, because there on the map, at just that point, were some vineyards I knew the names of: “Toussaints”, “les Bressandes”, “les Cent Vignes”. Not really expensive wines – but of a price which a father, shall we say my own father, might buy his son for his 40th birthday.

The last bottle from my father's gift.  Image courtesy of the author.
The last bottle from my father’s gift. Image courtesy of the author.

For here the strands of my story had become personal. My father, who was a complicated man, was always happiest when opening a bottle of red Burgundy with his own family. He discovered Burgundy, place and wine, when I was in my teens. We used to stay at an unpretentious hotel in one of the smaller villages, Fixin – Beaune even then was hopelessly expensive and chic. The hôtel was called (as almost all nice Logis de France are, at least in the memory) Chez Jeannette, and we would stay for a week, and each night my father would buy a slightly better wine. He wasn’t buying the most expensive stuff, and Burgundy was then still quite a backwater for most travellers, nothing like the Côte d’Azur. In memory of these trips, when I was 40, he did indeed buy me 12 bottles of Beaune, “Les Cent Vignes”, made by Albert Morot, an extremely traditional negociant.

How did these vineyards get such beautiful names? Originally, the story goes, it was “Sans Vignes”, because no wine was made there; then they planted vines and changed the name. “Les Bressandes” is either named after the 13th century canon, Johannis Bressand – or else after the women of Bresse. “Les Marconnets” perhaps refers to an ancient gallic tribe conquered by the Romans.

[Guide gastronomique [5]: Le Diplomate, 14th St, NW, DC, Beaune 2006 Domaine Maillard.]

Such etymologies are very Erasmian. It would be nice to believe in an Erasmian vineyard. It is not impossible – for it was the Benedictines from Cluny who first began cultivating wines on a large scale, and the Cistercians who first walled off individual vineyards and prized the difference between small parcels of terroir. They were doing this in the 14th century. But the oldest map of Burgundian wine, to my knowledge, is 18th century. It offers nothing at this level of detail, consisting of a range of small mountains and the names of the main villages.

Claude Arnoux, "Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne..." (London, 1728). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.
Claude Arnoux, “Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne…” (London, 1728). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

It is appended to the first ever book on Burgundy, by Claude Arnoux: Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, et sur les vins qu’elle produit (1728). He mentions four vineyards in Beaune, St Desiré, la Montée, les Grèves, and la Fontaine de Marconney. Traces of all these can still be found – the last is now Les Marconnets, above. Arnoux favours even more the wines of Volnet (now Volnay) and Pommard. Wines from Beaune, he says, much as Erasmus does, do not do well after two years of age. Volnay, he says, has the colour of l’oeil de perdrix – the eye of a partridge – and goes on: “il est plein de feu, de montant, & de legereté; il est presque tout esprit” (“it is full of fire, of flavour, and of lightness; it is almost all spirit”). Just like in Erasmus, Arnoux presents us with the problem of copia: how to represent things in words. Word is added to word, to express through variety of language the abundance of matter. Wine, like language, is a cornucopia. And so, as we continue to try, and fail, to give expression to sense perception through metaphor, there is nothing for it but to open another bottle, and wonder if it might be, as for Erasmus, a cure for life’s ills or even a deus ex machina.

[According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.]

Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. His books include Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP, 2013), and an edition of The Book of Common Prayer: the Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, which appeared in Oxford Worlds Classics in 2013. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University on ‘Bibliophobia’, and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, coinciding with a NEH-sponsored conference on Shakespeare’s Biography. With Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge) he is leading the project “Remembering the Reformation”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2016 to 2019. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.


In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month I’d like to share a 2013 post by Tillmann Taape.  In this timely post, as we all recover from a bit of holiday indulgence, Taape discusses how some early modern people believed in the health-giving properties of alcohol — and that it could help to purify both body and soul.  We hope that you enjoy this latest installment from our Recipes Project Archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)


by Tillmann Taape

In a previous post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strassburg : Johann Grüninger, 1512).  Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strassburg : Johann Grüninger, 1512). Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

“Bonny-Clabber Physicians”: Eating Clean in the Seventeenth Century

Michael Walkden

NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.
NPG D31284; Thomas Tryon by Robert White, after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1703. Credit: WikiCommons.

The concept of ‘clean eating’ is nothing new, but ideas about what constitutes ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ food have varied within and across cultures. In the later seventeenth century, the popular health writer Thomas Tryon promoted a “radically clean” vegetarian diet as a route to longevity and clarity of mind. However, Tryon’s meat-free menu was rather different from the quinoa bowls and kale smoothies of modern-day clean-eaters. His 1694 Pocket-companion contains the following recipe (easy to follow, but emphatically not to be tried at home):

Boniclabber is made by letting your Milk stand till it sowers, which will be in Twenty-fours hours, if the weather be very hot. [1]

Tryon’s ‘bonny clabber’ – an Irish country dish that was later enjoyed by immigrants to the USA – would have great difficulty in meeting twenty-first century Western standards of food hygiene. Writing well before the advent of pasteurization, Tryon would likely have used raw milk straight from the cow, which would have been rich in bacteria that could be both beneficial and harmful to the human body. If it was left at just the right temperature and for the appropriate length of time, the finished product would be a thick, fermented milk, similar to yoghurt or kefir.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of Tryon’s contemporaries shared his enthusiasm. Gideon Harvey wrote that “Bonny-Clabber Physicians” routinely endangered their patients by their over-use of milk products, which he viewed as highly corruptible and prone to curdling in the belly. [2] Harvey had the weight of medical tradition on his side. Humoural physicians since Hippocrates frequently expressed mistrust or even fear over the coagulability of milk, with Galen writing that it “turns to wind in the stomachs of most people, and there are very few who avoid this.” [3]

Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.
Clabbered milk. Credit: WikiCommons.

Tryon attempted to forestall this sort of criticism in his own writing. Since he believed that digestion operated by a process of fermentation, it logically followed that fermented foods should be easier on the stomach, having already undergone the initial stages of this process. While he was prepared to admit that it “may not be so agreeable to the Pallat at first”, Tryon assured his readers that “a little Custom will make it familiar and pleasant.” [4]

Attitudes towards the healthiness of clabber were also closely tied up with racial stereotypes about the Irish, whose perceived gluttony and barbarism were ridiculed by many English Protestants. In 1652 the parliamentarian Samuel Sheppard wrote of an anonymous royalist that “his Intellect is as foule, as an Irish Firkin of Bonny Clabber”, suggesting that many viewed it as a disgusting or dangerous substance. [5] By contrast, in a 1635 letter from Dublin, the English royalist and Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth described clabber as “the bravest freshest Drink you ever tasted.” [6]

The example of bonny clabber raises some interesting questions about the relationship between ideology and diet. As Carla Cevasco has flagged up elsewhere on this blog, the categories that shape affective responses to food can be highly variable, ranging from the genetic makeup of a population to its social norms. Disgust that feels instinctive or biologically hard-wired might just as easily be the product of a specific cultural moment. As the debate over clean eating continues to rage, we need to pay closer attention to the ideological fault-lines upon which we construct our ideas about food and hygiene.

[1] Thomas Tryon, A pocket-companion, containing things necessary to be known by all that values their health and happiness (London: Printed for George Conyers, 1693), 6.

[2] Gideon Harvey, The art of curing diseases by expectation (London: Printed for James Partridge, 1689), 38.

[3] Galen, Galen on Food and Diet, ed. Mark Grant (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 165. See also Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 19-30.

[4] Tryon, Pocket-companion, 7.

[5] Samuel Sheppard, The vveepers: or, the bed of snakes broken (London: Printed for Thomas Bucknell, 1652), 6.

[6] Thomas Wentworth, The Earl of Strafforde’s Letters and Dispatches, Volume 1, ed. William Knowler (London: Printed for the editor, by William Bowyer, 1739), 441.

Michael Walkden is currently completing his doctoral thesis in History at the University of York, UK. His research explores understandings of the relationship between emotions and digestion in early modern English medicine. He is particularly interested in the intersection of diet, health and spirituality in the seventeenth century.