Category Archives: Emotion

Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Figure 1: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; © Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – ARTOTHEK

Adriaen Brower’s The Bitter Potion (1640) depicts a man’s reaction to the taste of a medicine – his face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion (Figure 1). The image seems to confirm Roy Porter’s generalisation that ‘pre-modern medicine tasted foul’.[1] Contemporary medical recipes and patients’ memoirs tell a more complicated story, however. While some remedies were full of bitter ingredients, others were pumped with sugar. Below, we will see why this was the case, and discover that the actual flavours of medicines sometimes bore little relation to how they were actually experienced. This research is part of a new Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness, which investigates the impact of disease on the five senses, and uncovers the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber. I also discuss some of these issues in my forthcoming open access book, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, June 2018).

Bitter medicines

Amongst the most common bitter ingredients in early modern medicines were the herbs wormwood and aloes. Lady Barret’s remedy against ‘any illness in the stomach’ contains 4 drams of aloes, together with myrrh, saffron, and brandy. The Ayscough family’s recipe book suggests a remedy ‘to drive away agues’ composed of wormwood, marigold leaves, agrimony, and mugwort. A rare insight into the imagined reaction of a patient to these bitter drugs is provided in a collection of Italian medieval novels, published in English in 1620: as ‘soone as’ the man’s ‘tongue tasted the bitter Aloes, he began to cough and spet extreamly, as being utterly unable to endure the bitternesse’. Once taken, the mere sight of ‘the vessel in which the potion is kept’ is enough to provoke vomiting in some patients, wrote the physician William Bullein (c.1515-76). So notorious was the bitterness of aloes, it was used as a metaphor for describing any unpleasant experience, including pain, grief, and spiritual guilt.[2]

Figure 2: ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Figure 3 : ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why did medicines contain these bitter ingredients? According to popular legend, the medicine has to be ‘as bitter as the disease’ for it to work. This idea is rooted in Galenic understandings of disease and treatment. Disease was due to the malignant alteration of the body’s humours, the constituent fluids of living creatures, and it was removed when the humours had been rectified or evacuated. Bitter medicine facilitated this process in two ways – first, it helped ‘devide, [and] extenuate…grosse and clammy humours, that they may be ready to flowe out’ of the body’.[3] Metaphors of cleaning were used in this context: the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68) averred, ‘the filth…of the humours stick no lesse to these mens bodies than the…dregs do to vessels, which must be soked…with pickle’, a bitter vinegary mixture, ‘to make them clean’. The second stage of evacuation was the movement of the humours from the body’s interior to its exit points, such as the bowels, where it could be expelled through defecation. Bitter medicines could be given to induce such movements. Lemnius explained that seeing that ‘attraction is made by the similitude of substance’, there must be a ‘natural familiarity’ between ‘the humour [to be evacuated] and the medicament’. Since the most noxious humours were bitter, medicines should be bitter too. Quoting Hippocrates, Lemnius expanded, ‘Physick when it come[s] into the body, it first…draws unto itself, that which is most…like unto it, then it moves the…humours…and forceth them out’. This idea was familiar to laypeople as well as doctors.

Sweet medicines

Although bitterness was necessary for purgative physic to work, the ‘cunning Physician…tempereth his bitter medicines with sweet and pleasant drinke’.[4] It was hoped that by disguising the bitter flavour, the medicine would be easier to swallow. This intervention was particularly important when it came to treating children, whose tolerance for bitter tastes was especially low due to the sensitivity of their taste-buds. This is still an issue today: in one survey, over 90 percent of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste is the biggest barrier to completing a course of treatment. The most popular sweeteners in early modern England were sugar and honey. Speaking of her ‘speciall medecine’ for jaundice in c.1608, Mrs Corlyon instructed that ‘you must make it pleasant with Sugar according to your taste more or lesse’ (Figure 4). Anne Glyd’s recipe ‘Against the chin cough’ from the mid-seventeenth century states that it should be taken with ‘hony…or what the child likes best’.

Figure 4: Extract from Mrs Corlyon’s ‘A Booke of divers medecines’, 1606; MS 313, Wellcome Library, London

Intriguingly, these sweetened medicines did not always taste sweet. Recalling a recent illness, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91), observed that some of his remedies had been, ‘sweetened with as much Sugar, as if they came not from an Apothecaries Shop, but a Confectioners. But my Mouth is too much out of Taste to rellish anything’. The Galenic explanation for these altered perceptions was that the organ of taste, the tongue, is ‘filled with some strange fluid’ during acute illness, which mixes with the gustatory juice of the medicine, so that ‘all things would seem salty to taste, or all bitter’.[5] Other causes were the drying of the tongue from the ‘fiery heat’ of fevers, or the presence of bitter humours in the mouth.[6] So familiar was the experience of altered taste that religious writers found it a useful metaphor to invoke when describing the more abstract idea that sinners fail to relish wholesome counsel. The Yorkshire minister Thomas Watson (d.1686), wrote in his treatise on repentance, ‘Tis with a sinner, as it is with a sick Patient[:] his pallat is distempered; the sweetest things taste bitter to him: So the word of God which is sweeter than honey-comb, tastes bitter to a sinner’.

We tend to be disparaging about premodern medicines, assuming they were deeply unpleasant. This brief foray into the gustatory qualities of remedies demonstrates that such a reading is too simplistic, and does not take into account the often benevolent intentions behind the use of bitter treatments, nor the attempts of practitioners to make their remedies more palatable. In any case, I think we need to be more wary about assuming the actual qualities of medicines were perceived by patients, since many diseases impaired the patient’s capacity to taste. In the next stage of my project, I seek to discover how the other four senses were affected by illness and treatment.

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[1] Roy and Dorothy Porter, In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650-1850 (London, 1988), 105; see also Lucinda Beier, In Sickness and in Health: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1985), 170.

[2] E.g. Mark Frank, LI Sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank (1672), 391.

[3] A. T., A rich store-house, or treasury for the diseased (1596), preface. See also William Bullein, The government of health (1595, first publ. 1559), 9-10.

[4] William Kempe, The education of children (1588), image 31.

[5] Galen, ‘On the Causes of Symptoms I’, in Ian Johnston (ed. and trans.), Galen on Diseases and Symptoms (Cambridge, 2006), 203-35, at 220-21, 189. This text was available in Latin in the early modern period, translated from the Greek by Thomas Linacre as De symptomatum differentiis et causis (1524).

[6] Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia a description of the body of man (1615), 631.

“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.

Cooking With Anger

By Rob Wittig and Mark Marino

A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger, by Charles Le Brun, 1713. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As part of the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation, we’re pleased to introduce a story-telling game, called Cooking with Anger. And you can play it in the comments below!

We’ll keep bumping the post up so you can play from now until the end of the Virtual Conversation.

This is a creative game modelled on TV cooking competitions. Cooking with Anger is a netprov where storyteller chefs improvise a tale and a recipe from a given basket of ingredients. Many have written about cooking with love; now it’s time for all the other emotions.

How to Play

  1. Get a basket from the Protag-o-Matic ingredients machine.
  2. Copy and paste your basket at the top of your tale.
  3. Create a small dish of a stirring story — 300 words or less — using ALL the ingredients from your basket. Use people places and things as narrative; use food items for a recipe folded into the fiction. Season the tale with the emotional spice packet.
  4. Post your delectable concoction in the Comments section below.

To enjoy other story/recipes from last April’s version of this netprov, visit the Cooking With Anger website.

 

‘Recipes for Relationships’: Food, medicine, families and cultural engagement

By Leah Astbury

"Chocolate," in Johanna Saint John, Commonplace/Recipe Book, 1680, MS 4338, fol.46r, Wellcome Library, London.
“Chocolate,” in Johanna Saint John, Commonplace/Recipe Book, 1680, MS 4338, fol.46r, Wellcome Library, London.

Anne Dormer wrote a series of letters to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull between 1685-1691 about her health and unhappy marriage to the widower Robert Dormer. She described how ‘I apply my self to tend my crazy health, and keep up my weake shattred carcase broken with restless nights and unquiet days.’ She reflected in one letter that her body was ‘like a horss [horse] to tug through all I have endured of illness and childing.’ She was overwhelmed by her troubles and worried that she could not ‘write of my affaires so freely as I would and has kept me from writing many times when it would be an ease to my heart to taulk to thee.’ Dormer, like most early modern English middling and upper sort women, self-medicated. Kings Dropps ‘alwayes relieiue me’, she described. She also, however, sought to ‘divert’ herself by playing with her two ‘sweete children’, thinking of her ‘kind friends’ and ‘a dish of chocolate’. This latter indulgence she found the ‘ greatest cordiall and revivieing in the world.’

Dormer’s approach to restoring her health was tripartite: she took, purchased, or prepared remedies, took comfort in the presence of friends and family, and consumed chocolate. Such reflections are the central historical interest in the AHRC Cultural Engagement project supporting collaboration between medical historian Leah Astbury and the artist Emma Smith, alongside several Cambridge community groups. ‘Recipes for Relationships’ seeks to explore the connections between food, medicine and the household in seventeenth-century England and the current practices of Cambridgeshire residents through a series of workshops led by Leah and Emma.

In March we had The Recipes Project’s very own Dr Lisa Smith talk to us about ‘Recipes to Improve Your Love Life: Advice from the Eighteenth Century,’ which attracted a diverse crowd of interested university and non-university members. The discussion was diverse and engaged. Through workshops and at the talk, we have been collecting recipes and ingredients that people use to strengthen and ease relationships, from aphrodisiacs, to foods to quieten small children, or in the case of Anne Dormer, things we use to self-medicate during times of distress.

Unsurprisingly chocolate continues to be a source of solace in times of stress. Interestingly, what our workshops have revealed is that although household routines shift and change with age, food continues to be personally medicinal in the same way that Dormer describes.

As medical historians we are constantly reminded of how central age and the life-cycle was in determining diet and regimen in early modern culture, and community members similarly reflected on how their domestic routines and habits had changed with age and different family structures. We recently met with a knitting group. Most of the members are 70+ year old women who now live alone. This change in circumstances has meant fewer laborious family sit-down meals – or at least this is limited to one day a week when children and grandchildren visit. Food, however, continues to play a personal and restorative role in these women’s lives even when preparing meals for one. For one woman, a simple dinner of poached eggs on toast was a tonic. For others there was nothing sweeter than a glass of wine in the evening.

Anne Dormer’s dish of chocolate, and the knitting group’s eggs on toast, will form part of the ‘Recipes for Relationships’ recipe book we are compiling. This book will be shared at a four course banquet on 29 April in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge to thank contributors and share our findings.

If you have a recipe you would like to contribute, please email: recipesforrelationships@gmail.com or visit https://recipesforrelationships.wordpress.com/

Leah Astbury has recently completed her PhD on maternal and infant health in seventeenth-century England. She is currently a Research Associate at the Department of History & Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, working on marriage, health and domestic medicine.