Category Archives: Emotion

“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: or visit

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. 

All in the mind? Competing models of hysteria in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

In my previous post, I introduced the diaries of Reverend John Ward, the seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford-on-Avon and sometime medical practitioner. Among Ward’s vast collection of notes on medical and scientific topics were many on sexual behaviour and biology. In this post, I will show how Ward applied his curiosity to the problem of hysteria, aka ‘fits of the mother’ or ‘suffocation of the matrix’.

This topic loomed large in the notebooks, both because Ward sought to better treat the condition in his parishioners, and because he was intellectually interested in the causes of the disease.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was commonly believed that hysteria was caused by the womb ‘wandering’ within the body, impinging on the liver, diaphragm, and other organs. This movement indicated that the womb was quasi-independent of the body; as Jean Riolan put it, ‘a furious Live-wight in a Live-wight’.(1)

Proponents of this theory also believed that the womb could be manipulated back into the proper place using sweet or foul smells. At points, Ward must also have credited this idea, since he recorded (vol. 12, f.107r/v) in the late 1660s that

There is nothing better for a married woman in case of suffocation of the matrix t[ha]n for her husband to anoint the topp of his yard with a litle oil of Cloves-gylliflours and Sweet Almonds together and so ly with her, for this will assuredly bring down the Matrix againe.

Interestingly, however, Ward’s understanding of hysteria and the properties of the womb was not static. Only a few years earlier, he had been impressed by arguments which declared that hysteria arose not from any intrinsic property of the womb but rather from air entering that organ:

I have heard one yt denied utterly yt in hysterical fits ye womb rise at all, only attributed all to wind (vol. 8, f.136r).

In his 1663-5 notebook, he advanced the idea again, this time speculating that wind was one of a number of possible causes of hysteria–which also included ‘ye suffering of ye matrix, either by emptying of a great Burden as after child bearing, or by doing it wrong in wounding itt in bringing forth ye child’ (ibid).

A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

Ward chopped and changed between theories, and his ideas do not show a clear evolution. Interestingly, however, in both the 1664-6 and 1666-9 diaries, Ward wrote with interest about a neurocentric theory of hysteria, which located the cause of the disease in the brain rather than the womb. ‘Dr. Elyot’, wrote Ward, ‘hath this Conception that hysterical fits have their rise from the Brains; and hee illustrates itt thus, pull a Cord, you shall discerne the first straining and breaking at the other end’ (vol. 12, f.95v).

Crucially, this theory implied that hysteria was largely psychological in origin. Indeed, given the right pressures, hysteria could even occur in men (vol. 7, f. 26v):

Some Drs especialy in Oxford now are of opinion that histerical fits are caused by the disposition of the Braine most in Oxford as Mr. Francis said are of this opinion: and that men have the same thing, which some women have, and that Dr Elyot had a patient that had it: and was cured by antihisterical things though hee was a man.

The impact of the neurocentric model on treatments for hysteria is striking. Where the wandering womb was to be lured into place, and the windy womb cured with pills and potions, neurocentric hysteria called for different methods. Ward recalled how one patient patient had her lower legs tied ‘hard with her Garter’ before being made to sneeze (vol. 7, f.47r).

In another case (vol. 9, f. 3v),

Dr Trig cured a woman yt was troubled with hysterical fits thus: hee laid her uppon ye ground with her face downwards yn took up her Coats and gave her 3 or 4 good Claps on ye Arse and thus cured her but I was informed yt hee did this before much Companie wch I scarcly believe.

Did the neurocentric model help women with hysteria, or harm them? On one hand, this approach made hysteria a potentially unisex complaint rather than a symptom of women’s defective bodies. On the other, the treatments inspired by neurocentric theories show a distinct lack of sympathy for, and even humiliation of, the hysteric, who was now treated as psychologically rather than physically ill.

Ward’s diaries provide frustratingly little detail about how Dr. Trig’s patient may have felt about her unorthodox treatment. They do show, however, how an apparently more ‘enlightened’ understanding of hysteria might be made to work against vulnerable patients.

(1) Jean Riolan, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, A sure guide, or, The best and nearest way to physick and chirurgery (1657), p. 85.