Revisiting Hannah Newton’s Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by Hannah Newton, author of a wonderful book on illness and recovery called Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. In this post, Newton explores the essential gustatory qualities of premodern medicines.  Common afflictions of the era often affected all the senses, including the palate of tastes. As shown here, a remedy’s excessive bitterness or sweetness could, in fact, be an essential part of its remedial qualities. To that bitter pill! R.A. Kashanipour


By Hannah Newton

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.

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

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.

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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.

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.

A Cartography of Chocolate

by Kathryn E. Sampeck

While in some ways colonization happened in people’s heads—through formal edicts and informal conjuring of new attitudes and affiliations—colonial change occurred also through bodily, tactile encounters. The work of creating new combinations of objects and spaces to re-order a sense of self and community, the doing of colonizing, relied upon sensory experiences such as taste. Because colonization ineluctably involved geographic links, recipes provide an opportunity to map out a history of taste using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a powerful program that displays spatial associations of evidence. GIS gives us the chance to see with fresh eyes. GIS mapping[1] of the ingredients for colonial cacao drink recipes gives a nuanced view into colonial entanglement by more precisely defining taste networks stretching across the Atlantic from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century.

Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Pre-Columbian texts as well as sixteenth-century chronicles of colonization of Central America and Mexico described cacao beverages [Figure 1]. The particular flavor, scent, and appearance of these drinks distinguished different concoctions that were iconic of a region [Figure 2]. Most sources state that the cacao beverage “chocolat” came from colonial Guatemala.[2] ‘Chocolat’, a word from the southern Central American language Pipil (Nahuat) [3], is one of few untranslated American food names, unlike ‘maize’ versus ‘corn’ or ‘tlilxochitl’ versus ‘vanilla’. People every day and across the world speak a little Pipil when they ask for chocolate.

Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

One of the earliest references to chocolate was a poem on an allegoric arch erected in Guatemala in 1579 that stated chocolate was cacao flavored with achiote.[4] As more and more people on both sides of the Atlantic consumed chocolate, exactly what chocolate was became a shifting target across space and over time. Indigenous American recipes in materia medica, cookbooks, and treatises had common ingredients of chile, vanilla, and achiote. Frequent European flavors were cinnamon, almonds, anise, ambergris, and musk. How then, to compare what literally are apples and oranges?

The Jaccard similarity coefficient calculates the percentage of common ingredients. The result has spatial information—the geographic source area for the recipe—and a measure of the degree of similarity to other recipes, represented by the thickness of the arrows in the GIS map [Figure 3].

Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.
Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.

These culinary paths show that Guatemalan, Mexican, and European cacao recipes significantly differed from each other. These are sharply divided lines, formed perhaps by an inception in Guatemala, then “speciation” in other regions. Untranslated in name, the wide array of kinds of chocolate did communicate sensory experiences of sweetness, spices, colors and scent that were a mimesis by colonists of Mesoamerican values.[5] This simulacra of taste, however, was fundamentally altered from the substance that inspired it, a process that created instead icons of chocolateness rather than rote copies of Pipil chocolat [Figure 4]. At the same time, one, untranslated term, chocolate, grew to incorporate a much wider realm of meaning, referring to a broad class of conditions, flavors, and colors. The colonizing process made chocolate intimately unfamiliar. Chocolate is the epitome of the discordant core of colonialism.

Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

[1] The GIS map was created by Jonathan Thayn of the Geology and Geography Department of Illinois State University.

[2] Mariscal Haz, B. (ed.) Carta del Padre Pedro de Morales. (Mexico City, Colección Biblioteca Novohispana, V. Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México. 2000 [1579])

[3] a language of southern Central America (colonial Guatmala) from the same language family as Nahuatl of the Aztecs

[4] Mariscal Haz (2000) p. 57.

[5] Norton, Marcy  “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111(3), .(2006), 660–691.