exploring recipe books from the seventeenth-century

Archive for the category “Mood food”

St John’s Wort

The most popular herbal remedy for depression today has got to be St John’s Wort. This little yellow flower is available to us over the counter in the form of tablets, teas and extracts. Its efficacy has caused much controversy: some studies arguing it is the same, if not  better than prozac, others finding it does no more than a placebo. Either way, our use of it against depression is comparatively recent in the plant’s history.

Although St John’s Wort features prominently in the recipe books and herbals of the seventeenth-century, there is no evidence that it was advised for melancholia or that people in the early modern period used it as such. There are many recipes for making St John’s Wort oil in seventeenth-century recipe books but not for the treatment of melancholy. Instead they are labelled as ‘for the joints’ or ‘for all sorts of ills’.


Borage: a popular remedy against melancholy

Borage is an herb which grows to 60-100cm, is hairy on the stems and leaves, and has five (usually blue) petals.

Herbs were much more important to people in the seventeenth-century than they are to the majority of us today. In the early modern period herbs were used for their medicinal qualities, any seasoning they gave to food was an added bonus. They provided a form of medicine which could be grown, gathered and prepared at home, without the expense of calling a physician. As a result many books were published on the qualities of different herbs, what they looked like, where to find them etc.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an herbalist who believed in widening the knowledge of herbs’ uses. He wrote The English Physician in 1652 which contains 396 medicines made from English herbs. Edmund Gayton (1608-1666) who studied medicine at Oxford published The Art of Longevity in 1659. His book informs the reader about the humoral qualities of foods and herbs; it is written in heroic couplets as Gayton was also a poetry fan. Burton also recommended the use of herbs in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

All of these writers particularly recommended Borage. Burton argued that Borage was the best cure for melancholy ‘whether in substance, juice, roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, decoctions, distilled waters, extracts, oyles &c.’ It could be used ‘in Broth, in Wine, in Conserves, Syrops, &c.’ Burton also tells us that Borage was ‘against this malady (melancholy) most frequently prescribed’. Culpeper wrote that ‘the leaves are good to expel pensiveness and melancholy.’ and Gayton wrote:

                             ‘Have you no courage?

At any time revive your soul with Borage…

Sirrup of Borage will make sad men glad

And the same sirrup doth restore the mad.’

It seems that the physicians’ advice was put into practice as Borage appears as an ingredient in many of the recipes against melancholy of the time including this one from Lady Elizabeth Grey’s A Choice Manual in Physick and Chyrurgery

An excellent syrup against Melancholy.

Take four quarts of the juice of Pearmains, and twice as much of the juice of Bugloss and Borage, if they be gotten, a drachm (one eighths of an ounce) of the best English Saffron, bruise it, and put it into the juice, then take two drachms of Kermes (a red dye) small beaten to powder, mix it also with the juice; so being mixt, put them into an earthen vessel, covered or stopt forty eight hours, then strain it and allow a pound of sugar to every quart of juice, and so boil it to the ordinary eight of a syrrup, after it is boiled, take one drachm of the spices of Dramber, and two dracms of the spices of Diamargariton frigidum (powder of pearl), and so sew the same slenderly in a linnen bag, that you may put the same easily into the bottle of syrrup, and so let it hang with a thred out at the mouth of the bottle, the spices must be put into the surrup in the bag: so soon as the syrrup is off the fire, whilst it is hot, then afterwards put it into the bottle, and there let it hang: put but a spoonful or two of Honey amongst it, whilst it is boiling, and it will make the scum rise, and the syrrup very clear. You must add to it the quantity of a quarter of a pint of juice of Balm.

Interestingly Borage is still found on herbal sites today as a remedy against depression and PMS: http://www.herbal-supplement-resource.com/borage-herb.html

Burton’s top tips

The most famous book published on melancholy in the seventeenth-century (and probably still today) was Robert Burton’s The Anatomy on Melancholy. Burton (1577-1640), was an English scholar at Oxford University who was preoccupied with all things melancholic. His work, taking up six volumes, was published in 1621. It covers the different types of  melancholy, its symptoms, causes and remedies.

Diet was a vital cause and remedy of melancholy. As a non-natural, it had to be kept in balance. Also, because melancholy was thought to be caused by to many cold and dry humors in the body, cold and dry foods were therefore thought to cause and worsen the illness. Hot and moist foods counteracted cold and dry humours in the body and so were used to prevent and treat melancholy.frontispiece to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy

Burton recommended:

-‘the leane of fat meat is best, and all manner of brothes, and pottage, with borage, lettuce, and such wholesome hearbes are excellent good’

-‘the thinnest, whitest, smallest wine is best, not thicke, not strong’

-‘Bread of good wheat, pure, well purged from the bran is preferred’

‘Sweet fruits are best, as sweet cherries, plummes, sweet apples’

In his section on bad diet as a cause of melancholy Burton discussed a huge range of foodstuffs from meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, to pulses, spices, breads and wines. He advised his readers that:

-‘All Venison is melancholy, and begets bad blood’

-‘Generally all such meats as are hard of Digestion, breed melancholy’

-‘Milke and all that comes of milke, as butter and cheese, curds, &c. increase melancholy (whey only excepted, which is most wholesome)’

– ‘I finde Gourds, Cowcumbers, Coleworts, Mellons disallowed, but especially cabbage. It causeth troublesome dreames, and sends up blacke vapours to the braine.’

6 non-naturals & 4 humors

The non-naturals and humours are key to understanding medieval and early modern attitudes to diet and health so here’s a quick explanation:

The six non-naturals were categories in Ancient Greek medicine which you had to keep in balance in order to be healthy. They included: air; motion and rest (exercise); sleeping and waking; food and drink; excretion and passions/ emotions. An imbalance in any of these- too much/little exercise, too much/little sleep, too much/little  etc. was thought to cause illness. Balance for health certainly isn’t a modern concept!

(If you want more information on this L H Curth has written a good article found here:http://bmj-mh.highwire.org/content/29/1/16.abstract).

The four humours were the basis of Medieval medicine and this continued into the Early modern period. They were: blood, diagram of the four humoursyellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Each of these humours equated to qualities: blood= hot & wet, yellow bile= hot & dry, black bile = dry & cold, phlegm= cold& wet. These in turn related to the four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Foods were also thought to have hot/cold/dry/wet qualities and so diet had to be balanced to ensure that the body wasn’t taking in too much of one humour.

Imbalance led to illness, including melancholy…

Melancholia and Depression: the same but different

Prozac (fluoxetine) commonly prescribed today against depression

some of these posts will be about work I’ve already done over the summer as it was only yesterday the, now painfully obvious, idea of having a blog materialised.

So far I’ve been interested in the link between melancholia in the early modern period and depression today, and our mutual attempts to overcome mental illness through diet. Melancholia and depression can broadly be compared. There are a lot of similar symptoms such as sadness, anxiety, fear, despondency, restless energy, oversensitivity and manic highs to name a few. However, historians have to be really careful about presuming an illness today is the same one in the past. Obviously, and unfortunately (from a research perspective), we can’t go back in time to check.

What we do know is that melancholia was very common in the seventeenth-century and today 8-12% of the population experiences depression in any year. We also know that despite  advances in medicine bringing us chemical anti-depressants like Prozac, many people still use herbal remedies and diet to deal with their mental illness. Our continuing experience of mental illness, and our attempts to self-remedy, link us with people from the 1600s.

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