exploring recipe books from the seventeenth-century

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.


Hi, I’m Katrina, an undergraduate English student at the University of Leeds.

I am part of the Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship scheme. This enables me to do research of my own during my degree.

My scholarship is with the school of History, looking at the cookery collection, specifically the seventeenth-century recipe books, in the Brotherton Library at Leeds. I am particularly interested in recipes against melancholy, on which I have written some, soon-to-be-published, webpages and recipes to safeguard pregnancy, which I hope to develop further next summer.  The research I do feeds into a wider public engagement project led by Iona McCleery called ‘You Are What You Ate’. This project encourages people to think about diet today compared to that of the Medieval and Early Modern periods: ( http://www.leeds.ac.uk/yawya/).  

I am completely new to the world of blogging, and, as a bit of a technophobe, am suitably daunted. However, I thought this would be a good way to gather my thoughts and open up discussion, so feel free to comment and I will do my best to get back to you :)

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