Tag Archives: Folger Shakespeare Library

Sugar and Sage in the 17th Century

I’m working on three projects during my sabbatical this semester, but the one that has (re-)captured my attention, and to which I have devoted the most time so far, is an old study of the more utilitarian features of the long English Renaissance, including agriculture, medicine, home-keeping, construction (rather than architecture), engineering, navigation and other individual and collective “industrious pursuits”. Food and drink are at the intersection of several of these pursuits, so I’ve spent several weeks researching not so much what early modern people ate and drank but rather what they were supposed to eat and drink according to contemporary “authorities”. This is far more interesting than the basis of my other industrious pursuits, which is of course math. Eventually I must get into math but right now I’m enjoying reading about food. There are many opinions in the early modern regimens organized around the Galenic concept of the non-naturals, external and environmental factors which affect health: air, food & drink, rest & exercise, sleep & waking, excretions & repletions, and “affections of the mind”, but in this post I’m going to focus primarily–but not exclusively– on the advice of a physician-entomologist named Thomas Moffat, which was published posthumously as Healths Improvement: or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing all sorts of Food used in this Nation in 1655, with “corrections and enlargements” made by Dr. Christopher Bennet. Moffatt wrote the original manuscript around 1595, and he segregated diet from all the other non-naturals in a manner that is more modern than early modern: it is an orderly and due course observed in the use of bodily nourishments, for the preservation, recovery, or continuance of the health of mankind. 

Food Moffett

Even though he was a practicing physician and an avid entomologist, Moffatt’s diet advice is more ancient Greek/biblical than empirical, though he does make the interesting distinction between “full, moderate, and thin” diets, which increase, repair, and lessen flesh, spirits and vapors in the body respectively. Most adults should follow moderate diets in alliance with their designated humoral complexion or temperament, representing the particular combination of humors (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile) with their attendant qualities, or degrees (hot, cold, moist, dry). Everything and every substance has humors, not just bodies, so foods should be chosen to preserve health according to the rule that like is sustained by the like, or restore health by employing foods with contrary degrees. That’s all pretty standard for this time, but Moffat explores food to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries:  its taste and distaste, its preparation, when to eat it—and when (and how) to kill it if it is a beast. All beasts are fair game, both domestic and wild (even hedgehogs) and all parts of all beasts (believe me). A few expressions of vegetarianism will emerge over the course of the seventeenth century, but Moffatt’s treatise is not among them. Nearly every food is good for someone at sometime, but the when must be considered along with the what, as for example, seemingly-harmless butter, which is best at break∣fast, tolerable in the beginning of dinner; but at supper no way good, because it hinders sleep, and sendeth up unpleasant vapours to annoy the brain, according to the old Proverb, Butter is Gold in the morning, Silver at noon, and Lead at night. It is also best for children whilst they are growing, and for old men when they are declining; but very unwholesome betwixt those two ages….a veritable lifetime of no butter! Thankfully, Moffatt seems to be the only one proffering this advice; most regimen writers assert that butter is just fine, especially when salted and mixed with honey and/or sugar, the universal panacea of the early modern era (for those who could afford it).

Food Sugar Nova Reperta 1600 FolgerMaking miraculous sugar in Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times), engraved by Jan Collaert I, after Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus, and published by Philips Galle, 1600.

Sweeteners make everything better—water, wine, butter–not just better-tasting, but better, according to all opinions: “Sugar agrees with all ages and all complexions”, wrote Thomas Cogan in his Haven for Health (1584). Water should be avoided at all costs, unless it was pure rain water or mixed with sugar or honey; ale, beer and wine were much preferred, especially “Rhenish” (white) wine. Writing several decades before Cogan, Philip Moore summarized his diet advice according to ease of digestion and engendering of “good juice” in his Hope of Health: partridges, pheasants, chickens, capons, hens, small birds, newly-laid eggs, rare or poached, young pork, veal, new milk, fresh fish from gravelly and stony rivers…bread made of the flour of good wheat, being well-leavened, sufficiently salted and well baked in an oven, being two or three days old. And also pure wine. Even though “meate” is often used to refer to all food, it’s not difficult to glean that meat (or flesh) was key to a healthy diet, and chicken and mutton were generally preferred, “boiled and eaten with opening (fresh) cordial herbs”, a beefed-up version of the pottage most people probably were eating.

Food November

Food Trevelyon Miscellany 2Two calendar illustrations from Thomas Trevilian’s marvelous Miscellany, 1608: Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.b. 232 (formerly Folger MS 450517).

There is still a reticence about fruits and vegetables among seventeenth-century regimen writers, particularly the former, although that is changing: a terrible famine in the 1590s inspired a major reconsideration. William Vaughan, in his Approved Directions for Health, both Natural and Artificial (1600), asserts that fruits are eaten more for wantoness than for any nutritive or necessary good”, but he praises many vegetables, and gives us a recipe for the very best “sallet” made of pennyroyal, parsley, lettuce and endive, which “opens the obstruction of the liver and keeps the head in good plight”. Moffatt is more open to fruit, but like most of his contemporaries, he warns against the raw state: all apples are worst raw, and best baked and preserved (with rosewater, honey and/or sugar, of course). But by all means avoid “melomachia, the ‘apple-fight”; [as] cruel fluxes surprised the Army upon this, and many died of intolerable gripings. It seems as if most fruits are acceptable if they are baked, roasted, or “cunningly preserved”, with sugar, and taken with wine: figs, in particular, draw much commentary as a wholesome fruit, but only if consumed in the right way. According to Moffatt, figs are dangerous without wine, but wholesome with it. Vegetables can be nourishing as well, but only if you pick the “whitest and tendrest-leafed” and steep and cook them for quite some time. In addition to the application of fire, the accompaniment of wine, and sweeteners, garden herbs and spices, both “homebred” and imported or “outlandish”, can change the nature of everything, particularly sage, the versatile herb of salvation from time immemorial. Moffatt (and Bennett) leave sage to the herbalists, an indication of the increasing specialization of medical texts in the seventeenth century, but Vaughan gives us a “wholesome diet drink” for everyone, made of a variety of the most useful domestic herbs, processed in seventeenth-century style.

Stoneware jug 17th century with Vaughan Diet Drink


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