For the 21st-century consumer, it is difficult to ignore the link between nutrition and health. In our homes and on the high street we are bombarded with advertisements proclaiming the benefits of various foodstuffs. ‘Health food’ is ubiquitous, yet the link between the food we consume and our physical health is nothing new: the ancient Greeks believed that good health depended on maintaining a balance of the body’s humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile) and suggested modifications to the diet if the system became irregular.
Indeed, Hippocrates wrote in On Aliment during the late fifth, or early fourth, century BC that one could find “in food excellent medication”. During the second century AD this idea was expanded by his admirer, Galen, in On the Power of Foods – a title that would not look out of place in today’s bestseller lists.
From snail water to aphrodisiacs that come with warnings about lice, Fiona Snailham offers a taste of some of the weird and wonderful health food associations in history.
In the 17th century, writer Hannah Woolley recommended ‘snail water’ to treat ‘consumptions’. (Image by Alamy)
Pests to cure pestilence?
Recent trends push a plant-based diet as a means of improving general health, but dietary advice in years gone by often suggested that animal products had an integral role in sustaining physical health. Even the most adventurous omnivore might baulk at some of the meats promoted as proto-health foods in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries:
Take, for instance, the hedgehog. Now a protected species in many countries, this small garden creature was once also a health food prescribed for certain groups of people. Das Kockbuch des Meisters Eberhard, a German cookbook dating from the mid-15th century, recommends the meat of a hedgehog as useful for two separate health conditions: leprosy and urinary retention. The book recommends:
“The meat of a hedgehog is good for lepers. Those who dry its intestines and grind them to a powder and eat a little of that are made to piss, even if they cannot do so otherwise.”
Looking beyond the walls of the kitchen garden, 15th-century noblemen could find health benefits in the preparation of food caught during the hunt. According to Bartolomeo Platina’s De honesta voluptate et valetudine (‘On right pleasure and good health’, written c1465), eating roast bear meat was an excellent way to prevent baldness. For the ultimate health boost, feasting aristocracy could eat this alongside cannabis bread, which Platina claimed would ward off the plague.
Almost two centuries later, The Queen-Like Closet moves away from the hunt and makes beneficial health claims for the consumption of a far smaller creature: the humble garden snail. Written in 1670 by Hannah Woolley, a widowed servant who turned to books on household management, the Closet contains recipes for a range of medicinal drinks, including ‘snail water’, which was considered to be excellent for ‘consumptions’ (a term which then referred to any wasting disease, but later became particularly associated with tuberculosis).
Woolley provides a detailed description of the recipe, which involves grinding roasted snails (shells included) and adding “Clary, Celandine, Burrage, Scabious, Bugloss, five leav’d Grass, and if you find your self hot, put in some Wood-Sorrel, of every one of these one handful, with five tops of Angelica”. The mix must then be steeped overnight in white wine and ale before adding the final ingredients: “a pint of earthworms”, aniseed, fennel, turmeric and ground deer antler. This final concoction must be covered in white wine and left to set. Once it “be like a jelly”, it may be consumed by the patient.
Stewed prunes and prostitutes
A staple of the breakfast buffet, today we consider stewed prunes to have a mild laxative effect, but they were put to a very different use in Elizabethan England. During the late 1500s, prunes were thought to work as both a preventative to, and a cure for, sexually transmitted diseases. The physician William Clowes recommended their use in the ‘Treatise on Lues Venerea’ included in his A Profitable and Necessarie Booke of Observations in 1596.
Indeed, belief in the fruit’s power to stave off infection was so strongly held that it was commonly served in brothels. Thomas Lodge’s Wits Misery, and the World’s Madnesse (1596) suggests that a prostitute’s dwelling place might be identified by the sighting of “a dish of stewed prunes in the window, and two or three fleering wenche sit knitting or sewing in her shop”. The practice was reflected in popular culture, too, with the character Lodovico requesting “two dishes of stewed prunes” and “a bawd” in Thomas Dekker’s Jacobean comedy The Honest Whore (II). On numerous occasions Shakespeare used stewed prunes as a way of referring to brothels and prostitutes.
A 17th-century depiction of a brothel. Stewed prunes were thought to work as both a preventative to sexually transmitted diseases and so could often be found in brothels. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Cornflakes to curb the (sexual) appetite
Stewed fruits are not the only 21st-century breakfast foods to have been put to an unusual health use in the past. In the late 19th century, an American physician, John Harvey Kellogg, was working at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan when he accidentally invented a new ‘healthy’ breakfast dish.
Considering any form of sexual activity to be detrimental to health, Dr Kellogg was particularly concerned about the risk of “self-pollution” amongst his patients, listing 39 possible symptoms of masturbation in his book, Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life (1877). To avoid these health problems, which included acne, epilepsy, defective development and stiff joints, Kellogg advocated a diet of bland foods. Working with his brother, Will Keith, Kellogg experimented with various ways to bake bread and crackers. One day, an unexpected interruption in the kitchen led to the cooked wheat cooling before it was rolled out. The resulting “granose” (wheat flakes) were thought to be an excellently bland health food.
Dr John Harvey Kellogg, who sold cornflakes as a cereal which both aided digestion and reduced sexual urges. (Image by Getty Images)
In 1898, the brothers tried the same process with toasted maize, and what we now know as the ‘cornflake’ was born. The brothers established the BattleCreek Sanitarium Health Food Company and initially sold the product as a cereal that both aided digestion and reduced sexual urges. It came into commercial production as a breakfast cereal in 1906 when William Kellogg formed his own company, the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (later renamed Kellogg Company).
Increasing the appetite
Although employed by Dr Kellogg to curb sexual appetite, conversely food has long been used to boost virility, considered in many early societies to be a sign of male health. In ancient Rome, the prize aphrodisiac was the hippomane – a by-product of equine pregnancy. This liver-coloured mass resembles the placenta but is actually a separate mass which forms from a concentration of waste products in the allantoic sac.
Thankfully, a more palatable cure for a low libido was offered in the early 16th century, when physician Andrew Boorde suggested consumption of the humble artichoke. Boorde’sA Dyetary of Helth also nominates figs as an aphrodisiac but warns that they have a tendency to “provoke a man to sweate; wherefore they doth engender lyce”. Risking the attraction of lice as the primary side-effect, the amorous Tudor might well have found his bed occupied by several uninvited guests!
Drink to your health?
In Naturalis Historia, written during the years leading up to his death in AD 79, Pliny the Elder notes the difficulty in determining whether consumption of wine is “more generally injurious in its effects, or beneficial”. Of course, this ancient debate continues today, with excessive consumption generally considered harmful and scientists across the globe debating the amount of alcohol people can safely consume.
Throughout history, however, there have been times when heavy consumption of wine was considered in a favourable light. In the early 19th century, Austrian naturopath Johann Schroth established a sanatorium in Lindewiese. At the resort, alongside a regime of cold wraps and steam baths, patients were allocated specific “trinktagen” (drinking days) on which they were prescribed home-grown wines selected for their individual needs. Several decades later, French biologist Louis Pasteur declared “le vin est la plus saine et la plus hygiénique des boissons” (wine is the healthiest and most hygienic drink).
French biologist Louis Pasteur declared that wine is the healthiest drink. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Those wishing to embrace Pasteur’s approach but avoid the negative effects of alcohol consumption might turn to the advice offered in a 16th-century health guide and cookbook, The Castell of Health. In Castell, writer Sir Thomas Elyot suggests that quince, roasted and mixed with sugar or honey, will both stimulate the appetite and “preserueth the head from drunkenness”. This sounds slightly more palatable than the stomach liners suggested by Pliny the Elder: roasted sheep’s lungs and the “ashes of a swallow’s beak, bruised with myrrh and sprinkled in the wine”, both of which he believed would “act as a preservative against intoxication”.
Should these precautions fail, history offers a variety of hangover cures, from Pliny’s fried canary to Goddard’s drops, a hangover cure allegedly taken by King Charles II on the advice of 17th-century physician Dr Jonathan Goddard. All you need is some ammonia, hartshorn, ivory, dried viper and the skull of a recently hanged man…
Fiona Snailham is a PhD candidate and former English teacher who specialises in 19th-century literature and culture. You can follow her on Twitter @Fiona_Snailham