The Taste of deception: plague, food, and medicine in seventeenth-century England

Today we are making a foray into the seventeenth century with Claire Turner. Claire is a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research, which builds on her recent MA dissertation, focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England.

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800. (Wellcome Images)

How well do you know your food, drink, and medicines? Do you trust their ingredients, appearance, and their taste? Recent research has demonstrated the importance of a balanced diet for convalescents in the early modern period. These concerns were equally prominent during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. People have always used their senses to decipher whether foods are pleasant or unpleasant, safe or unsafe. However, the senses could be easily deceived, no more so than in seventeenth-century discourses of food, drink, and medicine.

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878). (Wellcome Images)

In 1665, the plague visited London for the final time. Known as the Great Plague, this outbreak was arguably the most severe to visit the city in the seventeenth century. Concerns over the quality and wholesomeness of foodstuffs were paramount. In particular, Margaret Dorey has noted how contemporaries of plague outbreaks were suspicious of food traders such as butchers. A tract published in response to the outbreak included a warning to its readers. Roger Dixon highlighted the dangers of consuming meat which had been modified by the butchers who were selling it. The meat was blown into by the butchers with their ‘…filthy Pockey, Stinking, Putrified Breath, whereby they putrifie the flesh’. The practice of blowing meat was used by butchers in the early modern period to make their meat look plump, healthy, and fresh. In this way, butchers were deceiving the sense of sight. By making their foul meat look healthy, they actually further contaminated the meat by depositing their foul-smelling and potentially contagious breath into it.

Another significant outbreak occurred in London in 1625. At around the same time, Lady Frances Catchmay completed her compilation of medical recipes in A booke of medicens. One of these recipes concerned the plague. It advised the use of sugar to counteract the unpleasant taste of the remedy. Here, the use of sweet-tasting substances disguised the bitter and unsavoury taste of the medicine. As well as deceiving the sense of taste, the author of the recipe invoked the sense of sight by encouraging the addition of ‘three spoonefulls of white vinegar’. Derived from ancient European thought, the colour white was associated with purity. Research by Sidney W. Mintz has outlined that substances such as sugar and vinegar were deemed particularly effective when they were especially white. By influencing the colour and taste of the remedy, the author made the medicine appear even more effective and wholesome.

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Etching by J. Franklin (1800-1861). (Wellcome Images)

Issues concerning sensory deception in diet and physick were evident across numerous plague epidemics. In both 1625 and 1665, authors of plague tracts focused on the hazards of consuming pleasant-tasting food and the benefits of eating seemingly unsavoury food. In 1625, London physician Stephen Bradwell advised his readers not to consume sweet-tasting foods because it ‘betrayes their vnfitnesse in times of Contagion’. Similarly, in London, in 1665, an anonymous tract encouraged the consumption of sharp-tasting sauces and juices alongside meats which did not putrefy and were easily digestible.

This awareness of the benefits of sharp-tasting foods was also present in tracts relating to plague outbreaks outside of London. In Oxford in 1644, Lionel Gatford informed his readers that often the most unsavoury and sharp tastes were ‘undoubtedly the most wholsome’. Therefore, these writers warned their readers not to let their sense of taste deceive them. To a certain extent, theories of food consumption and plague in the seventeenth century reinforced the notion that sensory ‘opposites attract’.

Ideas about illness and taste are once again at the forefront of our minds in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts have reported that a proportion of COVID-19 sufferers experience an absence of the senses of taste and smell. It is clear, then, that the sense of taste will always remain a key indicator in experiences of illness and recovery. Alongside the other senses, taste in the seventeenth century was deceptive and hazardous. Today, its absence is just as menacing.

– Claire Turner

Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).

Bayle against the Brexit Blues

Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?

You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.

Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.

Antony McKenna