The following article is a guest post by Kyra Kramer, author of Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII.
In my last post I discussed the relationship between the foods we eat at Christmas time and Tudor medical theory. In this post I’ll tell you why Tudor physicians might have been on to something.
Humoral ideology was radically different from modern medical beliefs, so much so that in hindsight it appears almost childish or even silly. Nevertheless, an across the board denigration of Tudor practices and practitioners is unfair. Within the context of its time, Tudor medicine was complex, sophisticated, and methodical. Like today, it required years of training, a great deal of schooling, and a larger than average share of brains. These were not stupid guys.They could see what treatment helped a patient; they just didn’t have any modern knowledge about why and how it helped.
To recap, the humoral theory of medicine that the Tudors used purported that the human body was presumed to be made up of four elements: earth (cold & dry), air (warm & wet), water (cold & wet), and fire (warm & dry). Each of these elements made a different kind of humor, or fluid, in the body. Earth made black bile, air made blood, water made phlegm, and fire made yellow bile. People’s health depended on the mixtures of humors inside of them, which doctors often referred to as a patient’s “complexion”, since the coloration of the skin was believed to be an invaluable diagnostic tool. In addition, a physician studied the patient’s urine and natal astrological horoscope for clues about his or her humoral makeup. Humors would also vary according to age, gender, nationality, and social class.
In the winter, getting warm was a national pastime. Therefore, foods eaten in the winter would be those that added heat by increasing the amount of fire and air humors in your body. Foods like butter, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, etc … were prefered because they would generate blood and yellow bile. Imagine thinking that a comestible would influence the internal temperature of the body! Isn’t that silly?
It turns out that while butter and company will not make blood and yellow bile, they will indeed add “warmth” to your body on cold winter days and aid your health in general. Exposure to cold makes you generate more energy and burns up body fat. Butter, besides being delicious, has a lot of calories and fat, which is crucial when your butt is freezing in a drafty Tudor home. Sugar was desirable because when your blood sugar is elevated it makes you feel warmer “because sugar content in the blood makes it harder to cool down or freeze”. Thus, a Christmas cookie, which has sugar and butter in abundance (if made correctly) will actually buffer you against the calorie deficit and low blood sugar that can harm you when Jack Frost is nipping at your nose.
That’s all fine and good, you might say, but what about the stuff that is just flavoring your food? How could that warm you up and seem to “confirm” humoral theory to the Tudors?
Well, the sage and onion in your stuffing are both really good for you because they are rich in vitamins and minerals you would otherwise be getting during the winter in Tudor England. Furthermore, sage has been shown to help lessen depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder, where people feel sad because of the lack of sunlight, is not some new invention; people doubtlessly experienced it centuries ago. Eating dishes with sage would lessen feelings of sadness. Sadness was considered “cold” and to create cold humors in those feeling it. If sage made you less sad, then it had made you less cold, and QED it had warmed you up. Onions often induce sweating when eaten, which would also have been considered proof positive that onions made you warmer.
Then there are the myriad health benefits of the most common spices in holiday desserts — cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Cinnamon not only helps you digest sugar, break down fats into energy, and fight off the “intestinal colic and digestive atony associated with cold & debilitated conditions”, it actually stimulates the blood flow to the extremities and makes you feel warmer. Ginger has strong anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea properties, as well as aiding in digestion, so it’s good for you year round. Moreover, it is literally warming: “ginger aids circulation, making you feel warm when nothing else seems to do the trick.” Cloves can be used to ‘break the ice’ as well, since among their many other benefits they expand “the blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood to make the skin feel warmer”. Finally, nutmeg would have been thought of as a heating food because it activates “the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine”, making it another natural antidepressant to fight those midwinter blues. If it cheered you up, people assumed it heated you up, too.
Now, excuse me while I go chow down on some nice warming gingerbread and raise a cup of hot mulled cider in honor of those Tudor physicians and their crazy but sometimes factual theories.