Detoxing in history: the morning after the night before.
It’s January. After the festive season is over it’s that time of year when we take stock, count the calories and do our best to offset some of the costs to our body of overindulgence. Up and down the country people will be joining gyms (as my fitness trainer says “entering like lions but leaving like lambs”), doing too much too soon and quitting before the soles of their Nikes even get scuffed. Others will be starting their healthy eating regimes, cutting out the chocolate, cakes and dairy and starting ‘holistic’ mind and body routines to try and ‘zen’ their way back to health, wealth and happiness. It’s human nature to overdo it, and it’s certainly nothing new.
In the seventeenth century, overindulgence was frowned upon. Gluttony is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins and people were extolled from the pulpit to be mindful of the special place in Hell reserved for those who couldn’t control themselves! In medical terms too, overeating in general was viewed as risky, and medical practitioners cautioned those who would stuff themselves that they were in danger of all manner of ‘windy diseases’.
Medical self-help books were becoming popular during this period and many contained lists of remedies for the afflicted, but were also not afraid to dish out morals with the medicine. Thomas Tryon’s, 1697 A way to health, long life and happiness, or, A discourse of temperance and the particular nature of all things requisite for the life of man was a typical tome. On the subject of overeating, Tryon had much to say.
It was a gross error, he argued, “for People to imagine, that a great quantity must be thrust into the Belly”. “Nothing destroys the Health, and breeds evil Juices in the Body more than this Intemperance, which most People are subject to more or less; and from hence are generated Windy Diseases and Griping Pains in the Stomach, and Fumes in the Head, which miserably afflict many of these Gluttonous People.”
The cause of all this misery? Tryon was clear. It was “Great drinking of Wine and strong Drinks, after full Meals of Flesh and Fish, [which]do often wound the health… many of the richest sort of People in this Nation might know by woful experience, especially in London, who do yearly spend many hundreds, (I think I may say thousands) of Pounds on their ungodly Paunches.”
“Many of whom may save themselves that charge and trouble [of going] upright, for their Bellies are swelled up to their Chins, which forces them to behold the Skie, but not for Contemplation-sake you may be sure, but out of pure necessity, and without any more Impressions of Reverence towards the Almighty … all their precious hours are spent between the Platter and the Glass, and the Close-stool and Piss-pot”
That told them.
The concept of overindulging specifically at Christmas, however, would have been an alien one to our seventeenth-century counterparts. Christmas in the seventeenth century was largely a one-day festival. Beyond the advent sermons and the observation of the twelve days (including the ‘twelfth cake’), there was little celebration before or after the day. For those who could afford it, though, Christmas Day did involve some sort of special meal. In 1660 Samuel Pepys’ Christmas dinner was a hearty meal including chicken and duck…so hearty in fact that he fell asleep in the church pew later that day! For the lower orders, celebration foods might include white bread (then a luxury item), plum pudding, and plenty of beef. The basic diet of the early modern period was generally pretty basic, with plenty of barley bread and meat; for the very poorest it is unlikely that Christmas would have involved anything more than the usual fare. (For more on the history of food check out Dr Annie Gray’s great website http://www.anniegray.co.uk/index.html)
But for some, Christmas Day was just as likely to involve a fast than a feast. When Cromwell banned religious festivals in the mid seventeenth century, Christmas was pared down to its bare religious components, with no feast, games or merry-making. For Puritans, ever wary of artifice or show, elements such as a special lunch were easily dispensed of.
For those whose feasting had left them feeling queasy, though, a number of options were available. In the early modern period, overeating was referred to as ‘’surfeit”, and a range of options were available. Chief among these was the good, old-fashioned purge, either upwards or downwards. This could be self-administered; something like rhubarb would do the trick. (A word of warning here; the variety of rhubarb used in the seventeenth century is not the same as the happy pink variety used in your crumble. Put seventeenth-century rhubarb in your crumble after a meal and you wouldn’t be downstairs to enjoy the coffee and mints!). If you didn’t fancy the job yourself, then a range of purgatives and emetics (medicines to make you sick) could also be purchased from the local practitioner or apothecary.
A number of ready-made concoctions, known as surfeit waters, were also available, which aimed to calm the stomach down and release the pent up windy humours. Nicholas Culpeper recommended Liverwort as a sovereign herb for surfeits, and especially those whose livers had been corrupted by their excesses!
It is also worth noting that the concept of a health regime is also nothing new; our early-modern ancestors got there well before us with what they knew as health ‘regimens’. These often included lists of foods to eat, things to avoid, days to avoid doing things on, and even medical proverbs. One medieval Welsh proverb advised people who wanted to stay healthy never to disturb a Wren’s nest!
A book attributed to a practitioner, Sansom Jones of Bettws, Monmouthshire, contained a long list of rules. Some of these seem remarkably modern. “First use labour and exercise” he advised, to keep the body moving, such as throwing a wooden ball against a wall, and also exercising in fresh air an hour before eating meat. Food was to be well-cooked and alcohol (in fact any drink) was to be used in moderation. “Keepe thy heade and neck warme and thy feet drie” and this would help the body to “consume the watery humours”. Perhaps most important, according to Jones, was to “hold thy breath hard now and then, which forceth the blood to the outward parts of the bodye”. So, fresh air, exercise, temperance and diet…all things that your life coach will happily sell you today!
Christmas may be over but now is the time to join the centuries-old tradition of undoing the effect of excesses on your body. Do Thomas Tryon and Sansom Jones proud and watch the diet, get outside and get those new trainers dirty! Happy New Year!