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Health benefits and the human body

In Step 2.15, Marc described Ralegh’s Great Cordial as ‘part magic, part medicine’. In this step we will dig a little more deeply into Elizabethan views on medicine, and explore how some of the cordial ingredients might have been viewed. Food and diet are subjects which we inextricably link to health today and this was no different in the Elizabethan era.

The link between food, health and the human body actually dates back to Ancient Greek and Roman medical practices. In the 16th century classical sources such as the medical treatises in the Hippocratic corpus or Galen’s work were still influential, the epitome of medical learning. Much of this classical medicine was based not on surgery but on theories of the four humours , and the need to have a balance between these in order to be well.

But what were the four humours and how did they affect the human body? The four humours were, essentially, seen as the four basic elements which made up the human body. These were: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Each humour was associated with a different element, season, organ, temperament and, importantly, different qualities (as shown in the table below). If these humours came to be imbalanced in the body, therefore resulting in a higher or lower quantity of one to the others, the body would become unwell; and the best way to rectify this was to use foods, or medicines, which could redress this balance. For example, a fever was caused by too much yellow bile, making the body hot and dry: to counteract this, cold and wet foods were recommended (foods like cucumber or lettuce), which would bring the humours back into alignment and the human body back to health.

A table showing the related element, season, organ, temperament and qualities with each humour. Accessibility text available as a PDF at the bottom of the Step

All early medicines were of natural origin, and were mainly plant-based, so many of the ingredients used within food could be expected to be found also within medicines. But while early medicines were primarily made up of only a few ingredients, and were thus known as ‘simples’, the number of ingredients added to some medicines increased with time. Ralegh’s cordial with its vast number of ingredients is a good example of this.

During the 16th and 17th centuries travel and trade not only increased access to the classical ingredients mentioned in the ancient medicines but, with the discovery of the Americas, it was also a period in which new remedies were being discovered. Locally available plants (especially herbs) were now being used in conjunction with spices from the Middle East and Indies, and plants from the New World. Apothecaries, on whom the physicians relied for their medicinal ingredients, began to stock an increasing range of products – with spices such as ginger being particularly popular.

It’s important to remember that these ingredients were also making their way on to tables at the same time, and the wealthier the customer, the more exotic the range of products they would be likely to experience. However, even those of lower social standings would know how to prepare herbal remedies and a number of family cookbooks from this period contain recipes for medicine. A cook could do the same job as an apothecary, although on a smaller scale and perhaps with a more limited range of ingredients. With this in mind, we finish on the comments made by Andrew Boorde (1490-1549) in his Dyetary of Healthy (Dietary of Health):

‘A good Cook is already the halfe of a Physician, for the chief physic dothe come from the kitchen; wherefore the physician and the cook for sick men must consult together for the preparation of meate for sick men’.

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This article is from the free online course:

A History of Royal Food and Feasting

University of Reading