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In times of sickness, we turn to food for comfort, prevention and cure

From vinegar to garlicky milk, during past pandemics recipes were prescribed as potential remedies

By Felicity Cloake

Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed the persistent threat of infection that runs through the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwellian saga, The Mirror and the Light, had I been reading it in normal times; at the moment it’s hard not to be hypersensitive to mentions of plague. Other similarities resonate too: food in Mantel’s world is seen as both a prophylactic and a remedy, rather like the recent rash of articles in praise of the “immune-boosting” powers of various “superfoods”. 

To reduce the risk during outbreaks of “the sweating sickness”, doctors in Cromwellian times thought it sensible to eat lightly (Henry VIII’s cooks must have missed that particular memo), favouring bread and vegetables over easily spoilable ingredients like meat, fish and dairy – putrid food was also suspected of harbouring disease in an age before reliable refrigeration. The 14th-century Perugian physician Gentile da Foligno, who sounds like my kind of quack, recommends sticking to “good meat” and “select wines, so that men may live in good cheer as they give vent to their fear”.

His French colleagues were pro cheese, while eggs were a bit of a grey area: Ibn Khatimah from Moorish Spain advocated them dipped in vinegar but advised avoiding those dipped in garlic.

In fact, classified as a “cold, dry liquid” in the theory of humours which still dominated contemporary medicine, vinegar was generally reckoned to be good for the hot, moist bodies of the sick. As well as being poured over food, and sprinkled around to keep out “bad air”, it was used in theriac, a syrupy paste believed to be a universal antidote. This fiendishly complicated mixture might contain as many as 80 ingredients, from cinnamon and rhubarb to opium, which no doubt would make one feel a bit better… temporarily. 

“Plague waters” like those given to the diarist Samuel Pepys during the 1665 outbreak were similarly popular; the recipe for Doctor Butler’s “Preservative Against the Plague” calls for a mixture of wood sorrel, sugar and mithridate and is described by Wikipedia as “a semi-mythical remedy with as many as 65 ingredients”. Another involving numerous herbs and spices steeped in ale and treacle was to be administered to the sick for “three mornings and evenings. If they hold it, they shall have life.” A London broadside cheerfully titled “Lord Have Mercy”, which alongside mortality figures and prayers for the sick, contained some more concrete help, suggests “a cheap medicine to keep from infection” involving two cloves of crushed garlic in a pint of fresh milk – which would certainly keep most things away, if not the plague. Some even suggested drinking your own urine. It should be noted, of course, that, though bubonic plague persists (a Mongolian couple died after contracting it last year), it is best treated with antibiotics. 

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Some good did at least come of the 14th-century Black Death for those who survived it – labour shortages meant wages rose, bringing with them an improvement in diet: fresh meat and fish, and fine wheat bread instead of coarse barley and rye loaves. Historian Colin Spencer even suggests we have this plague to thank for our rich baking tradition, as it gave peasants access to home ovens for the first time.

Sadly, as yet, there seems little prospect that the current pandemic will have any such silver lining for those who need it most – but here’s hoping. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak