Devil in the Dark? Antagonism between Chocolate and the Church in 17th Century Spain

Chocolate has overcome not only thousand-mile journeys from its original cacao trees and centuries of evolution in preparation styles but also a grand joust with the Catholic Church. Analyzing the spar casts light on modern-day challenges that occur at the intersection of food, society, and governing powers.

Property of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/469711436109740538/
A modern creation of chocolate molded into a church. As this article questions, which did citizens value more–their chocolate or their church?

Cast as a “daemonic Diablo,”[1] chocolate was originally introduced to Spain as a drink of prepared and rolled cocoa disintegrated in water (later, milk) and mixed with spices such as sugar, vanilla, or cinnamon to the delight of nobility. In 1569, Pope Pius V sampled a cup of the hot liquid but found it, “so foul that he decided there was no need to ban it.”[2] Many Spaniards thought differently of the beverage. In particular, church-going ladies in the late 1600’s were so hooked on the frothed chocolate that they ordered their servants to deliver it to them during Catholic mass.[3] Church leadership immediately objected to the interruptions and offered an ultimatum to the accused: stop drinking chocolate during mass or stop coming to mass. Unfortunately for the church, the devil won out. Members of the congregation switched churches[4] or attended mass at the convents instead. In this circumstance, it appears that people left the church because they “worshipped” chocolate more than their religion. The historical role of drinking chocolate as an Aztec food offering for the gods is quite relevant in this case because it shows a historical evolution of chocolate being used to honor one’s god into chocolate tearing a man away from his god.

A modern day chocolate sales campaign to raise money for a church in America. In 17th century Spain, this would have been very ironic.
A modern day chocolate sales campaign to raise money for a church in America. In 17th century Spain, this would have been very ironic.

After considering both the erotic desires it evoked and the fatigue it suppressed, the Catholic Church’s biggest chocolate debate centered on whether the drink should be allowed during fasting. Scrutinizing the effects of the beverage was Solorzano y Pereyra who, around the year 1629, claimed that chocolate defeated the principle intent of fasting because it “excited the venereal appetite.”[5] Spaniard Antonio de Leon Pinelo redirected focus to the contents of the drink by offering that, “the theological problem depends on how much nourishing material is added.”[6] Meaning, if the base of the drink is water and not breadcrumbs then the final drink is not a food. The Italian Francesco Maria Brancaccio changed focus yet again by debating the law, not the application: “fasting is not divine law, but ecclesiastical law, and thus subject to change.”[7] Given his perspective that the drink had medicinal benefits, he believed changing the ecclesiastical law for chocolate was appropriate because taking the drink while fasting is equivalent to taking medicine. In 1662, Pope Alexander VII settled the matter with a single sentence: “Liquidum non frangit jejunum [Liquids [which would have included drinking chocolate] do not break the fast].”[8] With that decree, the varied perspective of drinking chocolate as a “medicine appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation,”[9] relieved the need for God-fearing Spaniards to choose between pleasing the established Catholic Church and enjoying the pleasures of chocolate.

Pope Alexander VII settled the debate over chocolate and fasting with a single sentence: "Liquidum non frangit jejunum [Liquids [which would have included drinking chocolate] do not break the fast]."
Pope Alexander VII settled the debate over chocolate and fasting with a single sentence: “Liquidum non frangit jejunum [Liquids [which would have included drinking chocolate] do not break the fast].”
Familiarity with the Spanish-chocolate debate discussed herein casts light on the ways in which substances (particularly those with addictive or abnormal side effects) penetrate society and how citizens and formal institutions can respond. For example, the current case of marijuana in Colorado mirrored chocolate’s progression in 17th century Spain. What began as an imported substance soon infatuated the public. Adoption of the substance in everyday life disrupted common practices, provoking the government to outlaw it. When public demand grew too high, debates centered on whether society should change the classification to fit the laws (“medical substance”) or change the laws to fit the demand. In marijuana’s case, a successful vote for legalization made the plant available for sale in Colorado dispensaries. The state of Colorado’s tax revenue has since skyrocketed[10] while citizens moved in and out of the state according to their disapproval or support of the substance’s status.

From a meta-analytical approach, the historic antagonism between chocolate and the Catholic Church in Spain demonstrates the impact that foods can make on the culture and priorities of citizens. The choice to drink chocolate instead of going to church reminds us to question our priority of influences—would we rather enjoy the taste and energetic effects of chocolate than worship our creator? Taken a step further, is the pleasure of consuming a substance more influential than the fear of angering a ruler (whether political or religious)? The answer to this question could change a generation’s leadership style from raising squadrons of fear-mongerers to instigating policies of positive rewards. The latter outcome would be yet another way that chocolate has brought goodness to the world.

[1] C-SPAN. “Discussion with Marcy Norton.” August 12, 2011. http://www.c-span.org/video/?301403-6/book-discussion-sacred-gifts-profane-pleasures

[2] University of Pennsylvania. “The Story of Chocolate.” Undated.

[3] Ball, Ann. “When the Church Said ‘No’ To Chocolate.” Mexconnect. January 1, 2000. http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1469-when-the-church-said-no-to-chocolate

[4] Evans, Holly. “The Chocolate Chronicles: The History Behind the Food of the Gods.” The Examiner. February 14, 2011. http://www.examiner.com/article/the-chocolate-chronicles-the-history-behind-the-food-of-gods

[5] Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 152.

[6] [6] Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 152.

[7][7]Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 153.

[8] Ball, Ann. “When the Church Said ‘No’ To Chocolate.” Mexconnect. January 1, 2000. http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1469-when-the-church-said-no-to-chocolate

[9] [9]Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 156.

[10] Ingraham, Christopher. “Colorado Marijuana Tax Revenues Surge as Recreational Sales Surpass Medical for the First Time.” The Washington Post. September 9, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/09/11/colorado-marijuana-tax-revenues-surge-as-recreational-sales-surpass-medical-for-the-first-time/

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