What Europeans Actually Believed: Chocolate and Culture Shock

Life before chocolate

When something new and radical is introduced into the mainstream pipeline, people generally react with enthusiasm, then fear, and then bored acceptance. The history of chocolate in Europe follows that same pattern. Chocolate reached mainland Europe in the 16th century, well after the European colonists had discovered the miracle food among the Aztecs and the Mayans in Mesoamerica. The refreshing taste and stimulating energy of chocolate must have come to a shock to Europeans, and made them believe that there was some health benefit to the drink. Medicine was still very primitive, and it hadn’t been too long since half the continent was wiped out by bubonic plague. So it could be said that Europeans were waiting for a miracle, and thought that it might come in this mysterious substance from half a world away (Dillinger 2057S).

The four humorals.

At the time, the chief medical theory was still the humoristic system devised hundreds of years before by the Greek physician Galen. The belief was that the body was a sort of concoction consisting of four humors, each with its own specific properties.   For example, the warm and moist humor of blood, which represented spring, was housed in the liver, the melancholic black bile of autumn could be found in the spleen, and so on. A person’s health depended on keeping these humors in balance (Coe 126 – 128). It was a nice and logical idea, and it’s too bad it turned out to be wrong. But if such things as “hot” and “sanguine” could be considered essential elements of human health, then it makes sense that chocolate would be used primarily as medicine in its first introduction to Europe. In fact, when people began to sell and eat it for its taste alone, many physicians thought it both perverse and dangerous. Chocolate, on the humoral system, was considered “cold” in its natural state, but “hot” when European ingredients were added. So depending on how it was prepared, chocolate could bring balance to someone who was overly hot or overly cold. Of course, being an imaginary system, many argued that chocolate was naturally hot and ingredients made it unnaturally cold – it was impossible to prove either way. (Coe 130)

The fashionable thing to do.

And because of that, people began to wonder about the actual merits of chocolate. Was it food, drink, medicine, or something more sinister? There was debate among Catholics as to whether it was acceptable to drink chocolate during a fast. Not even the approval of Pope Gregory XIII could fully quench doubts about the sinfulness of chocolate, especially with the burgeoning belief that it was also an aphrodisiac. In France, where chocolate was popular among the aristocratic classes, there was some question as to its overall merits. A letter written by the French aristocrat Marie de Rabutin-Chantal in 1671 notes that many were beginning to consider chocolate something that caused illness, palpitations, fever and death. She even tells of a pregnant woman who ate so much chocolate that she gave birth to a black stillborn baby, and that chocolate is no longer fashionable (Coe 155). She was wrong to predict its demise, but it’s telling that there was an environment at the time where such a thing seemed possible. If there was no significant rebellion against chocolate, it’s at least clear that the introduction of a foreign object into an isolated culture will always produce controversy. There is no clear history of European feelings about chocolate, but as we know, it’s remained popular up to the present day. Having discarded the old beliefs and formulas, we still accept it.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Teresa L. Dillinger. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition vol 130 no. 8. 1 August 2000: pages 2057S – 2072S. Web.

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