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From Wonderful Uses to Wonderful Taste: Chocolate and the Significance of the Galenic Theory in its Consumption

The discovery of the “New World” by European explorers was notable for introducing the European continent to a variety of new plants and foods. Chocolate became one of the most popular imports from the Mesoamerican region as it was commonly used for its medicinal properties in the Galenic practice of medicine (Coe 122). Eventually the theory of medical treatment as advocated by Galen was disproved by William Harvey (Ribatti). At the same time, Chocolate enjoyed a dramatic surge in popularity and consumption (Coe 233); it was the fall of the Galenic system of medicine which permitted the rise of chocolate as a popularly consumed commodity in Europe.

During the time of the exploration of the North and South American continents, European medical practice relied on the theories developed by Aelius Galen, a physician born in modern-day Greece in the second century A.D. (Coe 121). Galen’s theory relied on maintaining an adequate balance of the “four humours” within the body, regulating the levels of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile to ensure that the patient remained healthy; it revolved around the treatment of maladies with opposite treatments (i.e. a “dry” illness could be cured by “wet” medicine) (Coe 121). A useful illustration can be found in this 15th century sketch of the various areas of the body which can be bled to treat a sanguineous (bloody) ailment. Galenic theory posited that if a patient were too sanguineous, they could be treated through bleeding (Greenstone). Losing blood would allow equilibrium among the humors to be reached in the body, and so this chart would be useful to medieval doctors for locating the best areas where a patient can be bled. In this painting by an unknown painter from Finland, the practice of bloodletting is depicted, illustrating the methods used by Galenic doctors and providing a depiction of the patient’s experience of bloodletting.

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(Unknown Artist)

The Spanish sent a variety of men to the New World in the hopes of learning about the environment of the Caribbean and of Mesoamerica; they discovered that cacao and chocolate proved useful in medical treatment. One of these men was King Phillip II’s personal physician, Francisco Hernández, who studied many of Mesoamerica’s plants and foods, “slavishly” applying Galenic theory to everything he encountered (Coe 122). The True History of Chocolate describes Hernández’ description of chocolate’s medicinal properties:

“The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature’…but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole it is very nourishing. Because of its ‘cool’ nature, drinks made from it are good in hot weather, and to cure fevers. Adding ‘hot’ native flavorings ‘warms the stomach, perfumes the breath…[and] combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics’ [sic]” (Coe 122)

Chocolate’s medicinal properties were established in 1591 when Juan de Cárdenas published a treatise of New World foods which analyzed the various properties of cacao, praising its “sustaining” properties. By the end of the 16th century, chocolate had taken root in the Spanish system.

William Harvey’s discovery of the body’s circulatory system disproved the Galenic theory. In 1628, Harvey authored Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, referred to by the public as De Motu Cordis. In De Motu Cordis, Harvey, the “physician extraordinary” to James I of England, explored how blood flows within the body, studying the various components of the human circulatory system and using vivisection, dissection, and mathematics to dispel the Galenic theory that the heart sucked blood from the rest of the body (Ribatti). Harvey’s work, which proved that the body created and circulated new blood within the body, provided scientific evidence to disprove the Galenic theory; although he was initially condemned as a heretic by the scientific community, Harvey’s findings were acknowledged as being scientific fact by the end of the 17th century (Wells).

Harvey’s disproval of the Galenic humoral theories practiced in European medical treatments contributed to the rise of chocolate as a popularly consumed good. As time went on, Harvey’s discoveries described in De Motu Cordis spread and became widely understood among the people, and by the 19th century, “nobody believed in the therapeutic virtues attributed to chocolate any more…No longer did they have to fret over whether chocolate or its flavorings were ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ or ‘temperate,’ dry or moist” (Coe 233-234). Because consuming chocolate no longer had an effect on the body’s health, the people were free to consume chocolate for pleasure; Sophie and Michael Coe note that at about the same time that the medical implications of Harvey’s research spread throughout Europe, consumption of chocolate surged dramatically. A scene titled “Miracle Max”, from the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, provides an example of chocolate’s transformation from medicine to delicacy:


In it, a local doctor coats a pill in chocolate, explaining that the chocolate’s purpose is “to help [the pill] go down”, rather than being used for medicinal purposes. The side-by-side use of chocolate with medicine in the “Miracle Max” scene is an interesting way to consider chocolate’s transition from a doctor’s tool to a luxury food because in the scene, chocolate is used not for its healing properties, but because people like to eat it.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate”. Thames and Hudson. London, England. 1996. Print.

Greenstone, Gerry M.D.. “The History of Bloodletting”. BC Medical Journal. Vol 52, No. 1. January/February 2010. Print.

Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”. Penguin Books. Middlesex, England. 1986. Print.

Owain, Gutun. “Bloodletting Sketch”. The National Library of Wales. 1488-1489. Web.

Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes”. Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, California. 2001. Print.

The Princess Bride. Dir. Rob Reiner. 20th Century Fox. 1987. Film.

Ribatti, Domenico. “William Harvey and the Discovery of the Circulation of Blood”. Journal of Angiogenesis Research. Published 21 September 2009. Print.

Unknown Artist. “A surgeon letting blood from a woman’s arm as a physician looks on”. Oil painting. 18th century. Wellcome Library, London.

Wells, S. D. “Much of What Science Knows Today About Blood Circulation was discovered   by Dr. William Harvey in the 1600s, but was Initially Considered Heresy”. Naturalnews.com. 11 October 2013. Web.

The Adaptive Rhetoric of Chocolate

Chocolate and cacao began as a source of food for the people in Mesoamerica and was introduced to early Europe under the guise of medicine. Since then, chocolate has enjoyed the status as medicine, as a dessert treat, and now even as a social justice instrument. The many hats chocolate has worn spanning such a long period of time and across many cultures is its ability to change discourse and rhetoric. The story of cacao and chocolate is a dynamic one, but centered on the idea that people will find a justification to eat and drink cacao and chocolate by whatever cultural means they must. The most important and earliest example of this idea is portrayed through the history of how chocolate found its way to Europe from Mesoamerica under the category of “medicine” (Dillinger).

Early Europeans were skeptical of the mysterious cacao and chocolate drink the Aztecs imbibed in. The Mesoamericans associated cacao and chocolate with gods and the spirits, a practice Europeans decried at the time. It was only when the Europeans became aware of the Mesoamerican and Aztec use of cacao and chocolate as medicine did they begin to look at the cacao and chocolate drink as of potential use in their modern society.

The use of cacao and chocolate as medicine was not adopted by the Europeans at first and it was a slow process. Fernandez de Oviedo of Spain was the first account of European’s using the new cacao/chocolate as medicine, albeit not ingested. Oviedo had cut his foot on a rock and cured the wound by covering it was bandages soaked in a cacao by-product, cacao butter (Coe & Coe 112). For cacao and chocolate to truly become a part of pre-modern Baroque European medicine practice, they needed to fit into the framework of medicine at the time, or the practice of “humoral theory.” The Classical Greek invention of humoral theory by Hippocrates and taken up by Galen, focused on the notion that the body contains four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The right proportion and mixture of the humors would result in good health and an imbalance would cause disease (Coe & Coe 121). Furthermore, humors, diseases, and drugs to cure the diseases and imbalances were categorized as “hot” or “cold” and “moist” or “dry” (Coe & Coe 120). It was Royal Physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernandez who first categorized cacao and chocolate using Galenic analysis and is who exposed the Europeans of the time to the medicinal uses of cacao and chocolate. Hernandez concluded that cacao was “temperate in nature… but leaning to the cold and humid” and drinks made from it would cure fevers. He goes on to suggest that adding the mexaxochil, a “hot” cacao spice, flavoring to chocolate “warms the stomach, perfumes the breath… and combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics” (Coe & Coe 122). It is in these Galenic theory medical terms that much of the Baroque commentary on chocolate and cacao is couched in. From 1570 on, the year when Francisco Hernandez made the rhetoric of cacao and chocolate relevant to European society and medical practice of the time, chocolate and cacao have adapted to fit into various cultures and time periods.


This advertisement for Milk Chocolate in London demonstrates how important the medical rhetoric of chocolate truly was at the time. The ad mentions the benefits of chocolate on the stomach and in consumptive cases. 

The story of how Mesoamerican cacao and chocolate came to find it’s place in European society under the guise of medicinal use illuminates the importance of cultural framing and cultural rhetoric for adaptation of new things. It seems of recent that American chocolate eaters are returning to these early debates on the medicinal uses of cacao and chocolate to justify chocolate consumption and perhaps create a new market of “healthy” chocolate. Chocolate advertising and rhetoric of the near future may differ from the chocolate marketing of today, with language such as “creamy” and “rich” being familiar and approachable to a past generation and replaced by contemporary buzzwords such as “antioxidant,” “heart healthy,” and “fair trade” that are more comfortable and important to the modern chocolate buyer. Just as the Europeans of the early 16th century were averse to the language of chocolate and cacao as “the food of gods” and its Mesoamerican spiritual discourse, there may exist a paradigm shift in the future of chocolate language focused on popular buzzword language. The history of chocolate and it’s ability to prosper in European society due to Francisco Hernandez’s humoral analysis, rather than as a treat or a drink to honor gods, teaches us a valuable lesson in how cultures adapt to one another over space and time.

These chocolate advertisements display the changing rhetoric of chocolate in our society today. On the left, a Dove ad uses the terms “delicious” and “rich,” words that are being used less and less in current chocolate advertisements. On the right, an ad for IQ Chocolate shows how the chocolate ads are adapting to that buzzword language and cultural relevance, as the terms “superfood,” “antioxidant,” and “bean to bar” all appear to be the main focus of this modern chocolate. 


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130.8 (2000): n. pag. Print.



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