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Church and Chocolate – The Turbulent Relationship of the two C’s

The strength of the Catholic Church and their presence in Europe is a commonly known fact, and it’s something that still holds true today.  Through the shrewd political tactics during the turmoil of the middle ages, the Catholic Church’s religious influence over western Europe became all encompassing (Hanson, 24-26). As someone who grew up in a religious household, the idea that chocolate would be a point of contention within the church was not just fascinating, but almost incomprehensible without a deeper understanding of what chocolate stood for when it was first introduced.

With the discovery of chocolates that came from the New World, questions began emerging within the church. Was this pagan beverage something that they supported or denounced? Would this beverage be beneficial to their influence or be a thorn on their side? It should be noted that when chocolate’s influence started rising in Europe, the Catholic Church was going through their own upheaval of what we now know as the Reformation, or the religious wars (Coe, 137).  They were struggling with the emergence of the Protestant wave and trying to maintain their borders and influence over the members that were unhappy with what the church represented.

This post isn’t to argue whether or not the church’s continuous changes in stance of chocolate was right or wrong, but to highlight how the discovery of chocolate brought about not just socioeconomic changes, but religious changes as well.

Fasting, Women and Poison

While there is no real record of when exactly chocolate reached Europe, but the first appearance takes place in Spain (Coe, 129-128). Making its way through the royal courts and nobility, the popularity of this beverage spiraled. This is also when the questions of chocolate and its relationship with the church began coming into question.

In 1636 Antonio de León Pinelo asked the question, “Where does chocolate fit into our moral and religious system?” (Martin, pp. 23).  Looking further back, we see that even before, there was a Dominican friar who had formally asked the pope whether or not chocolate was okay to consume during fast. It is stated that the pope merely had a good laugh with the cardinals regarding this question and did not even bother to write a response. So, why would this have been an issue? The church’s dilemma came from several issues: this was a beverage from a pagan colony that did not believe in their God, this chocolate beverage was often used as a meal substitute, and the products that were mixed in to the chocolate beverages could count as a type of food.

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Treatise by Leon Pinelo. Madrid, 1636.

The question about the consumption of chocolate, which was mostly in liquid form at the time, actually became a legitimate debate as time went by.  Jesuits, who had wholly accepted chocolate and were already using it as a tool for trades and investments, were for everything chocolate. Yet, the Dominicans who were much more puritanical and traditional, argued that the whole point of fast was to purify the body of food and thirst quenching liquids and thus chocolate should not be allowed (Coe, 148). Despite the fact that chocolate (once with the addition of sugar to subdue the bitterness of it) became a favorite amongst the cardinals and the pope, who declared that it was OK to consume during fast, many puritanical priests still held on to the idea that chocolate was not okay.

There was also the issue that chocolate had such strong ties to women, and the status was women was always a point of contention in the church (Martin, Lecture 3).  Since chocolate was prepared by women, the church initially felt that it was almost inappropriate for it to be enjoyed by men, especially during fast.  The church also probably felt threatened of their power when European women in Latin Americas, who had grown up away from Europe, did not listen to the sermons that were conducted in these colonies and instead chose to gossip right outside the church drinking chocolate while the priests were speaking (Martin, Lecture 3). It isn’t hard to see why the church began to perceive the presence as a threat to their ideals and their teachings.

Raimundo_Madrazo_-_Hot_Chocolate“Hot Chocolate”. Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, 1884-1885.

Also, the idea that chocolate was not a “Gift of God”, but perhaps something more sinister came to be with with the perceived murder of Pope Clement XIV.  Because chocolate had become sweeter and the taste was so strong, it was thought as the ideal vessel for poison.  When it was rumored that the pope was slowly poisoned to death through his favorite beverage, the consumption of chocolate within the church was also soured. Even though the rumor was eventually debunked, the idea that chocolate could be used as a tool of weapon made people much more wary of it.

The Society of Jesus

However, if there was a group of strong advocates for chocolate within the church, it was the Jesuits. The Jesuits were both feared and disliked by people inside and outside the church. This was mostly linked to their history as the militant arms of the church but also due to their large success in using slavery in the New World for their own profit. They captured and used forced labor on the locals to harvest large amounts of not just tobacco and cotton, but also cacao beans for their own monetary gains (Moss, 29).

The Jesuit missionaries tried to take this success past the Americas and Europe into parts of Asia. They wanted to repeat the success they had found in the New World and expand to China and other parts of the East. While they were mostly unsuccessful, they did find large amounts of success in the Philippines. As the Philippines became a Spanish colony, using the influence of the Catholic religion, they also introduced chocolate as a source of beverage and food as well.  The country, still to this day, enjoy copious amounts of chocolate and tend to have a lot of chocolate based food and beverages during the Christmas holidays.

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Malagos Chocolate (Philippine Chocolate Brand). Malagos webpage.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

de Madrazo y Garreta, Raimundo; featured image. 1884-1885. Private collection. Oil on canvas. http://www.artnet.com/artists/raimundo-de-madrazo-y-garreta/hot-chocolate-806TPfsQ-L3wKppXQc2LlA2

Hanson, Eric O. Catholic church in world politics. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Malagos Chocolate; featured image. 2016. Malagos Facebook Page.

Martin, Carla. 2018 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 7th, pp.23, 25.

Martin, Carla. 2018 AAAS E-119 Lecture 3. Chocolate Expansion. February 7th.

Moss, Sarah, and Alexander Badenoch. Chocolate: A Global History. Reaktion Books, 2009.

Pinelo, Leon; featured image. Madrid, 1636.