Tag Archives: Galenic humors

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.

Cooking Chocolate: Cacao and Colonial Values

From Hershey’s kisses to Snickers bars, the chocolate circulating contemporary culture tends to be sweet. Contrary to modern times, the Aztecs prepared savory chocolate drinks used for sustenance, religious ceremonies, and special occasions. Aztec people came to the Valley of Mexico by the early 1300s and, after being cast out into small islands, utilized warfare to eventually rule many parts of Mesoamerica. Cacao became integrated into the Aztec way of life following the conquest of the Xoconusco province during the late fifteenth century.


Heavy cacao production occurred in this part of southeast Mesoamerica. By the time Spaniards came to Mexico’s interior, the Aztecs had solidified a sprawling, socially stratified society thriving from the tribute required of provinces. The Aztecs had a rich, amalgamated culture drawing from the land’s natives and the extinct Mayans. In addition to the importance of chocolate in Aztec culture, a close analysis of a recipe narrated by an anonymous conquistador reveals colonialist thinking and ultimately foreshadows the exploitation of Mesoamerican lands and peoples to sustain Europeans’ hunger for chocolate during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Drinking cacao-derived beverages was reserved for elites in Aztec culture, as most likely noticed by an anonymous conquistador when he published his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556. The recipe he provided in his composition mentioned

“seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point [whatever that may mean], and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose” (Coe and Coe 84).

The way chocolate permeated economic and social customs explains why the Aztecs had vessels specially made for chocolate and made sure to foam the liquid for a luxurious feel. Cacao functioned as money, a noble beverage, a sustaining drink for warriors, and a metaphor for the heart or blood, giving it use in sacrificial rituals. The recipe hints at cacao’s high status by mentioning the specialized, precious silverware involved in the formalized process. However, this recipe from the “gentleman of Hérnan Cortés” leaves out some information (84). After carefully extracting the almond-like cacao seeds from the mucilaginous pulp in cacao tree pods, they had to be fermented and winnowed from their shells. The vague “other small seeds” mentioned are most likely maize, as the plant was common in food preparation due to its versatile and filling nature.


Above is an image of an Aztec “woman gently dropping shucked corn into boiling water” (Maite Gomez-Rejon 1). Maize was a crucial food item, as the woman is blowing on maize to calm it before cooking it in a fire. Unlike the hot chocolate drinks of the Mayans, the Aztecs served their cacao mixtures cold and incorporated a variety of flavors and spices.


The most common addition was chili, a sharp peppery taste well-known to the Aztecs. Though other portions of the conquistador’s publication are not mentioned, the recipe cited by Coe is interesting for what it does and does not contain. Cacao’s significance is implied, but the lack of detail regarding cacao’s preparation and the type of grains or seasonings added suggest and defend a colonialist mentality.

In order to justify plundering lands, killing natives, disrupting cultures, and stealing natural resources from distant lands, European conquistadors had to label locals as inferior savages in need of civilization and Christianity. This entailed disparaging the Aztecs and trivializing their ways of life. The anonymous conquistador implies that chocolate is significant to the Aztecs, yet cannot be bothered to supply thorough information despite having ties to Mesoamerica through Cortés. He ambiguously refers to additives as “other small seeds,” leaving out the important, widespread uses of other flavorings (84). The conquistador snidely comments “whatever that may mean,” dismissing the Aztec people’s socially constructed realities and thereby encouraging his readers to do the same (84). The recipe’s cavalier tone and shortcomings in capturing Aztec chocolate traditions reflect views shared by other conquistadors. Hernán Cortés officially claimed Tenochtitlan for Spain in 1521 using violence and deception, aided by beliefs in European superiority over the Aztecs.

Cortés acted on behalf of Spain, a country that sanctioned these measures because of colonialist ideas. The anonymous conquistador, and later the Western world, praised the chocolate drink rather than the culture that created it, removing the Aztecs’ agency and shifting the focus to the product rather than the producer. A close reading of this recipe is limited by the scarce context about the conquistador and his writings, though the telling language he used has historical significance.

The rest of the recipe contains passionate praise of the chocolate drink with exaggerated language that fed into the European chocolate frenzy and justified cacao’s expansive cultivation after conquistadors destroyed the Aztecs. The gentleman of Cortés found that

“This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else. … It is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (84).

Hyperbole litters his description, for while the alkaloids and caffeine provide ample energy, the maize-chocolate beverage was not the “greatest sustenance” one could drink “in the world” to sustain him “no matter how far he walks” (84). By embellishing the effects of the Aztec cacao recipe, the conquistador encourages Europeans to greedily consume chocolate. As cacao became firmly ensconced in European appetites, forced labor disrupted indigenous populations and tied them to perpetual debt as they tried to keep pace with demand. The conquistador comments that the drink is “cold by nature” to classify the drink according to the humoral theory of disease and nutrition that was popular in Europe until the 1800s (84).


According to the system, health “depended on a proper balance among four bodily humors” – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm  (Presilla 27). An example of achieving this stability is to “correct excessively ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ tendencies” through “doses of ‘cold’ and ‘moist’ foods” (27). The Aztec chocolate drink had to fit into this humoral theory in order to be adopted by Europeans, so its designation as cold asserts its place in the Western world and gives Europeans more reason to eagerly consume it at the expense of Mesoamerican peoples and lands. Alternatively, this classification empties the drink of the intrinsic meanings it had within the community that created it in order to fill the beverage with palatable European ideals.

The limited analysis of the Aztec cacao drink recipe provided by an anonymous conquistador exposes a harmful colonialist worldview. Through dismissive comments, a contemptuous disregard for the full picture of Aztec life, and exaggerations of the drink, the conquistador sheds light on beliefs that justified colonial ventures. Chocolate’s relationship with European violence is a horrifying reality evident in the sixteenth century retelling of an Aztec recipe.


Works Cited:

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

Gomez-Rejon, Maite. “Cooking Art History: The Aztecs.” The Huffington Post. 3 May 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

“Hernan Cortes: Conquered the Aztec Empire.” The History Channel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P_euomdHOU

“Indulge in Our Mayan Chocolate Stout and Spicy Aztec Chocolate Cake.” Airways Brewing Company. Kent Brewing Company LLC, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

“The Humoral Theory.” Medical website. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.


Cacao as a Medicinal Herb

Ingesting Chocolate

What if chocolate was actually good for us?

It is a splendid possibility to imagine that we could consume one of our favorite treats guilt free. The fantasy of chocolate as not only delicious but also as miraculously healthy, has captured the western imagination since its introduction. In fact, it was under the guise of medicine that chocolate was able to successfully infiltrate the nobility in Europe and then spread to the masses. Upon “discovering” cacao and its uses in Mesoamerican culture, the Europeans immediately tried to fit the substance into their Galenic system of medicine (3). This system, which seems barabaric and completely ridiculous in light of modern knowledge, was the foundational truth of health in Barocque Europe. It created four categories that related to four substances in the body with good health dependent on a balance between them (3). The categories were ‘Hot’, ‘Cold’, ‘Wet’, ‘Dry’ (3). Chocolate and cacao were controversial for the early Europeans who subscribed to this humoral system. Royal Physician to Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernandez determined that cacao was ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ and most of Europe tended to fall into agreement (3). A central tenant of this western idea, however, was that the balance happens within the body, requiring that chocolate must be ingested. As a consequence, the medicinal recipes in early Europe are mostly just recipes for simple forms of what we now consider to be hot chocolate. For example: William Hughes writing in 1672 details a medicinal chocolate recipe to “strengthen the stomach” that combines cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, sugar and optionally pepper and cloves (4). In our modern culture, this actually sounds tasty!

hot coco
European hot chocolate made from a Food Network recipe, including cardamom and pepper. (Food Network)

Even today, as we yearn to find medicinal value in chocolate, we stick to the requirement that it must be ingested. In 2006 an NPR broadcast discussed a study done at John’s Hopkins University that found consumption of small amounts of chocolate to have similar beneficial effects as that of aspirin on heart patients (NPR). This conclusion was made after several participants broke the ‘no chocolate’ rule during the aspirin trial (NPR). They were disqualified, but studied nonetheless (NPR). What the scientists found was that the casual chocolate consumers saw effects similar to that of aspirin (listen to the full story here). These results are by no means conclusive proof that chocolate is a miracle cure for heart disease or any other ailments; but it does show how deeply ingrained the fascination with chocolate’s medicinal value is in our culture. As well it shows that we center these supposed health benefits around the process of ingesting chocolate.

Artistic renditions from the Badianus Manuscript. The cacao tree is featured in the middle of the top row. (1)


Cacao as an herb

But what if the European explorers missed the most valuable essence of chocolate’s healing powers? To find its true power we may need to restructure how we view chocolate and refocus ourselves from sugary (but delicious) beverages to the cacao plant itself. The oldest piece of evidence can be found in the oldest text on Aztec culture from a European perspective: the Badianus Manuscript (4). Written in 1552 (before Sahagun’s famous Florentine Codex documenting the making of cacao beverages) this text documents the use of herbal remedies by Aztec healers or physicians (4). One of the defining characteristics of this codex is its vibrant renditions of the regional flora (2). On the picture above we can see in the middle of the top row, the ever familiar cacao tree with its bright pods. Cacao makes appearances in many of the recipes, curing everything from dental problems to fatigue (4). One particularly interesting use of cacao found in this manuscript comes from the entry on curing “injury of the feet.” (2) Using “the flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower]” this complicated recipe comes together as a sort of bath for the feet, applied topically and not ingested (2). No doubt this would have been essential for a people whose primary mode of transportation was their feet (2).

Below is the translated recipe (2):

“For injured feet grind together these herbs: tlalhecapahtli[“earth wind medicine”], coyoxiuitl [“rose colored bell plant”], yztauhyatl [“salty water plant”], tepechian[“mountain chia”], achilli [flexible, reddish water plant], xiuehcapahtli [“plant wind medicine”],quauhyyauhtli [“wild incense”], quetzalxoxouhcaphtli [“precious blue medicine”], tzotzotlani[“glistening plant], The flowers of cacuaxochitl [cacao flower], and also piltzintecouhxochitl[“noble lord flower”], and foliage of hecapahtli [“wind medicine”] and ytzcuinpahtli [“dog medicine”], the stone tlahcalhuatzin [bezoar stone of huatzin, a native bird], eztetl [“bloodstone”—a type of jasper] and tetlahuitl [red ochre stone], pale-colored earth…

Put some in a little tub over embers or a fire to heat it in water; and when the liquid has become hot, put the feet into the tub. And some part of it is to be inspissated by fire, and is to be applied to the feet; and so that it will not run off, the feet are to be wrapped in a cloth. Next day our unguent
 xochiocotzotl [“flower pine resin”] and white incense are to be thrown on a fire so that the feet may become healthy from the odor and heat. Besides the seed of the herb called xexihuitl is to be ground, and when it has been pulverized in hot water it is to be put on the feet. Thirdly, apply the herb tolohuaxiuitl [“datura plant”] and briars ground in hot water.”

This recipe is a striking departure from that of the early Europeans in two important ways. The first is its extensive use of exotic herbs. The second is it’s consideration of cacao as an herb. In western society it would take a great deal of imagination to see our precious chocolate treats as an herb. Historians have proven that the Aztecs had an incredible knowledge of plants as medicine, a knowledge that far outstripped any of the Galenic principles in Barocque Europe (3). Given this, it is no longer hard to imagine that even in modern day society our vision of chocolate is clouded by cultural norms, and that perhaps chocolate’s real power lies not in a sugary brown drink but in a leafy green plant.

1. Badianus Illustration [Photograph]. (2012, February 14). Badianus Manuscript, Nixon Medical Historical Library. Found through the UT Health Science Center
2. Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal, 1552. (2007). Retrieved from http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/herbs/badianus/. Courtesy of University of Virginia: Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
3. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
4. Dillinger, T. L. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal Nutrition. Retrieved from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/8/2057S.full.pdf html
5. Food Network Kitchen. (2016). Spiced Hot Cocoa. Retrieved from http://www.foodnetwork.com/holidays-and-parties/articles/sealed-delivered-recipes-in-a-jar.html. Photographs by Levi Brown
6. More Good News for Chocolate Lovers [Broadcast]. (2006, November 15). Washington: National Public Radio. Host: Steve Inskeep