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.
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.
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.