What better way to mark the first of our public lecture series, ‘Cultural Encounters: Travel, Religion, and Identity in the Early Modern World’, than with a chocolate map of the world, prepared for us by Sophie Jewett of the wonderful York Cocoa House? We’re hugely grateful to Sophie not only for her chocolate cartography, but for serving up delicious drinks made in accordance with two early modern recipes — one for hot chocolate, dating from 1644, and one, from 1710, for a pretty potent chocolate wine.
But why chocolate (as though that’s ever a real question…)?
Simon Ditchfield‘s wide-ranging and witty lecture (soon to be available online) revisited the processes of colonisation and encounter that did so much to structure early modern impressions of the diverse countries encountered by travellers, diplomats, and missionary priests. He concluded by suggesting that the traditional picture of ‘colonisation’ tells only half the story. Another tale remains to be told: one that reminds us how the habits, artefacts, and traditions of newly ‘discovered’ countries transformed Europe. The proselytising zeal and techniques of the missionaries sparked a renewed interest in kindling the fire of Catholic religion back in the old world; in Simon’s words, ‘the new world converted the old’.
Chocolate, Colonisation, and Conversion
Simon’s insight is neatly illustrated in what Sophie and Michael Coe describe as ‘the conquest of Spain and other European countries by cacao’ (31). Encountered by missionary priests and conquistadors in Central and South America, chocolate soon became popular amongst the invaders as well as the invaded. In 1590, the Jesuit priest José de Acosta (who also made an appearance in Simon’s lecture), noted that ‘the Spanish men — and even more the Spanish women — are addicted to black chocolate’.
Not everyone was a fan. In his History of the New World (published in 1575), the Italian scholar and traveller Girolamo Benzoni, who spent fifteen years in the West Indies and Central and South America, complained ‘It seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity’.
In 1544, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Spain with a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Philip. The Kekchi visitors brought precious and beautiful gifts — including pots of beaten chocolate, though a regular chocolate trade was not established for another thirty years or so. Once chocolate had arrived in Europe, it soon became hugely fashionable in the form of hot and cold drinks, first in Spain, during the first half of the seventeenth century, and then in Italy, France, and the Netherlands.
Recusant chocolate knowledge?
English travellers first encountered chocolate not in the new world, but in the courts, houses, and ships of Spain (in 1579, English pirates captured a shipload of chocolate, but burned it, believing it was ‘sheep droppings’). In 1701, Ellis Veryard published Divers Choice Remarks, Taken in a Journey Through the Low-Countries, France, Italy, and Part of Spain, and carefully recorded a Spanish recipe for making chocolate, ‘the Spaniards being the only People in Europe, that have the Reputation of making Chocolate to perfection’. The word ‘chocolate’ first appeared in English in Grimeston’s 1604 translation of Acosta’s Natural and Moral History of the new world.
The first English text devoted entirely to drinking chocolate was also a translation — of a popular Spanish treatise, A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate, turned into English by the self-proclaimed ‘English Spanish pilgrime’, James Wadsworth (born 1604). According to Wadsworth’s autobiographical account (written in 1629 to prove his loyalty to the English crown), Wadsworth’s father, a chaplain, converted to Catholicism whilst on an embassy to Spain. Eventually, he persuaded his wife and children to join him, and the young Wadsworth was brought up a Catholic. After various escapades and adventures, Wadsworth returned to England and converted to Protestantism, enjoying a short career as a not very successful spy.
Wadsworth’s story bears notable parallels with the life of Thomas Gage, whose own autobiography, The English-American, his travail by sea and land, is obviously an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the English Spanish pilgrime. Gage was born, in or around 1603, to a recusant family, and, like Wadsworth, was educated in Catholic seminaries — first at St Omer, and then amongst the Dominicans in Valladolid. In 1637, after nearly two decades away from England, he returned, barely able to speak English. Like Wadsworth’s, Gage’s life story, which contains several anecdotes and details about cacao and chocolate culture, is first and foremost an attempt to prove the sincerity of his conversion to Protestantism — it is, in the words of Edmond Valentine Campos, ‘a doubled apology for chocolate and religious reconciliation’. Indeed, Campos suggests, chocolate knowledge came to England, in the first instance, as a technique for former Catholics to confirm both the exoticism of their adventures, and the reality of their conversion.
‘The amorous and martial Turk‘
Chocolate was widely believed to have medicinal properties (claims which, of course, resonate with newspaper and television headlines today — so last night’s chocolate wine must have been astonishingly good for us!).
The extended title of a 1652 reprint of Wadsworth’s treatise promised readers that ‘By the wise and moderate use [of chocolate], health is preserved, sicknesse diverted, and cured, especially the plague of the guts; vulgarly called the new disease; fluxes, consumptions, & coughs of the lungs, with sundry other desperate diseases. By it also, conception is caused, the birth hastened and facilitated, beauty gain’d and continued‘.
Dr Henry Stubbes, author of The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolate, claimed that one ounce of chocolate was as nourishing as one pound of beef, whilst an early advertisement for a French chocolate-seller based in Queen’s-Head-alley, reminded potential purchasers that ‘it cures and preserves the body of many diseases’.
Indeed, Stubbes was so convinced of chocolate’s virtue, that he imaginatively extended its voyage, from Europe across to the Ottoman Empire, declaring ‘If the amorous and martial Turk should ever taste it, he would despise his Opium’. Yet when the Italian merchant Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Carreri travelled to Smyrna, in the last few years of the seventeenth century, he almost ruined his chances of a prosperous trade by serving chocolate to the Aga of Seyde, who ‘became very angry with me, saying I had made him drink a liquid to disturb him and take away his judgement’.
Carreri described the Turkish magnate as ‘this savage’ — a peculiar moment which encapsulates the transformations chocolate wrought upon its European adopters. From a ‘drink for pigs’, disgusting to the refined Italian palate, chocolate had become a marker of discrimination and taste — and now it was those who found its strong taste and unusual appearance distasteful (just as the early colonisers first had), who were attacked as uncivilized and ‘savage’. Chocolate really had ‘converted’ its European drinkers.
Edmond Valentine Campion, ‘Thomas Gage and the English Colonial Encounter with Chocolate’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 39 (2009), 183-200
Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (Thames and Hudson, 1996)
Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch, Chocolate: a Global History (Reaktion, 2009)