Food, Medicine and Religion in the Eighteenth Century

Diet and Nutrition: Bread was the food staple of the common folk, as it always had been. Dark brown bread was made from a mixture of wheat and rye, roughly ground and thus very fibrous, and washed down with beer, green wine, or skimmed milk. At other times it was boiled into soup or gruel, an early version of today’s oatmeal. In hard times, it was eaten half cooked so that it would swell in one’s stomach and thus create a feeling of fullness.

Everyone was forced to buy bread from time to time, even those who typically grew their own grain. For that reason, the price of bread was an important factor. A "fair price" was considered sacrosanct. With supply and demand, free market philosophy, and lack of regulation, the price of bread could increase dramatically, which the peasants considered both unfair and immoral. "Bread Riots" were not uncommon in hard times, and people often raided warehouses or bread wagons if they thought a merchant was hoarding it against a higher price. In such instances, they always paid him what they considered a "fair price." Because of the problem, governments made some attempt to regulate grain prices in years of economic downturn.

Aside from bread, the common folk also ate vegetables, primarily beans and peas which were eaten fresh in season, and dried and cooked into soups and stews in cold weather. Vegetables were considered "poor people’s food." When in season, they also ate cabbages carrots and wild greens. Fruit was rare, and only eaten in the summer months. Common people loved meat and eggs, but they were seldom eaten. In fact, they ate less meat in 1700 than they had in 1500, because their standard of living had declined, and meat had become too expensive for them. Game laws prohibited the poor from hunting geese, partridge, rabbits, etc., as hunting was the exclusive province of the well-to-do. These laws were bitterly resented, and frequently broken. The most common meat eaten by the common folk was lamb and mutton, as sheep could survive on rocky soil, and did not compete with humans for the small amount of grain available. Meat was typically eaten on religious holidays, at weddings, or other festive occasions. The poor of England and the Netherlands ate somewhat better than their counterparts in other areas of the continent.

The bread eaten by the poor often contained a substantial portion of the bran (ground up husk) and wheat germ, which provided adequate vitamins and minerals. Beans and peas and the occasional egg and cheese together with whey, also provided needed nutrients. In late winter, when green vegetables were not available, a lack of vitamin C in the diet often resulted in mild cases of scurvy, a disease that caused rotting gums, swelling in the joints and weakness.

Scurvy was an acute problem for sailors on long voyages, whose diet was very poor. Captain James Cook discovered that his men did not suffer scurvy when they ate citrus fruits, such as limes, which are rich in Vitamin C. He instituted the practice soon adopted by most European navies of adding limes and lime juice to the diets of sailors. From this practice, English sailors (and often Englishmen in general) earned their nickname: Limeys.

Milk often spoiled, and was rarely drunk. It was considered the cause of sore eyes, headaches, and a variety of other ailments, probably because of the frequency of allergies to dairy products. Milk was used primarily to make cheese and butter, which the common folk loved, but could eat only occasionally. Medicine and popular opinion considered Whey, the watery liquid left over after the cream and butter are churned out, to be "an excellent temperate drink."

Unlike the poor, the rich, including the nobility and bourgeoisie, feasted sumptuously on meat. An elegant dinner of the day might consist of three separate meat courses followed by three fish courses with sauces and complemented with sweets, cheeses, and nuts. Meets might consist of chicken pie, leg of lamb, or grilled steak. Fruit and vegetables were seldom eaten, as they were the fare of the poor. The well to do also consumed huge amounts of alcohol. Wine was drunk with dinner, port or Madeira wines with dessert, all of which might be imported, and he might literally drink himself "under the table." Drunkenness was not altogether common, however, as evening meals were often long, drawn out occasions when one would drink large amounts over a long period of time without getting drunk.

The rich diet of the poor resulted in its own problems. Because they disdained fruits and vegetables as the food of the poor, they also suffered from Vitamin C deficiency. Since they were overfed and under-exercised, they frequently suffered from gout, a painful disease caused by high amounts of uric acid, which comes from beef and cheese consumption. Gout to this day is known as the "rich man’s disease." Liver disease from excessive drinking was also common. They were often severely overweight, and were often caricatured dragging bloated bodies to tables laden with rich foods. It is highly likely that many died from Type II diabetes.

The small traders and middle class were in between in their diet. The bulk of their diet also consisted of bread, but they did consume a modest amount of meats and vegetables. Because their diets were more balanced, they were better off than the rich or poor from a nutritional standpoint.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, food consumption changed, primarily due to the introduction of the potato from South America. Also, corn (maize), squash, tomatoes, etc. now supplemented the diet of the poor. The potato was especially important, as it contained a good supply of carbohydrates and Vitamins A and C. It was an excellent substitute for green vegetables in winter months. Potatoes replaced grain as the primary crop first in Ireland, where English landlords forced large numbers of Peasants to live on small amounts of rented land. In other areas, few people ate potatoes originally, as they did not like them. They were fed to pigs and livestock, and there was some debate if they were even fit for human consumption. However, in Germany, severe famine and the Seven Years War settled the dispute, and potatoes were found to be both edible and suitable for times other than famine. The potato soon became an important staple in the European diet. Also, with the expansion of overseas commerce, semi-tropical fruits such as oranges and lemons and a greater variety of vegetables appeared in markets, although they were not cheap.

Not all changes in European diets were beneficial. Improved milling techniques led to the production of white flour and white bread, from which the germ and bran had been removed. Although white bread was attractive and to some folk better tasting, it had considerably less nutritional value. Also, with the introduction of slave labor to sugar plantations sugar became more affordable and was consumed in larger amounts. The result was an increase in tooth decay and other sugar related ailments, although again the poor were largely insulated from these problems because they could seldom afford it.

Medicine and Medical Practitioners: Early in the eighteenth century, care of the sick was the province of faith healers, apothecaries, (pharmacists), physicians, midwives, and surgeons. In the middle ages, barbers had doubled as surgeons. By 1700, the women began to be gradually excluded from medical practice, as they were denied admission to medical colleges, and could not receive the necessary diplomas which allowed them to practice as physicians and surgeons. Faith healers remained common, particularly in the countryside and in instances of mental diseases, such as hysteria or depression. The belief that these diseases were caused by "demons" who could be exorcised by prayer.

Apothecaries often sold incredibly complex medicines (some containing compounds of over 100 separate ingredients) to cure a variety of "temperaments and distemper." The most common—and effective—medicine were laxatives, used to relieve the bloated bowels of the rich (since their diet contained little or no fiber, constipation was a constant problem). Even physicians believed that a good "purging" was healthy for the body. However, too much purging could be harmful, and often sent people to an early grave. Only "bloodletting" for the treatment of diseases, often practiced with leeches, caused more premature deaths than purgatives.

Physicians, almost always men, were apprenticed as teens to practicing physicians, and then attended university where they were degreed. Because of the necessary expense, most physicians came from prosperous families, and confined their practice to those who were able to pay their fees. The poor very seldom saw a physician. They did experiment with new procedures on occasion, but were heavily inclined to follow time-honored practice, including the use of purgatives and bloodletting.

Bloodletting was considered a way of removing "bad blood" from the body, and thus restoring balance to its "humors." It was believed to be a medical cure-all. A physician in Philadelphia in 1799 reported that it was proper for "asthma, sciatic pains, coughs, headaches, rheumatisms, apoplexy, epilepsy, and bloody fluxes." It was also considered appropriate for bruises and fall injuries. When George Washington fell ill in late 1799, probably from strep throat after riding about his fields in cold weather, his doctors bled him, and thereby probably killed him.

Surgeons, in contrast, made remarkable progress, primarily from their experimentation with gory injuries in time of war. Previously, they had been considered ordinary craftsmen classified with butchers and barbers, but over time their art improved. One such improvement was the discovery that if a shattered limb were amputated and the stump cauterized with fire, the patient would normally live (otherwise he would die of gangrene.) Even so, surgery was a nightmare. Anesthetics were hard to control and believed too dangerous for general use, so most surgery was performed without the benefit of pain killers or sedation. The screams of those whose limbs were literally sawed off were chilling. Many people died from shock and agony during surgery. Also, there was no knowledge of bacteria or the nature of infection, and as a result, surgery was often performed in septic, if not totally filthy conditions. The simplest wound when treated by a surgeon might result in death from infection.

The delivery of babies was normally performed by midwives, surrounded by female friends and relatives of the expectant mother. Both husbands and male physicians were excluded by tradition and modesty. Physicians were called only if the baby died before delivery, and instruments were needed to deliver the dead child. Later, with the introduction of forceps, physicians and surgeons became more involved in deliveries, but midwives were still common, particularly among the common folk. In reality, midwives lost no more babies in delivery than did physicians. Many received extensive training, the most famous of which was the result of Madame de Coudray, a French midwife who secured royal financing to teach midwife techniques to woman, and offered instruction to thousands of women using dolls and mannequins.

Such hospitals as existed were terrible places. There was no isolation, and operations were performed at the patient’s bed. Nurses were old, ignorant, greedy, and often drunk women. Fresh air was considered harmful, and as a result infection was rampant. Conditions were so bad that French poor often considered hospitals as part of a plot to kill them. A description of the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, the "richest and most terrifying of all French hospitals" by Diderot in the Encyclopedie illustrates conditions graphically:

Imagine a long series of communicating wards filled with sufferers of every kind of disease who are sometimes packed three, four, five, or even six into a bed, the living alongside the dead and dying, the air polluted by this mass of unhealthy bodies, passing pestilential germs of their afflictions from one to the other and the spectacle of suffering and agony on every hand.…The result is that many of these poor wretches come out with diseases they did not have when they went in, and often pass them on to the people they go back to live with. Others are half-cured and spend the rest of their days in an invalidism as hard to bear as the illness itself, and the rest perish, except for the fortunate few whose strong constitutions enable them to survive.

Mental illness was explained more by superstition than by science. The belief that madness was caused by moonlight—hence, lunacy and lunatic—was prevalent. It was also believed that masturbation caused insanity. (It also caused acne, blindness, epilepsy, and premature ejaculation. Parents, religious institutions, and schools waged relentless war on male masturbation; but had no interest in female masturbation.) The customary treatment for mental illness was bleeding and cold water, which was used more as a form of discipline than as a cure. Violent persons were often chained to walls and forgotten. The most famous mental hospital in London, Bethlehem Hospital, was renowned for the screams and ranting of its patients, which gave rise to the word "bedlam."

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, experimentation with medical practice became common. Many experiments were the work of unabashed quacks, and were often associated with electricity, which was new at the time. One London quack promoted sleep on a "Celestial Bed," which was decorated with magnets and electrical gadgets. One night on the bed cost a small fortune. Many of these treatments were as harmful as they were expensive; for that reason the poor probably fared better with their faith healers than the rich did with their quacks.

Experimentation led to inoculation against disease, primarily smallpox, which was the scourge of Europe. Sixty million Europeans had died from the disease, and 80% of the population bore hideous scars from the disease. Inoculation had been practiced in the Ottoman Empire for years, whereby a small amount of material from the pustule of an infected person were injected into a healthy person. The healthy person normally contracted a mild case of the disease, but generally lived. The practice was not altogether successful, however. One person in fifty contracted smallpox, and even those who did not were contagious. The final breakthrough was the work of Edward Jenner, (1749-1823) who experimented with cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox on the udders of cows and often contracted by milk maids, but which was not contagious. He conducted numerous experiments, and finally inoculated a young boy in 1796. His experiment was successful, and as a result, smallpox was virtually eliminated. For his work, Jenner received prizes totaling £30,000 from the British government.

Religion and Popular Culture: Religion remained popular in peasant communities. Religion offered the promise of salvation and eternal life, comfort in the face of death and misfortune, and a gathering place for the community. In Catholic areas, the local church organized processions and pilgrimages to holy places. In Protestant areas, the church provided a gathering place where neighbors gossiped and swapped stories. It provided a gathering for funerals, baptisms, and marriages. Church records were often the only records of births and deaths, distributed charity, and cared for orphans. It also was the only source of education for the rural poor.

Following the Protestant Reformation, even the Catholic Church allowed more and more control of itself by the government. In Spain, Papal proclamations could only be read with approval from the government. The Jesuits, who had exercised considerable political authority, became so powerful that they gathered formidable rivals. At the behest of several monarchs, a weak pope dissolved the order in 1773, although it reappeared after the French Revolution. Monasteries were frequently closed unless they served some practical purpose, such as teaching, nursing, etc. Other so called "contemplative" monasteries were abolished and their property turned over to the state.

Official Protestant Churches had settled into a quiet complacency in the early eighteenth century, leading one German minister to write that the Lutheran Church "had become paralyzed in forms of dead doctrinal conformity," and badly needed a return to its original inspirational message. That reform, which began in Germany, was known as Pietism. Three aspects of Pietism explained its appeal:

Pietism was a tremendous influence on John Wesley, a fellow at Oxford University who organized a "Holy Club." Known for his methodical ways, Wesley’s followers were soon derisively called "Methodists." Wesley liked the name, and it stuck. Wesley had an emotional experience in 1738 following spiritual counseling by a Pietist minister from Germany. He then became convinced that any person, no matter how poor or uneducated might have a similar conversion. He traveled over 225,000 miles on horseback and preached more than 40,000 sermons in 50 years. Wesley rejected Calvin’s teaching of the "elect," and preached that everyone who earnestly sought salvation could receive it.

Religion also took on new importance in Catholic areas, but with notable differences from Protestantism. Catholic churches often displayed lavish baroque works of art and architecture, whereas Protestant churches forbade them and were typically drab and unexciting.

On Easter Sunday, the climax of the church year, over 95 per cent of the populace in Catholic areas could be expected to attend services. At other times of the year, church members participated enthusiastically in church festivals, such as Palm Sunday or the Rogation days (the three days before Ascension Sunday). Each parish had its own saints’ days, processions, and pilgrimages, normally led by the parish priest, but which also served as time off from work and a form of recreation. During such celebrations, a holiday atmosphere prevailed, with drinking, dancing, and couples disappearing into the woods. Many Catholic beliefs were on the edge of Christianity, and may even have originated in pagan tradition. There were healing springs for ailments, belief that a saint’s relics could stop a child’s fear, and that blessing salt and bread for animals would prevent disease. In one locality, it was believed that dead babies carried to a sacred spring would be revived long enough to be baptized. In other areas, young men often jumped over bonfires during Lent, a tradition which was supposed to help crops grow. These were clearly superstitions that had originated from earlier times. The organized church often railed against these ceremonies as remnants of paganism. One priest saw them regressing into animals, "the triumph of Hell and the shame of Christianity." Still, the Catholic Church was unable to stop these traditions. In Protestant areas, the power of the state had been used to stop them.

Leisure and Recreation Religion and celebration came together at Carnival, the period before Lent when there was a wild release of drinking, masquerading, and dancing. A combination of plays, processions, and rowdy partying turned established order upside down. Peasants became nobles, fools became philosophers, and the rich became humble. This ceremony held once a year, gave people a chance to blow off steam and release aggressions before life returned to its normal drudgery.

A pattern of social behavior also formed when groups separated by gender gathered together. Women often gathered to sew, chat, spin, and talk. Often, a few young men were invited so that the daughters (and mothers) could size up potential mates in a supervised atmosphere. A favorite recreation of men was talking with friends in public places. It was a sorry village that did not have a tavern. They drank beer and wine as well as hard liquor.

In towns and cities, urban fares featured prepared foods, freak shows, and other such circus-like entertainment. Spectator sports also grew in popularity, such as boxing and bull fights. "Blood sports" were also popular, such as bull bating (in which a bull was staked on a chain and attacked by dogs. The animal was slaughtered and sold for meat, but only after it had been badly maimed and tortured) Also popular were cockfighting, in which roosters were armed with sharp steel spurs and fought to the death. Betting on cockfighting was quite popular.

The educated public were often appalled at this behavior. The disdain and mistrust between the two classes was an important factor in creating the class distinction which became so evident in the Industrial and French Revolutions.