As I'm finishing up my third historical mystery--The Masque of a Murderer--I found that I still had a few more things to research.
In particular, what would commoners living in 17th-century London have known of chocolate, and how might they have experienced it for the first time?
References to "chocolate" in England can first be found in the 1640s. Of course, "chocolate" as a substance had been around for several thousand years as Smithonian.com explains, originating in Mesoamerica. However, it did not find its way to Europe until the early seventeenth century, as one of the strange products imported from the New World. The word "chocolate" comes from the Aztec word "xocoatl," (or is it the Nahuatl word chocolatl?) referring to a bitter drink derived from cacao beans, with medical and health properties (for more about the etymology of the word, check out Oxford Dictionaries blog for ten facts concerning the word Chocolate... ).
By the 1650s, several discourses on the "physicks" and health properties of chocolate were in circulation in London. In 1640, "A Curious Treatise of the nature and quality of Chocolate" by Antonio Colmenero, a Spanish"Doctor in Physicke and Chirurgery, was translated into English. More significantly, Henry Stubb published the far more substantial treatise on "The Indian Nectar" in 1662.
We know too, from a collection of 1667 statutes from King Charles II that there were restrictions on who could sell chocolate: "And be it further Enacted by Authority aforesaid, That from and after the said first day of September, no person or persons shall be permitted to sell or retail any Coffée, Chocolate, Sherbet or Tea, without License first obtained and had by Order of the General Sessions of the Peace in the several and respective Counties,etc etc."
This makes me reasonably certain that chocolate would have been sold at coffee houses, for those would have been the establishments likely to acquire such a license. It is unlikely that chocolate would have been sold at taverns or alehouses, at least in early Restoration England, due to the great dispute between those who sold wine and beer, and those who sold coffee.
Chocolate might have been procured for medicinal purposes as well, although it is unclear to me--at least at this preliminary stage--whether it would have been actively prescribed by a physician. However, if the "Virtues" are to be believed (of course, that's if they are to believed), chocolate cures infertility, "ill complexion," digestive illnesses, consumption and "coughs to the lungs," "sweetens the breath," "cleaneth the teeth," "provoketh urine" and "cureth the stone." Apparently, this miracle drug also cures "the running of the reins," (the last a euphemistic biblical reference to venereal disease). Who knew?
I have to surmise a bit here, on how popular chocolate truly was in Restoration London. But I think it's reasonable to assume, especially once sugar became a more common household good, that it would have been become popular fairly quickly. (Although it's also likely that it remained in the realm of the elite and wealthy, for quite some time.) But what do you think?
England and Wales. A collection of the statutes made in the reigns of King Charles the I. and King Charles the II. with the abridgment of such as stand repealed or expired. Continued after the method of Mr. Pulton. With notes of references, one to the other, as they now stand altered, enlarged or explained. To which also are added, the titles of all the statutes and private acts of Parliament passed by their said Majesties, untill this present year, MDCLXVII. With a table directing to the principal matters of the said statutes. By Tho: Manby of Lincolns-Inn, Esq. 1667 Wing (CD-ROM, 1996) / E898
Wing / 2532:08
Oliver Cromwell, destroyer of mince pies
_I can't say I've ever had mince pie, but I never would have guessed it has such a secretive, mysterious history. Is the mince pie capable of being so subversive that it must be banned?
Well, seventeenth-century Puritans thought so. For Cromwell--(the original Grinch? You tell me!)—Christmas represented a time of excessive drinking, gambling, and all around unwholesome merrymaking—all activities that made the Puritans a bit queasy, and decidedly ungodly.
So, in 1644, Parliament banned Christmas in England. They renamed the day Christ-Tide (you know, to remove the “papist” overtones of Mass). The hanging of holly and ivy was strictly prohibited. Merchants were advised to keep their stores and stalls open (to avoid sloth and idleness). And if soldiers walking by smelled a goose for supper—well, your goose was cooked.
And the poor mince pie? Banned in any public place. Ever since the Crusades, the mince pie had symbolized and honored the birth of Christ. When the Crusaders returned from the Holy Lands, three spices were added to a lamb pie-- cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg--each spice representing the three gifts bestowed upon the Christ child by the Magi. Pies were very small, shaped in the form of a cradle, and eaten throughout the twelve days of Christmas. So to the Puritans, these small pies represented everything that was wrong with Catholicism.
Christmas in the American colonies fared no better. The Massachusetts Bay Company General Court ordered that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
Yikes! Five shillings for every offense—that’s got to add up. However, despite these prohibitions, people continued to make mince pies, calling them “shred” or “secret” pies. (Although calling it a secret pie might have defeated the purpose, but so be it).
And for Christmas lovers everywhere, don’t worry. The story ends well.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the spectacle and merriment of Christmas returned, although it took a little longer in the colonies. And holding a place of honor at the Christmas meal, was the humble mince pie.
So, I'm curious--do people still eat mince pie this side of the pond? Or the other side, for that matter? And more interestingly, what other secrets and lost histories lurk within our everyday traditions and customs?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.