Dr Mark Hailwood
‘Far Better Than Any Doctor in Town’? Alcohol and Health in the Seventeenth Century
© Copyright Mark Hailwood, all rights reserved
We all know that consuming alcohol is detrimental to our health, with some recent studies suggesting that it may even be the most harmful drug of all. Were these negative effects known to and understood by our early modern forbears? Well, they were certainly not unaware that heavy drinking could bring with it a number of health problems: as one cheap pamphlet that sought to discourage drunkenness (or as many contemporaries labelled it, ‘good fellowship’) warned, a range of ‘diseases doth flow’ from drinking:
‘Surfetes, dropsies, and divers paines,
Ach of the head, breach of the brains:
Like festered fistolles, foule and deepe,
attendeth on good fellowship.’1
And yet, their overall attitudes towards alcohol and its impact on health were rather more ambivalent than our own. For a start, ale and beer were consumed by men, women and children across the social scale on a daily basis as part of their diet, and served as important sources of calories and nourishment. In this sense, they were a crucial component of a healthy diet.
Contemporaries thought that alcohol did more than just provide sustenance though, and as Louise Hill Curth and Tanya M. Cassidy have shown, alcohol was considered by many to have a number of positive medical properties in the seventeenth-century.2 When consumed in moderation, it could serve both as preventative medicine—an important ally in the fight against disease—and as remedial medicine—helping to restore the appropriate humoral balance within the body, a concept that was central to the Galenic understanding of medicine that predominated in the seventeenth century. Wine in particular was seen by some contemporaries as akin to a ‘wonder drug’, with controlled consumption an effective way of augmenting expensive medical treatments. Beer too, and in particular hops, was also thought to have valuable medicinal qualities—serving to ‘cleanse the Blood, to loosen the Belly, to cleanse the Reins [kidneys] from Gravel’—and was recommended by the physician Nicholas Culpepper as an everyday alternative to costly expert medical remedies.3
Drinking songs from the period often reflected such understandings of the positive medical effects that alcohol could induce. A printed ballad entitled The Careless Drunkards made specific reference to the blood-cleansing qualities of drink, claiming that it ‘makes good blood run in our veins’4 Whilst this ballad used the catch-all term ‘drink’, others suggested that specific drinks were associated with specific benefits. Sack for my Money claimed that a Spanish wine had superior effects to beer:
‘I hold it good to purge the blood,
and make the sences merry.
Whereas: Away with Beer and such like geer,
That makes our spirits muddy.’5
A drinking company of wives that were the subject of the ballad Fowre Wittie Gossips Disposed to be Merry declared that sherry in particular was the drink with the greatest health benefits, ‘Which being cleare, doth cleare the blood’, whereas the ‘oil of barley’ was ‘thick’ and ‘loathsome’, and induced drowsiness and particularly heavy hangovers.6 Such a view did not go uncontested, and the eponymous character of the ballad The Merry Hoastess boasted that her ale ‘Tis very good to nourish the blood’.7 Whilst there were differing opinions on the relative medicinal benefits of different types of drink, there was not necessarily a clear consensus on the subject.
Drinking ballads also made reference to the restorative powers of alcohol. One good fellowship ballad suggested that drinking sack could help to restore humoral balance by driving away ‘cholic’, or the yellow bile that represented one of the four humours and was particularly associated with the properties of dryness and hotness—to which a cool and wet drink was therefore a natural antidote:
‘Then fill us in a cup of Sack,
hang pinching let us frolick,
The more we spend the less we lack
Twill cure us of the Cholick.’8
Some ballads went so far as to suggest that alcohol might serve as a better medicine than anything on offer from members of the medical establishment. The Careless Drunkards claimed that liquor was so effective as a medicine—‘it maintains the Health’—that ‘This spoils the Doctors trade likewise,/ by which they get such Wealth’. A similar sentiment was echoed in The Distruction of Care, which claimed that alcohol was ‘Far better than any Doctor in Town,/ by virtue of any detestable drug’.9
We need to recognise that such ballad claims were often being exaggerated for comic effect. Nonetheless, considered alongside the growing popularisation of medical literature in the seventeenth century that was offering cheap and easily accessible alternatives to expensive medical cures, it seems clear that alcohol was seen and used by many as a form of medicine that could have beneficial effects on health.
Dr Mark Hailwood is a lecturer in early modern British history at Cambridge University. He has recently published an article investigating the popular perceptions of alcohol in early modern England in a special edition of Brewery History edited by Mark and Debbie Toner. His book Alehouses and and Sociability in Seventeenth-Century England is forthcoming (2014) with Boydell and Brewer in their Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Social and Political History monograph series. He is also a regular contributor to the Many-headed Monster blog, which disscusses the history of the ‘unruly sort’ in early modern England.
2 Louise Hill Curth and Tanya M. Cassidy, ‘“Health, Strength and Happiness”: Medical Constructions of Wine and Beer in Early Modern England’, in Adam Smyth (ed.), A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England (Cambridge, 2004).
3 Ibid, pp.149-150.
© Mark Hailwood, all rights reserved