Sweet Stuff


Imagine going to the doctor and being told to eat marshmallow or rock candy for your health! But that's exactly what happened in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages.



Sugar, the crystalised juice of the sugar cane, is one of the many things that became popular in the Arabic empire and was thence introduced to Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries CE. The Sugar Cane plant is believed to have first been "domesticated" in Papua New Guinea and the technology of extraction of sugar developed in India. Before this, people indulged their sweet tooth with honey, dried fruit and herbs. And as will become clear, the difference between food and medicine, and between medicine and confectionery, was not always defined as it is today.


A number of factors contributed to the use of sugar in medicine. It retards decay and has the property of absorbing and preserving the essential oils of flowers, herbs and fruit. . Also remember outside asia sugar would have been a rare, exotic and extremely expensive spice and unlike today people would rarely come in to contact with it. Thus even a small amount of Sugar would have a remarkable invigorating effect on people so unaccustomed to it. A turbo charged sugar rush if you will.


As examples in Persia, the physician Ibn- Sina was using sugar and sugar-syrups in his medical preparations as far back as the 11th century CE. He considered sugar to be both hot and moist, a rare and useful combination mimicking the natural state of the body, and he wrote, “It seems to me that when it comes to sweets, none is bad.” While in the 13th century accounts of the Order of the Hospitallers and of the Teutonic Knights indicate that their patients in Jerusalem and Acre were given sugar to aid their recovery, and at the end of that century, sugar candy and licorice were prescribed for the dying son of Edward I. Medical preparations of what we would today describe as rock candy, flavoured with cinnamon, violets or rosewater, were named manus Christi, or “the hand of Christ”, so great was the faith in their healing power.


As sugar became more widely available, it migrated from medicines to desserts. The sugar-coated caraway seeds and mint leaves offered as “comfits” at the end of sixteenth century feasts were still believed to aid digestion, but as more and more people could afford to eat for flavour alone, more and more people did.



Honey, a naturally antibacterial substance, was used from the earliest times to dress wounds, heal sore throats and eyes, and to embalm dead bodies if you happened to be in Ancient Egypt. But according to the text of the Ebers Papyrus (written in the ninth year of the reign of Amenophis I, thus in 1536 BCE) and the later papyrii known as the Theban Magical Library (composed in or around Luxor at some point during the Roman Period, 100 – 300 CE) the Egyptians also used dried dates and carob as a binding agent for medicinal herbs and minerals, mostly in potions but sometimes rolled into pellets that would have gone down much better thanks to their sweetness. Note you can buy medicinal honey based products for wounds in most chemists [ don't try eating though ].


This recipe for “Melrosette” involving Honey and Roses is taken from A Lytlel Herball, attributed to the English priest and physician Anthony Askham. It was first printed in 1550. Nonetheless, it may be taken as representative of a properly medieval prescription for a sore throat and bad attitude:


“Take faire purified hony and newe redde roses, the white endes of them clypped away, then chop them smal and put them into the hony and boile them menelt togither, to knowe whan it is boyled ynough, ye shall knowe it by the swete odour and the colour redde. Five yeres he may be kepte in his vertue, by the Roses he hath vertue of comfortinge, and by the hony he hath vertue of clensynge.”



The Egyptians were also familiar with the fruit of the ziziphus, known today as the jujube tree, and with the properties of licorice and mallow of the marshes. The jujube, a thorny tree known for its sweet, jelly-like fruit, is generally considered to be the “lotus” referred to in Homer's Odyssey (probably composed near the end of the 8th century BCE, somewhere in Ionia), on the quite reasonable grounds that lotus flowers do not grow on trees.


The trees around them all their fruit produce,
Lotus the name; divine, nectareous juice!
(thence called Lotophagi) which whoso tastes,
Insatiate riots in the sweet repast,
Nor other home nor other care intends,
But quits his house, his country and his friends.
The Odyssey, Book IV


With a range extending from Egypt to China, the name “jujube” may be a French approximation of the Arabic julab, referring to a medicinal syrup. But as Tsao, the fruits are consumed in China to this day.



The marsh-mallow on the other hand is a a reedy plant that grows in swamps. Every part of the plant, from its flowers to the root, is gelid and slimy, and the root in particular yields a thick, sweet liquid when soaked in water. In his Natural History of 77 AD (see what a difference it makes when the author signs and dates their work!), the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote, “…whoever swallows daily a spoonful of the juice of any of the mallows shall that day be free from all diseases.”  A recipe from 1644 [ from the Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby ] clearly describes something close to the concept of modern marshmallows. Though Marsh Mallow was more likely to be used as a salad vegetable or just a straight medicinal herb. It was suppose to be good for bad coughs and passing urine. In nineteenth century France, physicians were still combining marshmallow root with sugar and egg white to produce pate de guimauve (“paste of marshmallow”) for the treatment of chesty coughs. Chemical compounds found in Marsh Mallow make its effectiveness with some types of cough plausible. Today, of course, marshmallows are cheap confections of sugar, corn starch and gelatine with no medicinal or nutritional value.



Pliny the Elder also describes the sweet root of the licorice plant which is chewed as a “mouth-medicine” and suppresses hunger and thirst. He describes carob as “a fruit of remarkable sweetness” and his work even contains one of the earliest references to sugar cane in Europe



Pliny never hesitated to recommend medical uses for the plants he described. In accordance with the prevailing medical theory, he suggested that foods contained principles that were a combination of either hot or cold and dry or moist. Hot, dry foods such as pepper and cress might be effacious in treating cold, moist diseases, such as the virus still called a “cold” to this day. He often recommended that foods be eaten in certain combinations to balance out their properties and enhance digestion. Pliny remained among the standard botanical and medical references for the next thousand years, and hot versus cold, dry versus moist, remained the standard basis for medical diagnosis and treatment.

It also imprtant to remember that many plants do have health benefits. Unfortunately when harvested naturally their effectiveness will depend on weather, soil condition, season, location, etc. The active ingredients or chemicals vary immensely depending on numerous such variables. For example Foxglove can either cure many heart conditions or kill you outright.  


The Greek Magical Papyri, ed. Han Dieter Betz, University of Chicago Press, 1992 (1986)
“An Interlinear Transliteration and English Translation of Portions of the Ebers Papyrus Possibly Having to Do With Diabetes Mellitus” by Stephen Carpenter, Michel Rigaud, Mary Barile, Tracy J. Priest, Luis Perez, John B. Ferguson. Bard College, New York 1998
The Teutonic Knights In The Holy Land, 1190 – 1291, Nicholas Edward Morton, the Boydell Press, 2009.
The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (77 AD), trans. John Bostock & H.T. Riley, ed. Gregory R. Crane, Henry G, Bohn, London 1855.
Sweets: A History of Temptation, Tim Richardson, Bantam Books 2002
The Illustrated Earth Garden Herbal, Keith Vincent Smith, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1978


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