The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 2, 2011


This is nutmeg.
Nutmeg (from BBC)

Not very prepossessing, is it? And yet men killed and warred and competed all over the world for it.

Medieval mendicants and medics insisted that nutmeg was a cure for all ills. They claimed it could protect against the 'blody flux' and the 'sweating syckness' in the time of the plague. They recommended it against the cough ('mulled wine with nutmeg'), and trapped gas, and ills of the 'mouthe of the stomacke and the spleen'.

Andrew Borde wrote in the Dyetary of Helth (a treatise that made him more popular than his previous one on beards): 'Nutmeges be good for them which have cold in their head and doth comforte the syght and the brain.' He said that nutmeg dampened the libido, but by his own admission, 'it is hard to get out of the flesh what is bred in the bone' and he, a celibate former monk, died in disgrace.

Others claimed nutmeg was a powerful aphrodisiac. Charles Sackville said that even a tidbit of nutmeg before bedtime resulted in troubled slumber:
Dreaming last night on Mrs Farley,
My prick was up this morning early,
And I was fain without my gown
To rise in th'cold to get him down
Hard shift, alas, but yet a sure,
Although it be no pleasing cure.
And then, said Samuel Pepys, Sackville was gaoled 'after running up and down all night almost naked through the street.'

In Chaucer's time, nutmeg was a rarity available only to the rich. In the Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas craved it.
Ther spryngen herbes, grete and smale,
The lycorys and cetewale,
       And many a clowe-gylofre,
And notemuge to putte in ale,
Wheither it be moyste or stale,
       Or for to leye in cofre.
Even Shakespeare wrote about it in The Winter's Tale:
I must have saffron to colour the warden
pies; mace; dates?--none, that's out of my note;
nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I
may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of
raisins o' the sun.
A Dutch traveller named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten weighed in with his five volume Itinerario, an encyclopedia of the East Indies: 'nutmegs fortify the brain and sharpen the memory. They warm the stomach and expel winds. They give clean breath, force the urine, stop diarrhoea, and cure upset stomachs.'

And this is what led to all that mayhem and blood, and the rise of colonialism and the fall of empires.

Check out: Giles Milton, Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History.


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