One thing I’m keeping an eye out for in my manuscript meanderings is early modern theories of digestion. In my qualifying exam, I was asked, “What was the early modern theory of digestion?” It stumped me, because there doesn’t seem to be just one. There are educated and less educated guesses, but from what I can tell the minutae of the digestive system were just beginning to be explored in the 17th century.
In my reading so far, digestion becomes a concern when it’s not working properly–when it’s too slow or fast, has stopped, or someone can’t digest that should be able to. This doesn’t translate into a concern with maintaining the digestive system–which surprises me, maybe because I live in a probiotic world–or understanding the mechanisms by which digestion works.* Many of the recipe/remedy books have a tacit understanding that the stomach is important and vulnerable–they all have at least one, and usually many, remedies that aim to fix “weakness in the stomach. What’s frustratingly absent is why the stomach grows weak, or what makes it so. Is it because the stomach has to deal with stuff that’s outside our body? But since “weakness” is a condition, what determines a “strong” stomach?
This week I found 3 texts that address the digestion question in different ways, and are helping me draw a picture of early modern digestive theorys.
Henry Power, a doctor and natural philosopher, was involved in debates about the nature of the circulatory system, and the papers I read also show that he was interested in understanding the digestive system as well. In an undated set of pages (BL Sloane MS 1393 ff 28r & 28v), Power writes down his thoughts “Of the Chyles motion & its vessels’.” Chyle (is a word I’m sad we no longer use) is an early modern name for digestive liquid, and Power’s best guess is that “Chyliferous vessels” (another great phrase!) originate in the intestines and connect the stomach and the intestines. The “Chyliferous vessels,” Power thinks, allow food & nutrients to cross into the bloodstream.
Where it gets weird: Power then hesitantly agrees with the opinion that the digestive system (he calls it the “chyliferous branch”–at this point I’m just looking for excuses to write “chyliferous”) is possibly connected to the breasts & womb in women. Therefore, breastmilk and digestive liquid “have very little, if any difference between them” (28v).
This is an interesting connection–breastmilk feeds infants, and it brings the mother’s nutrients full circle to the child. [Another popular early modern theory was that breastmilk transferred not only nutrients and tastes to babies but ideas and personalities as well–so beware!] For non-baby humans, there’s a weird kind of logic to this connection: digested food disperses throughout the body, so why might it not become bodily fluids? Of course, we now know that the transfer isn’t that direct–but I see in Power’s notes the beginnings of an answer to questions of how digested food is spread throughout the body, how nourishment is accomplished, and a consideration of a more philosophical question–when does food in the body stop being food?
Another mouth-stomach connection popped up in Lady Ayscough’s receipt book, in her entry “An outward Medicine for the stomack to helpe Digestion” (p. 212, Wellcome MS 1026). That got me wondering: why an outward medicine for an internal system? I actually see quite a bit of this topical healing in remedy books: ie, for a headache put a plaster on your head, etc. [And who doesn’t know our version of this: “HeadOn! Apply directly to the forehead!”?]
But with the stomach it’s a different case: we can access the stomach, and 80% of these recipes are ingested, even remedies for outward or skin-level problems. So why create a topical recipe to help digestion when you could easily toss one back?
Thomas Lodge suggests an answer in his “The Poore Mans Talent” (BL MS 34212), a collection of remedies and medical instruction dedicated to the poet Anne Dacre, Countess of Arundel. He organizes his remedies by region of the body (remedies for the head, the face, etc), and precedes every section with some information about the function of each body part. His vision of the digestive system is one where the stomach is central:
“The stomacke is the store house of the Boddie to receive all necessary nutrients for all the members, and it is sittuated in the midst of the body to digest the said meate and is often troubled with weaknes and want of digestyon” (15v-16r)
There’s a certain kind of logic here again–if the stomach is in the middle of the body, distributing nutrients to everything else through a network of connections, then it kind of makes sense to use the stomach-body or stomach-skin connections to treat what’s hard to access. This vision of digestion is highly intertwined and enmeshed with all other bodily systems, and blurs the lines between our insides and our outsides. This gets me back to my prior question: when does food in the body become no longer food? Are we eating something applied to our skin if it helps the inside of our body? What, exactly, is eating?
Without fully understanding the intricacies of the digestive system as we know them now, these early modern authors still understood the situatedness of the stomach, and that it was connected to the other systems. The stomach can feel; it has agency of its own, and its condition is in a very delicate balance with the rest of the body’s operations.
*in the recipe/remedy books. I’ve not gotten to the anatomical treatises yet.