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How many words of Nahuatl do you know – the language of the Aztecs?

And how many words of this complex, agglutinative language (spoken in various modern forms by about 1.5 million people across Central America today) do you think have made it into English?

Well, you know one at least, although you may not have known its source. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, like explorers throughout history they encountered plants, animals and products that they had never seen before, and the simplest way to refer to them was to borrow the native name for them. Among these products was a dark, bitter drink made by fermenting the fruit pods of a small tree, Theobroma Cacao. This they named “chocolata”: according to the most common theory, a rendering in Spanish of the Nahuatl word Xocolatl, “bitter water”. (There are other theories: one derives it from chicolatl, “beaten drink”, describing the way that it was beaten to a froth before drinking. However, its Mesoamerican roots are not in dispute.)

The original Xocolatl was a bitter, spicy drink, flavoured with vanilla, chilli and other spices such as achiote (a natural red food colourant). From that to today’s sweet chocolate bar is a long way, but the basic ingredient and its preparation remain the same. The cacao pods (now mostly grown in West Africa) are fermented, then roasted, and the resulting product liquidised to form cocoa butter. From this basic substance, the world makes food or drinks, dark or milky, sweet or bitter, according to what is added to it and the processes through which the mixture goes. In the UK this week, National Chocolate Week celebrates this variety. In the Wellcome Library, needless to say, we hold numerous relevant items that can contribute to the festival…

As we said above, the first Europeans to encounter chocolate were the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, and it is thus through Spain that chocolate enters the European diet and other European languages. Unsurprisingly, then, one of the earliest mentions of it in our manuscript holdings comes from someone based in Spain. Lady Ann Fanshawe, whose husband was posted by Charles II as ambassador to Madrid as a reward for his loyalty during the Civil Wars, compiled a book of recipes which is now held here as MS.7113: many of the recipes are annotated to record that she learned them in Spain. On August 10th 1665, according to the marginal note, she transcribed a recipe for chocolate. The recipe is crossed out, perhaps indicating that it was unsatisfactory, but pinned to the page is a little sketch of “the same chocolaty pottes that are mayd in the Indes”, a little round-based pot with a long handle to take in one hand whilst one whips the mixture with the whisk shown next to it. Other chocolate recipes, which the compilers seem to have found more satisfactory, occur in the recipe books of Philip Stanhope, 1st Earl of Chesterfield (1584-1656) (MS.761), compiled from the 1630s onwards, and an anonymous recipe book compiled from 1650 onwards (MS.6812). As is so often the case, our digitised seventeenth century recipe books are a fertile source of recipes.

There are good physiological reasons for chocolate’s popularity. It contains alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine, which have been linked to increased serotonin levels in the brain: the Aztecs believed it to fight fatigue, doubtless for this reason. The feelgood effect of a chocolate hit is no illusion. Like most foreign substances that become a craze, however, it has been the subject of considerable suspicion over the years. We know that over-indulgence in our modern solid chocolate can lead to obesity, due to the sugar that is added in the manufacturing process. However, the core ingredient itself, the cocoa butter, has also been suspected (and indeed the theobromine in it does make it toxic to some animals, cats and dogs in particular). In our rare books collection, we hold a 1662 publication by Henry Stubbe, The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata, in which, as Stubbe says, the nature of the cacao-nut, and the other ingredients of that composition, is examined, and stated according to the judgment and experience of the Indians, and Spanish writers, who lived in the Indies, and others. Stubbe is particularly exercised by the fattiness of the nut, and also by its heat-producing qualities, discussing in detail whether it should be drunk hot or cold (“I found it [when cold] to offend my stomach” – p.113) and the correct time of day to take it:

As to the time of taking it, it is held (by the Spaniards) the most fit time to take it in the Morning, and Supper being digested, and the Body fresh, and the Stomach empty to receive it. (p.114)

A cup of chocolate is no light matter, it is clear, and due precautions must be taken: the Spanish, he notes, say that

after [they] have drunk Chocolata, they strictly prohibit all manner of Drink; for when Beer or Wine be drunk after it, there do frequently ensue very dangerous Diseases, and Symptomes. (p.117)

A similar caution is expressed in a work by M. Duncan published in Leipzig in 1707, Von dem Missbrauch heisser und hitziger Speisen und Geträncke, sonderlich aber des Caffes, Schockolate, und Thees (stated to be a translation of a French work). Chocolate and other hot drinks are seen as unhealthy fads, which fashion-victims indulge in only to their long-term detriment: the frontespiece shows young women gathering to drink these fashionable beverages even though, as the alarmist verse beneath claims, they are coming close to death by doing so.

Who would have thought that the humble cup of cocoa could be such a walk on the wild side? We seem, as a culture, to have overcome any scruples about the dangerous American bean pretty thoroughly by now. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century chocolate is being used as a vehicle to make medicines palatable. In the archives of Henry Wellcome’s drugs company we find a large certificate of merit (WF/M/C/13) awarded by the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain for various Burroughs Wellcome products involving extract of malt. Anyone who has read Winnie the Pooh knows how unpalatable that could be, so it is no surprise that one of the mixtures involves chocolate. If Milne had made Kanga offer Roo his extract of malt in this form, it might well have gone down more easily (and Tigger might have been poisoned by the theobromine rather than finding he liked extract of malt: so, a narrow escape).

From dangerous drug to emotional crutch for anyone having a Bridget Jones day, the European encounter with chocolate has taken some strange turns: a changing relationship that can be tracked in the Library’s collections. As a bonus Nahuatl fact, we can add that other words to make it into English from the language of the Aztecs include chilli, avocado and tomato. It will be no surprise to our readers, we suspect, that whenever National Chilli Week or British Avocado Month take place, we will have items from the collection to illustrate both…

Images, from top:
1/ Chocolate, from Wikimedia Commons.
2/ Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, MS.7113: detail, MS.7113/87.
3/ The Indian Nectar… by Henry Stubbe, title page.
4/ Von dem Missbrauch heisser und hitziger Speisen und Geträncke, sonderlich aber des Caffes, Schockolate, und Thees, frontespiece.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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