Health as Goodness, Not Wellness

By Jonathan Powers

While contemporary discussion of “health” revolves around one’s dietary and physical habits, recipe-writers of the 16th and 17th centuries held a much more serious understanding of health and its preservation. To be “healthy” was not a physical matter, but a spiritual one: to have “health” often meant aligning oneself with God and abdicating sin. The word “health” was also used analogously with a Christianized notion of salvation, which stipulates that belief in Jesus Christ’s divinity and message yields entry into heaven. This analysis explores how receipt-writers discussed the concept of health, which will provide a better sense of what the authors originally meant to convey when they wrote about sustaining one’s health during this time period. Maintaining health was exceedingly more important to these writers than our current standards of preserving health – doing so was a matter not just of wellness or sickness, but of salvation or damnation of the soul itself.

Although health is currently understood as “Soundness of body; that condition in which its functions are duly and efficiently discharged,” (“health, n.1”) the meaning of health for writers of the 16th and 17th centuries referred more to “Spiritual, moral, or mental soundness or well-being; salvation” (“health, n.4”). Here, the OED demonstrates that our modern understanding of health is that which is constricted to the body, to the “soundness” of the body; but the archaic definition of the word illustrates a transcendence of the corporeal to the spiritual, in such a high degree that having “health” means having salvation – a spiritual, Christian sense of salvation. One example of the importance of health in this context derives from Anne Wheathill’s A Handful of Wholesome (Though Homely) Herbs, in which she prays that “Wherefore in thée my hart shall be joifull, and in thy saving health, which is thy sonne Christ our Saviour and redéemer” (Wheathill sig. B5r). The phrase “saving health” occurs three times in this text, while the word “salvation” or words referring to God often appear alongside the word “health.” This treatment of “health” indicates a heavily spiritual connotation drawn from the word. In this passage, “thy saving health” is equated directly to Christ and his status as savior.

Wellcome MS 169, fol. 23r, Digital Image 38.

Wellcome MS 169, fol. 23r, Digital Image 38.

Health not only constitutes salvation, though, but also represents a spiritual notion that one must strive for, to retain a connection with God. In her A Booke of Hearbes and Receipts, Elizabeth Bulkeley includes a recipe titled “A Speciall meanes to preserve health.” This recipe provides metaphorical directions that exemplify how one can develop a better connection with God. In the format of a recipe, the text instructs readers to undergo a variety of spiritual experiences to become more Christ-like, so that they can:

rise from syn willinglie, take vp Christes Crosse
boudlie, stand to gut mornfullie, bere it pacient,,
lie & rest thankefully & then shalt thou lyve ever,,
lastinglie & come to heaven safelie vnto whiche
place hasten vs lord speedilie Amen / (MS Digital Image 169/38).

Preserving health, here, illustrates an end goal of acquiring salvation and entry into heaven. Throughout this recipe, readers are called to commit themselves to various acts of worship in order to relinquish worldly desire and vice for the end goal of attaining redemption. These acts are represented as if they were ingredients in a recipe, with materials such as a “quart of Repentance of Ninyvie” or a “spoon of faithfull prayers,” and the recipe not only confirms a spiritual understanding of the word “health,” but also serves as a creative way of instilling guidance for those who want to preserve their spiritual salvation (MS 169/38).

It is also important to contextualize this analysis with the fact that many recipes of this time, including recipes in Bulkeley’s manuscript, were meant to stave off the plague. Due to a limited understanding of the plague at the time, people were often led to believe that this disease was the result of God exacting punishment upon sinners of the world. In having this belief, the relationship between one’s moral purity and one’s physical health becomes much clearer and more intimately intertwined. By preserving one’s moral sanctity, one would be alleviated from a divinely inspired punishment against humanity and would thus be able to survive during the plague. By indulging in sin, though, one risked being struck down with the life-threatening Black Death.

While these texts provide compelling evidence for the spiritual connotation derived from the word “health,” the word was still fairly versatile and retained its current definition in other usage. In her analysis of Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti, Meredith Ray points out that “[a]t the turn of the sixteenth century, Caterina recorded over four hundred recipes for beauty and health,” and further discusses how Sforza’s manuscript focuses on the physicality of beauty and health (Ray). Thus, health retained its current definition in other usage during this time, while the largely spiritual dimension of the word has greatly dissipated as the centuries have progressed. Despite the evolved nature of this word and its multifaceted use, the important takeaway is that many authors of the 16th and 17th centuries utilized the word “health” in a far different way, equating the word to salvation. Understanding the contextual cues of this word in reading literature of this time period will enable individuals to better distinguish if the text is discussing matters of the body, of the soul, or both.

Works Cited

Bulkeley, Elizabeth. A Booke of Hearbes and Receipts. 1627. Wellcome Library MS 169.   22  Apr. 2016.

“health, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2016.

“health, n.4.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 22 April 2016.

Ray, Meredith K. “‘The Alchemist’s Desire’: Recipes for Health and Beauty from Caterina         Sforza.” The Recipes Project. 03 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Wheathill, Anne. A Handful of Wholesome (Though Homely) Herbs. London, 1584. Women  Writers Online. Women Writers Project, Northeastern University. 22 Apr. 2016.

Jonathan Powers just received his B.A. in English from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He worked with Professor Rebecca Laroche in a course on Digital Research Methods in Historical Recipes.


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