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Paulli and the Ironies of History

John Paul Carter Library, Brown University, MARCXML

“I therefore hope, that for the future, the Europeans will be wise and reject Coffee, Chocolate, and Tea, since they are all either equally bad, or equally good” -Simon Paulli, 1661 (166-67)

Despite what many early writers featured on this blog recount about chocolate being regarded as a healthy medicine, not all Europeans saw it that way, and some even considered it to be injurious. The debate among European doctors, explorers, and Jesuits lasted centuries. From the high court to the city streets, chocolate was seen in many different lights. Some used it as a medicine, others as a social pastime, while others avoided what they considered a satanic concoction all together. There were just a few scholars who attempted to organize these varying opinions and present them in a logical, persuading way. One such scholar, who was well versed in the numerous varieties and applications of tea, also cleverly noticed that coffee and especially cacao were extolled for similar medicinal virtues. Decades before Philippe Dufour mapped the drinks as a drug group, Simon Paulli had made the connection.

Simon Paulli was a Danish physician and naturalist at the University of Copenhagen, where he taught anatomy, surgery and botany in the 1640s. As the first court physician to Frederick III (1650), he pushed for reform in anatomy and botany, and is credited for the development of the first anatomical theater in Copenhagen. While he never personally ventured to the far reaches of Mesoamerica to study the cacao bean, his commentary on the peculiar effects of chocolate, tea, coffee, and other such foreign drinks on the body was influenced by other sources who had experience with the Aztec culture and the preparation of chocolate (Gorton 712).

During the time of the Enlightenment when individual discovery was celebrated in the scholastic community, Paulli brought his own knowledge and perspective to the debate while also referencing other intellectual authorities such as Antonio Colmenero, the great physician and explorer, and Milanese scholar and traveler Girolamo Benzoni (whom he calls Benzo), while he discusses the effects and uses of chocolate. Colmenero can be credited with documenting his experiences with chocolate in Mesoamerica, with his 1631 treatise that ultimately fueled Europe’s fascination with the drink.

Considering the fact that Colmenero actually visited and documented his findings with chocolate, he was regarded as the ultimate authority and advocate for the drink that defied the traditional medical evidence of humoral theory, which was considered to be medical law. Paulli mentions Colmenero as the authority (as most authors of treatises on chocolate do), but as the former was more interested in the ways chocolate resembled tea than in the preparation methods that Colmenero discussed, he focused on the uses of chocolate for the human body.

By the time Paulli wrote his treatise there were already many different, far-reaching opinions and ideas that he wanted to compile and make sense of them. By writing it originally in Latin, the scholarly language, all those who were formally educated could easily access it. Royalty, fellow scholars and educators, as well as all with the prestigious communities, not only in Denmark, but also throughout Europe had access to his treatise. In fact, the 1661 Commentary on the Abuses of American Tobacco and the Asian Tea Herb in Modern Europe (Commentarius De Abusu Tabaci Americanorum Veteri, Et Herbæ Thee Asiaticorum in Europe Novo) was not translated into English by Robert James, an English physician, until 1746, making it one of the last important historical pieces to appear in English.

Importantly, in that translation James changed the title of the piece to, A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate in order to better summarize the scope of the argument whereas the original title of the treatise focuses the reader’s attention on tobacco and tea, and particularly what Paulli considered the abuse of tobacco in Europe at the time. Although he highlights drinks of interest to his British audience in the mid-eighteenth century, James’ alteration of the title eighty-five years after Paulli wrote it obscured the focus of the 1661 title. Paulli presented an argument against people, not an argument against the product.

What’s more, unlike many of his predecessors who wrote about chocolate for their national audience, Paulli addressed Europeans as a whole. He never once refers to Denmark in this part of the treatise. Instead, he took a universal approach and talked about the effects of chocolate on Europeans, as a whole, perhaps inferring that the Europeans were superior to the foreign lands where they obtained their drinks and medicines. Despite his high profile in the Danish Court, he doesn’t simply write to his majesties, but rather his continent. He cautions Europe to not continue changing their coffee, tea and chocolate with sugar and other substitutes, like the "Asiatics"; rather, he encourages them to use it as prescribed by learned physicians and to continue to reap the medical benefits.

Paulli is thus one of the only writers on chocolate who makes no mention of his native country and he is also the first to compare it to other hot courtly drinks. It is curious that Paulli would make the connection in 1661 and notice what later would become a commonplace observation: all three were prepared by heating and then vigorously mixed, were exotic to Europe, and were used taken as medicine because of the body-altering effects each produced.

To demonstrate the connection, he describes chocolate by relating it to something already known in Europe: chavva.

I should say something of the use and method of preparing the water of Chavva; and this I shall the more willingly do, because no Physician, or Botanist, so far as I know, has expresly, but only accidentally, and imperfectly, given the History of the Chavva. (116)

This passage is peculiar, because it is the start of Paulli’s “Tea, Chocolate, etc.” section of the treatise. Instead of beginning with a discussion of chocolate, he explains, rather, his intentions of expounding on the benefits of chavva—a Persian "liquor" that, like chocolate, "impregnates" water with its bitter taste. And like tea, chocolate, and coffee (which he treats later) it was believed to be another universal drug for stomach-aches, headaches, asthma, chest pain, tiredness, etc. The discussions of chocolate and chavva are so intertwined as to be confused. But soon a certain controversy around is made known that brings the discussion back to the chocolate liquor. Benzoni called it, “A wash rather fit for hogs than a liquor proper for human creatures” (117).

While Paulli never lived outside of his native Europe, and wasn’t able to experience this drinks first hand from their cultures of origin, Benzoni did. Benzoni lived in America for over a year and hated the way chocolate was prepared for him (117). No more is said concerning the diversity of ideas regarding chavva after this. Rather than coming to a clear verdict on the significance of chavva, and likewise, of chocolate, the opinions are considered and left for the reader to decide their value.

Paulli compares chavva, chocolate, and coffee based not only on similar preparation and use, but also on physical characteristics. In this way, he brings the cacao plant into perspective for his scientific counterparts.

As the fruit of the Cacao, or Cacarate, which resembles almonds, are the basis of chocolate...which is also called buna...coava, cavve, chavve,...which, by corruption, is no doubt, the Coffee of the Europeans. (119)

Describing the bean causes Paulli to collapse the drinks etymologically until they all become the "Coffee of Europeans," as though Europe had a hand in making a new botanical by combining the beans to make the ultimate “cure-all” medicine.

Despite growing popular use of tea, chocolate, and coffee as a social custom among Europeans, Paulli warns that as the drink continues to be altered in order to cater to taste rather than health, the medical benefits will continue to decrease. Cautioning the European public from overuse of chocolate, Paulli defies previous scholarly wisdom:

Though Weslingus thinks that these seeds are useful to the Europeans, yet I am of a different Opinion; for, in like Manner, the Europeans have resolved to sweeten, not only their coffee, but also their chocolate and tea, without any view to prevent Disorders, or recover Health…[and] indulge themselves in Liquor, whose Taste is pleasant to them. (123)

A tone of new-fad-skepticism seeps through his carefully considered pages as Paulli openly objects to the recipe of chocolate being changed in order to cater to the taste buds of Europeans. Chocolate, coffee, and tea, though recognized for their medicinal value, had become so popular throughout Europe that the public began to focus on the taste more than the function. Eventually, what was once touted as the new “drug” entered cafés and eventually turned into a dessert. Paulli did not trust consumes to use the products as directed.

Unfortunately for Paulli, history did not heed his warning and the commercialization of chocolate as a tasty treat continued throughout the next centuries and up until today. Medicinal value was thrown out the window and chocolate became the cause, not the remedy of many health problems. Recently scientists have begun to realize the wisdom in seventeenth-century arguments like Paulli’s based on indigenous know-how. Cacao is now being studied again for its health-related properties and applied to progressive medical treatments. The lesson now is not so very different from the one taught in the past: cacao is healthy and chocolate is not. Chocolate has to be stripped down to the bare minimum and prepared, as it was anciently, in order to reap the benefits, just as Paulli hoped we would consume it. The Danish Court physician may have been right all along!



Gorton, John. "Paulli (Simon)." A General Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Whittaker and Co., 1833.

Paulli, James, A Treatise on Tobacco, Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate: ... the Whole Illustrated with Copper Plates, Exhibiting the Tea Utensils of the Chinese and Persians. [Latin, 1661] Trans. Robert James. London: T. Osborne; York: J. Hildyard; Newcastle: M. Bryson; Bath: J. Leake, 1746.

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