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Chocolatical Burn Notice

Frontispiece, Aristotle's Masterpiece, 1704 [1684]

Although for decades in the seventeenth century European missionaries and merchants extolled chocolate’s curative properties and even readily encouraged chocoholism, consumer response to chocolate was full of burning twists and diabolical turns.

Some of our best evidence for the variety of responses French drinkers could have to hot chocolate around the time of Dufour, was recorded in a series of letters by Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné. Last week’s post compared her earliest reactions to the vogue of chocolate at court to the depiction of chocolate in a fictional letter by Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee. Both of them characterize it as a stimulant that fires up the body and mind. It feels hot in the blood (Sévigné) and charges up the synapses until the brain blasts away like a spaceship (Leslie’s metaphor).

This unlikely comparison demonstrates that although Sévigné’s doctors could not in the 1670s have identified her reaction as a caffeine overdose, they and she knew chocolate effects by experience. Having put their own bodies through the trauma of drinking too much of it and feeling its strong effects, they could talk about overdosing first hand. Perhaps because she is only just forging, and therefore lacks, Leslie’s 21st-century knowledge of chocolate’s potency, Sévigné’s overdose scared her. In fact, her earliest reactions of pleasure and pain do not tell the whole story of her relationship to hot chocolate. It took from February to October 1671, a full nine months until it disappears from her letters, for the Marquise to decide what she really thought about drinking brewed cacao.

If in February she worried that her daughter would have trouble fighting her fatigue without a chocolate pot to prepare the curative drink, April brought out her fear of cacao—it could ignite the blood like fire in the veins. As spring went on, her negative reaction to cacao intensified. May’s letter has a sharp undertone of caution, as though the heat she earlier identified as a possibility was now cause for serious concern. The marquise notes that the art of stimulating the body can go wrong:

I implore you my best girl, my most lovely, not to have any chocolate. Personally, I have had it with chocolate. Eight days ago I suffered sixteen hours of colic and low blood pressure that gave me all the pains of nephritis. [Court physician Jean] Pecquet tells me that elevated bile and humors have caused your condition—chocolate would kill you. (May 13)

The language she uses to report Pecquet’s diagnosis of her daughter, Madame de Grignan, comes from humoral science, the intellectual lens European medicine used to understand chocolate for the better part of two centuries. She references the well-known effects of elevated yellow bile, which causes a choleric condition in the body and the personality. Cholerics, represented in Charles Le Brun’s period sketch as a man in armor flanked by a lion (figure on left), exhibit heightened energy, bravado, and unbridled passion.

Charles Le Brun, The Four Temperaments, sketch for La Grande Commmande, c. 1675

As chocolate was known to produce that very effect, Sévigné rightly worried that cacao-charged choleric bodies could self-destruct. Her personal experience of chocolate’s stimulation were the painful symptoms of an overactive lower intestines associated with nephritic colic. That bout caused the marquise to caution her daughter against drinking it and then caused her to “fall out” (brouiller) with hot chocolate (September 6).

A month later, she claims to have witnessed the ultimate proof of chocolate’s tendency to burn the body:

But what do you have to say about chocolate? Are you not afraid of how it can burn the blood? What if all the effects that appear miraculous mask some sort of diabolical combustion? What do your doctors say? In your fragile state, my dear child, I need your word [that you will not drink it], because I fear that you will suffer these problems. I loved chocolate, as you know. But I think it did burn me; and furthermore, I have heard many terrible stories about it. Then again, you describe and explain the marvelous effects it has on you so well that I do not know what to say. . . . The marquise de Coëtlogon drank so much chocolate when she was pregnant last year that she gave birth to a baby who was black as the devil and died. (October 25)

As Sévigné recounts the story, Coëtlogon, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, overindulged in hot chocolate to the point of burning her child black. Black babies born to white mothers, like the child pictured in the head image, ranked among the monstrosities attributable to an overactive female imagination (Fissel 43-44).* Fantasy could be transmitted from mother to child. In the case of Coëtlogon pleasure of the flesh imprinted the baby's body, but the message is the same: women who overindulge suffer punishment. As Sévigné struggles with the ethics of chocolate consumption, we witness gender on trial for excess.

Notwithstanding the likelihood that the queen’s attendant slept with a black servant and/or had trouble in childbirth that led to her baby’s death, Sévigné's use of this terrible tale attests to chocolate's psycho-sexual currency as it impressed elite society. The charm and danger of the pleasure rested on its unpredictability. As many a theorist had warned in earlier writing on cacao, chocolate affects bodies differently. One of the strengths of humoral theory as an optic through which to diagnose the effects of brewed cacao is that it was predicated on the notion that a body and mind’s current disposition (balance or imbalance of the humors) would determine the way it reacted to ingested and external stimuli. Self-medicating could be complicated.

Sévigné’s amateur diagnoses of her daughter over time bear out that concept. But three days after denouncing chocolatical infanticide, Sévigné comes to terms with cacao’s effects on her own body:

I wanted to reconcile with chocolate so had some the day before yesterday to digest my lunch in the hopes of eating well in the evening. [In between] I had some more for sustenance so that I would not have to eat before dinner. It had all the effects I desired. Now that’s when I find it pleasurable—when it acts as I intend it to. (October 28)

Sévigné’s struggle, not unlike Lady Fanshawe’s in 1650, reveals through negative example that whatever ecclesiastical, medical, and commercial experts had to say circa 1570 – 1670, each and every body would feel out the best dosage of chocolate for herself. Her personal lesson was eventually assimilated by the Parisian elite en masse and chocolate’s potential to cause pleasure won out against fears of its ability to inflict pain.


*Pictured is the frontispiece and title page of the Master-Piece, or the Secrets of Generation (1684; 1704 edition) a late 17th-century guide to sex and reproduction attributed to one 'Aristotle'.



Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, Madame de Sévigné, Lettres, ed. Emile Gérard-Gailly (Paris: Gallimard / Pléiade, 1953), 1:196. All passages last week and this are taken from this edition and translated by the author.

Fissell, Mary E. "Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in "Aristotle's Masterpiece," The William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 1, Sexuality in Early America (2003): 43-74.

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