Why Digby probably shouldn’t give cooking advice

Given my ongoing obsession with seventeenth century world, it might come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve started looking to the cookbooks of the era for some recipes I could make myself. After all, I could probably make a convincing case that cooking 17th century recipes is studying. Especially if the author of the cookbook is one of the philosophers relevant to my thesis – Kenelm Digby. His The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby (year) is a trove of wonderful and bizarre recipes.

For starters, the first 130ish pages of the book comprises recipes for meath and metheglin (both types of mead, if I’m not wrong), various wines, ciders, ales… I think you get the picture. Digby was certainly a fun-time guy as a party host.

What I was looking for, though, was something heartier. Something, to feed the soul, not just make it lighter. What I found instead was Tea with Eggs. Digby attributes this recipe to a Jesuit who brought it back from China around 1664, and who then gave it to Digby’s friend, Mr. Waller. Here’s the recipe:

To near a pint of the infusion take two yolks of new laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine Sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of Liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your Tea upon the Eggs and Sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot.

Frankly, I feel this isn’t too far from stirring a raw egg into hot soup, which I think is pretty delicious. But, tea? I’m not sure I’d be game for that. Digby goes on to outline the circumstances and benefits where such a dish might be beneficial:

This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently difusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, and flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating.

That’s a strong pitch. Ultimately, I think I’ll just order some pizza.

Descartes’ Invitation to Bologna

To lay readers of Descartes’ work, the fact that he’d worked on medicine might not come as a complete surprise, unlike the significance and depth of this work. Though he’d not published any of his works devoted exclusively to the study of human bodies in his lifetime, the posthumous publication of Treatise on Man (1664) and Description of the Human Body (1664), indicate that Descartes felt he had acquired sufficient expertise in the topic to devote the time it took to write these texts. What is particularly curious about Descartes’ engagement with medicine, though, is the reputation he had developed as a doctor, even before he’d published anything.

In a somewhat recent paper titled Descartes and the Bologna Affair, Gideon Manning, reports on an invitation Descartes received to take the chair of medicine at the University of Bologna [1]. Manning traces this invitation to either late 1632 or early 1633, which places it about 5 years before Descartes published his Discourse on the Method (1637). What makes this even more interesting is that the earliest evidence we have of Descartes’ interest in medicine is in a letter to his friend Mersenne dated 18 December 1629, when he asserts he had begun studying anatomy.

By 1632, Descartes must have becomecomfortable with the typical concerns of both practical and theoretical medicine. In a letter to Mersenne from either November or December 1632 he mentions having read William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis. He claimed that it “differs slightly” from his own view, but he had only seen it after he’d finished writing on the topic. Given that Harvey was at the greatest medical innovator of the time, Descartes’ familiarity with the text, and perhaps more importantly, his feeling that he could argue against some of Harvey’s assumptions and claiming that he had arrived at some similar conclusions, it seems clear that his studies were robust enough to equip him with the mental apparatus to argue with the most learned physicians of the time.

Perhaps it is a loss that Descartes refused this invitation. It certainly was consistent with his character. In the Discourse he remarks that he was more grateful to those who offered him leisure to think than those who offered him honourable positions. Manning notes that it’s unclear whether Descartes was referring to the “Bologna Affair” here, but nonetheless, we know Descartes’ frequently avoided his friends, and he sought solitude. Nonetheless, it remains as a curious and relatively unknown part of his biography.

[1] Manning, Gideon. “Descartes and the Bologna Affair.” British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-13.