As most readers know, I prefer to use primary source documents for my research. I am always excited when I find something from the period I am studying that gives me a better glimpse of the big picture. The book I am about to discuss is such a find. The author Richard Baxter was a well-known protestant church leader and theologian from Shropshire, England from 1615-1691. In one of his more obscure publications, he offered Compassionate counsel to all young men especially I. London apprentices, II. students of divinity, physick, and law, III. the sons of magistrates and rich men
His advice to students of physick is a refreshing change of pace from that in books written by physicians which tended to align with whatever school of medicine they studied and might lead one to think that purges and bloodletting were required maintenance of the human body.
There was a lot of disagreement amongst physicians. Galenists had rousing public debates with the chymical physicians who followed the teachings of Paracelsus. Even among humoral physicians, there was a schism between those who followed Ibn Sina’s interpretation of Galen and those who worked with stripped versions of Galen’s work thought to be truer to the original author. Even the apothecaries jumped into the scrum sometimes.
It seems worth reminding readers that these educated physicians only worked for the wealthy. They did not care for, or about, people who could not afford to pay them and that was a good majority of the population. So, the scathing derision they directed at other practitioners was just thinly veiled advertising. All the learned elite liked to disparage the knowledge of those they considered beneath them, especially midwives and empirics whose services were less expensive.
Those who could not afford to pay relied heavily on domestic medicine informed by skill-sharing networks and possibly some books written for “the poorer sort of people that are not of abilitie to go to the physitions” but the church also provided a good deal of charitable care. Baxter’s lifestyle advice was at least not mired in consumerism. It was to everyone’s benefit (except perhaps the physicians) if people stayed well.
Indeed, the first advice Baxter relays to young physicians is to “Direct men first as faithful Friends, to the things which may prevent the need of Physick.” Happily, he went on to share the following list and I will provide a bit of context for each item.
1. A temperate and wholesome diet.
The word temperate comes up a lot in humoral medicine. Humoral physicians suggested temperate foods and medicines preserved the well-tempered body. (Think of that word in terms of tempered steel, not an emotion.) Temperate foods were thought to be composed of an equal amount of the hot, cold, wet, and dry qualities that they believed were the building blocks of all substances. The foods were neutral in action and considered to be the best sort of nourishment. This theory accounts for the abundance of raisins, figs, and currants that you find in their recipes. The spices in a receipt were sometimes thought to balance the qualities of the drink or food.
Cooks were even expected to have a basic understanding of dietary philosophy and to prepare and serve meals according to medical theory. Opening courses of each service included ingredients that were believed to “open” the stomach to prepare one for proper digestion. The early services at a meal were meant to be easily digestible and followed with increasingly richer and heavier services. They believed that heavy foods would obstruct the digestion of lighter foods if they were eaten first. After a meal digestifs were served that were thought to “close” the stomach.
2. Sufficient labour to suscitate natural heat, keep pure the humors, and expell excrements; avoiding Idleness.
Humoral medicine is the practice of medicine that is centered on the accumulation and subsequent actions of four humors (bile, blood, phlegm, and black bile) in the body. Humoral physicians believed that diseases were the result of some corruption of the humors, whether it be “thicke grosse humors” causing obstructions or “a rheum” caused by watery thin humors running from the brain and causing disease.
So here we see a general belief that exercise was thought to help keep the humors in their proper state for being eliminated from the body and promote regular elimination. They are not wrong. Exercise is good for you even if it isn’t for the reasons they believe and it does help move the bowels and keep you regular.
3. Keeping warm, and avoiding occasions of Cold, especially cold Drink, cold Places, and cold Cloathing, either when they are hot, or in Winter when nature needeth help.
The aversion to cold food and drink was so common it even made its way into cookbooks such as the Boke of Kervynge published in 1513, which warned people to “Beware of green sallettes and rawe fruytes for they wyll make your soverayne seke.” This mindset may have resulted from people having noticed that when you cook food, it is less likely to make you sick. Of course now we know cooking kills various foodborne bacteria, which was more of a problem when sanitation and hygiene practices were limited.
Cold, dry air makes us more us more susceptible to infectious diseases. The humoral theory ascribed to this observation was that cold congealed the humors making them harder to eliminate from the body which in turn caused illness. Many of the spices that were popularly added to food and beverages during the colder months were thought to thin congealed humors, or otherwise aid their elimination.
Environmental exposure to cold was also a practical problem. Aside from obvious dangers like hypothermia and frostbite, frequent exposure to cold can cause damage to the capillary beds known as chilblains. Given the number of remedies I have seen for chilblains, this affliction seems to have been common at this time.
4. Practice contentedness and quietness of the mind, engaging in cheerful conversation.
This passage proves to me that people of privilege were as annoying in 1681 as they are today. I want to stress very few people had the luxury of “practicing contentedness” when this was written. Still, this does indicate that the benefits of the quietness of the mind (mindfulness, meditation) were universally known. It’s not just appropriated from Eastern philosophy. It might also speak to the idea that illnesses were sometimes said to be a consequence of sinful behaviors such as greed, envy, gluttony, &c.
5. Direct them to such familiar remedies at home, in their Drinks and Diet as is suitable to their distempers, for preservation, and are safe and harmless, and put them not to a needless dependance on your frequent help, make not use of weak Women’s fears, to make them miserable by needless Medicining, and so to make them as Tenants to you, to pay you a constant Rent to quiet them.
This last bit of advice is the reason I love this find so much. It basically defines the sorts of medicinal receipts in our handwritten documents. Other sources hint at the problem of needless Medicining. Shakespeare even offered veiled commentary on the subject in one of his plays. “It is but body, yet distempered, Which to his former Strength may be restored with good advise and little medicine.” I rarely come across it stated this bluntly, though. Baxter was not one to shy away from controversy.
So, there you have a nice little summary of what was considered to be a healthful lifestyle in the mid-17th century. Aside from medical advances in understanding physiology, it’s not particularly different than modern thinking.
 Baxter, Richard. Compassionate Counsel to All Young Men… London, England: Printed by T. S. 1681.
 Wynken de Worde. ‘Boke of Kervynge’. 1867 translation by Furnivall, Frederick. 1513.
 Mäkinen, Tiina M., et al. ‘Cold Temperature and Low Humidity Are Associated with Increased Occurrence of Respiratory Tract Infections’. Respiratory Medicine 103, no. 3 (March 2009): 456–62.