Monday, October 04, 2010

Hastening Death: A Biased Account of Tea as Medicine in Europe, 1607-1657

by Steven D. Owyoung

in honor of Corax and in celebration of the fifth anniversary of CHA DAO

By the time it was imported to the West, tea had already been used in China as a medicinal herb for over three thousand years. Reports of tea reached Europe through the ancient overland trade in spices and drugs, but only a fraction of the knowledge about its role in Asian medicine ever reached the West. As the curative power of the plant and leaf acquired testimony from European diplomats and missionaries traveling in the East during the late sixteenth century, tea attracted the interest of herb merchants, physicians, and apothecaries.

Soon, small quantities of the costly dried leaf and powder were available at European pharmacies serving the aristocracy and wealthy. Founded on novelty and curiosity, the Western reception of tea warmed among enthusiasts who became habituated to the herb’s stimulating effects, both as a beverage and the object of extravagant ostentation.

Tea arrived in Europe during the early decades of the seventeenth century. In 1607, the Dutch East India Company acquired tea from Chinese merchants at Macao for transport to Batam in western Java, the first known shipment of the leaf by a European carrier. A transfer of tea from Hirado in western Japan to Bantam was made by the Dutch before sailing to Holland for its debut in Amsterdam in 1610. The Dutch initially carried only small shipments of tea from the Indies. The herb was not even mentioned in official Company correspondence until 1637 when the directors, sensing a small but growing taste for the leaf, expressed to their governor-general at Batavia that “As tea begins to come into use by some of the people, we expect some jars of Chinese as well as Japanese tea with each ship.”

Company records from late 1650 reveal a shipment of less than 30 pounds of “Japanese Thia, in five boxes.” In 1651 and 1652, similar parcels of tea were sold at auction in Amsterdam.

The reason behind such minimal amounts of tea was market and price. Even in Japan, good tea was costly, and only the wealthy few bought the herb. Like Chinese rhubarb, tea was treated in Europe as a precious and exotic drug, bought in minute amounts at great expense from apothecaries. Circa 1643, the French Jesuit Alexander Rhodes commented on the exorbitant price of ordinary tea: “the Dutch, who bring it from China…sell it at Paris at 30 francs the pound, which they have bought in that country for 8 or 10 sols [sous].”

Fifty years later, the finest tea was even more expensive. Pierre Pomet, apothecary to the French throne, kept a pharmacy and spice shop on Rue des Lombards where he sold “true Japanese tea for no less than one hundred fifty to two hundred francs per pound.” Despite its cost, the drinking of tea as a physic and beverage was prevalent enough among wealthy French, Dutch, Germans, and Danes to provoke their doctors.

The aristocratic courts of Denmark contended with sharply conflicting views of tea throughout much of the seventeenth century. In Schleswig, the ducal court of Holstein-Gottorp read the first-hand observations of the noted scholar Adam Olearius and the enthusiastic accounts from Persia of the adventurer Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo who praised tea as a healthful beverage and an effective medicine. In Copenhagen, the royal court endured the gratuitous and derogatory remarks of the king’s physician who devoted his medical and scientific career to undermining tea as drink and drug. Among the skeptics, the uncertain botanical identity of tea drew suspicion early on, fomenting speculation and debate. Moreover, the exorbitant price of the herb and the remarkable, nigh insupportable claims of its medicinal efficacy struck a nerve in the European medical community. Negative reaction was direct and vociferous. The first among the opposing physicians was the young German doctor Simon Pauli.

In 1635, Pauli wrote Commentarius de Abusu Tabaci et Herbae Thee, a work that three centuries later was called “a medical tract full of terrifying alarms” about tea. Throughout his long career as a doctor of medicine, university professor, botanist, and physician to the Danish throne, Pauli was the most vocal and adamant opponent of caffeine, executing an ongoing harangue against tea that lasted over forty years until his death in 1680. In addition to Commentarius, he wrote A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate thirty years later in 1665. Exhibiting symptoms of xenophobia, he condemned the use of all four substances as foreign and collectively characterized their users as “idle, prodigal, barren, impotent, or effeminate,” emphasizing the latter. His criticism of tea, influential and enduring, was also quite defamatory, and he accused the Chinese of “fulsome Exaggeration” in attributing health and longevity to the herb. Moreover, he viewed himself as a defender of the West against an insidious “oriental” incursion: “As Hippocrates spared no Pains to remove and root out the Athenian Plague, so I have use the utmost of my Endeavors to destroy the raging epidemical Madness of importing Tea into Europe from China.” Regarding the merits of tea, Pauli was obdurate and unforgiving, and his escalating rhetoric, damning:
As to the virtues they attribute to it, it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use. It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years.
Skeptical of the medicinal value of tea and convinced of its mortal toxicity, he then attacked the quality of the leaf, claiming that tea deteriorated to an ineffective state after prolonged periods of shipping, storage, and exposure to the European climate. As for the botanical identification of the plant, he wrote:
But if any one should ask my Sentiments of Tea, which some Years ago began to be imported from Asia, and the Eastern Countries ... I answer, that no satisfactory Reply can be made, till we know the Genus and Species of Tea, and to what Species of European Herbs it may be referred or compared ... but we give no Name of any of our Plants to Tea: Nay, it is not known, whether Tea is what the Greeks call ... an Herb, or ... a Shrub ....
He then shrilly demanded to know “Of what Kind and Species the Herb Tea is? ... Whether Tea is only the Produce of Asia, and whether it is ever found in Europe, or not? And ... Which of the European Herbs may be most properly used in its Stead?” He was at the ready with answers. To seal his argument and the ultimate fate of tea, Pauli asserted that the plant and leaves were nothing more than common myrtle.

Actually, the identification of tea with myrtle was nothing new. Before Pauli, several Catholic writers had already noted the superficial resemblance of tea leaves to those of Myrtus communis. However, he took their casual but unscientific observations to heart and concluded his investigation “by opening some Tea leaves.” Based on his findings, Pauli insisted that tea was specifically Myrica gale, the ordinary bog myrtle, known as sweet gale and Dutch myrtle, a commodity that was plentiful and cheap and indigenous to Northern Europe. He then posed the question why one should bother importing tea at great expense and distance and at such a diminution in quality, when myrtle was already and copiously available at home. Paradoxically, the lethality of tea was no longer at issue.

In his writings, Pauli credited his contemporary Alexander Rhodes for indicating the beneficial effects of tea, paraphrasing the priest and calling the Frenchman by his Latin name: “The first of which, according to Rhodius, is, that it alleviates Pains of the Head, and represses Vapors: The second, that it corroborates the Stomach: And, the third, that it expels the Stone and Gravel from the Kidneys.” The positive tea writings by Rhodes and other tea drinking Jesuits ironically provided the primary sources for Pauli’s negative campaign against the herb. Pauli’s attacks constituted a perverse, inverted twist on the Jesuits’ optimistic view of tea and the habitual use of and dependence by the priests on the herb. Based on his reputation as a medical doctor and botanist, Pauli was appointed physician to King Frederic III of Denmark, who was quite fond of tea. Perhaps it was the chilling effect of the doctor’s inexorable lectures on the evils of tea to the gullible aristocrats of his court that disturbed the Danish king, or perhaps Pauli said one direct word too many to his royal patron, but one day Frederic could no longer suffer the doctor’s criticism of his favorite drink and responded in Latin: “Credo te non esse sanum,” i.e. “I do believe you to be insane!”

Among the scientific community, Pauli’s hard position on caffeine often obscured and distracted scientific research, hindering sound and sober judgment on the identity, properties, and efficacy and defects of tea. It took over a decade for European botanists to overthrow Pauli’s claim that tea was bog myrtle. Andreas Cleyer, a German doctor in the service of the Dutch East India Company at Deshima, sent a specimen of the tea plant to the court of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I in Berlin where the German botanist and sinologist Christian Mentzel refuted Pauli in 1682 with the publication of the Universal Index of Plant Names. In the annals of European tea, Pauli was thereafter slighted as a “medical terrorist” for his stubborn assertion that deadly tea was gentle myrtle in disguise. Contempt for his botanical view of tea was such that innocent Myrica gale came to bear the sarcastic pseudonym “Thé du Simon Pauli.” In contrast to the Danes, the Dutch possessed no qualms about tea. Holland not only brought the leaf to the West, but also actively promoted its use as both philter and physic. In 1627, the physician Jacob de Bondt, who was stationed in Batavia as surgeon and apothecary to the Dutch East India Company, recommended tea as a remedy for respiratory and digestive ailments. Nikolas Dirx, better known as Nicolaes Tulp, the mayor of Amsterdam, was an eminent burgher and successful physician. Trained at Leyden University, Dirx was an anatomist and botanist who was effusive in his praise of tea:
Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age. Not only does it procure great vigor in their bodies, but it preserves them from gravel and gallstones, headaches, colds, ophthalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach and intestinal troubles. It has great additional merit of preventing sleep and facilitating vigils, which makes it a great help to persons desiring to spend their nights writing or meditating.
In nearby Antwerp, Jan Baptist van Helmont, the Belgian chemist, taught that “tea had the same effect on the system as bloodletting or laxatives, and should be used instead.” His Dutch students and followers like Stephen Blankaart became noted physicians, many of whom “recommended enormous quantities of the newly imported novelties, coffee and tea, as panaceas for acidity and blood-purifiers.” The idea that tea was an effective replacement for standard if not antiquated therapies gave grave pause to the conservative medical establishment in France. In 1648, the French physician Gui Patin, known for his stylish and witty letters, dismissed tea as an “impertinent novelty of the century” in a mocking review of the burning of a thesis on tea by members of the faculty of medicine in Paris. Patin, who later became dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Professor of the College of France, was hostile to the use of drugs and herbs, continuing to ridicule tea as late as 1657 when he scoffed that Cardinal Mazarin, the French chief minister, “takes thé as a preventative of gout.” He quickly changed tunes after an encounter with the influential chancellor of France, Pierre Séguier. The chancellor was a learned and sophisticated man who created a library second only to the royal collection and who was the official patron of the prestigious French Academy. Séguier was also an advocate and habitual drinker of tea, and he often entertained the heights of society with elegant tea parties at his literary salons.

In 1657, he formally accepted a College dissertation on tea written in his honor by a doctor, the son of the noted surgeon Pierre Cressy. Gui Patin, in one of his famously sarcastic letters, wrote: “Thursday next, we have a thesis on the subject of tea, dedicated to M. le Chancellor, who has promised to be present. The portrait of the above-mentioned gentleman will be there.” To everyone’s surprise, Séguier displaced his likeness by actually attending the morning-long lecture, bringing in tow an entourage of members of the royal privy council and adding the intimidating presence of officialdom to the gathering. By lunchtime, the dissertation was successfully defended, and tea was accepted as a remedy for gout and sundry ailments. Succumbing to logic, reason, and the palpable pressure of Séguier, the medical Faculty stood in ovation, allowing Patin to nimbly exchange his sly jibes for easy praise of tea.

It is unknown whether or not the eminent botanist and physician Denis Joncquet was with Séguier and present on the day of the 1657 meeting. But sometime during that same year, Joncquet displayed a gift for literary expression when -- like a Chinese sage -- he compared tea to “ambrosia” and praised the shrub as the “divine plant.” From the mid-1600s on, tea continued to find critics within and without the medical profession in Europe. And although the cast of characters and the science have changed over the centuries, the debate on the therapeutic efficacy of tea endures to this day.


Unknown said...

Mr. Owyoung, This article, like all of your articles, is most excellent. Thank you for going to the effort and taking the time to write it. Your grateful fan and student, ~grasshopper

Anonymous said...


Thank you very much for your kind words and support. It is my distinct pleasure to mark the fifth anniversary of CHA DAO and to honor Corax for his dedication to spreading knowledge of tea and tea culture. CHA DAO is a rare venue that celebrates not only the leaf but also its history. We are all richer for the Journal and for the devotion of Corax to its continuance.

On a personal note, it is my privilege to contribute the occasional essay and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my work. When I learned of the anniversary, I could not help but find a way to express my thanks to Corax and his readers.

From one cup to another,


Rebekah said...

It is a pleasure to see these early reactions to tea in the West and to be reminded of how strongly subcultures of knowledge reign in their time and place. What a fitting tribute for Corax, to whom we owe so much. Many thanks for this excellent article!

Anonymous said...


I am glad that you enjoyed the essay. The writing was a chance to delve into the Western side of tea, something I never thought to doing. But after reading the fascinating accounts written by the early European tea drinkers, it became a nice respite from my work on the Chajing.

I find that the Dutch history is especially interesting, although the Jesuit story of Japanese tea is also a must read.