Thursday, April 30, 2009

Those nut-cracking early moderns: Edmund Gayton on nuts

The 17th century physician and failed wit Edmund Gayton, in his The art of longevity, or, A diaeteticall instition (1659), talking about nuts.

First, the almond, variously medicinal, aphrodisiac, and cosmetic in its uses:

Almonds; the sweet are temperate, the bitter
Better, and for Physical uses fitter:
Their moderate heat and oyly juice
Doth lenifie the throat, yet they refuse
To pass the stomack, unless sugar'd well;
Then urine and obstructions they expel,
And sperm augment: unskinn’d they nourish worse,
Their coats, like bran, a passage for them force.
Skinn’d they are stiptick, and perform good task,
When order’d against bloody Flix and Lask.
The bitter, hot and dry, are wholsomer,
Dissolve gross humours, cleanse the ureter,
Expectorate and sweep the clogged lungs,
And mundifie the Spleen, and Liver dungs.
Their oyl for many uses serve, get grace
For keeping terse the Ladyes skins and face:

In Physick more successful; so we shall
Not give our Almonds only unto * Pal.

‘Pal’ I think for Pol, the parrot, as in ‘An Almond for a Parrot’, a by word for something the recipient adores. Nuts, Gayton goes on to tell us, are in general too dry – if you are of the wrong humour, they will make your head ache, and cause dizziness. (This is a bit of a surprise, for by the doctrine of signatures, nuts were often considered good for the brain.) But Gayton insists:

Nuts are dry whorsons, though the Tree complain,
Shee’s thwack’d and bang’d by every Country-Swain;
'Tis not without a Fault, by Virgil’s leave,
Who did the Nut an innocent fruit conceive.
For simply of themselves they do great harm,
Are most obstructive, and in stomacks warm
And cholerick ingender fumes, and make
The pate virtiginous, and deadly ake.

But the nut can be improved by being infused in sherry, and for a moment Gayton’s verses faintly recall Milton’s wonderful sonnet of wise Epicureanism, ‘Lawrence of Virtuous Father Vertuous Son’:

Infus’d in Sack, their mended quality’s
Approv’d, who wo’nt in Walnuts sacrifice
An afternoon to Bacchus, if it rain,
And moistned skies offend the studious brain?

Next, some kind of internal cleanse made of nuts, figs, rue and salt pounded together in a mortar (Gayton uses the old verb, ‘contund’):

But Nuts, two Figs, and twenty leaves of Rue,
And Salt contunded, (give the Devil his due,
He is a Nutter too) will expel poyson;
Nay, taken fasting keeps off all that’s noysom.

We have all heard about the ‘nut-cracking’ groundlings of the Shakespearean theatre: here, Gayton explains which nuts were eaten, plebeian ones as he sees it, the hazelnut and filbert, and also tells us that this cracking went on between the acts, and only spoiled the hearing of the entr’acte music:

In Hazel-nut, or Filberd, cold and dry
Of temper, doth a windy moysture lye,
Which yeilds but little nourishment, so tough,
It will not passe the stomack soon enough,
But lies like bullet, or small shot of lead,
Yet upon these the vulgar sort do feed.
And at the Play houses, betwixt the Acts,
The Musick Room is drown’d with these Nut-cracks…

I will leave him on the excellence of walnuts, in themselves, and as an oil for the scalp, finally as a sweet:

Walnuts, or Royal Nuts, or Nuts of Jove,
(Here’s name enough to get a noble love)
Are the best sort of Nuts, and newly pluck’d
Delight the taste, but little juyce is suck’d

From its dry kernel, which doth slow descend,
And by its hard concoction doth offend.
Made in oyl like Almonds, they make smooth
The hands and face, like chisel to a booth
Or board, they plane the scurfie head, and scales,
And save the labour of our itching nails.
The green and tender Nut, like Sucket made,
And boyl’d in Sugar (tis Confectioners trade)
Is most delightful and confortative,
And antidoticall: then eat, and live.

Gayton was a ‘physician and hack writer’ (ODNB). I quite enjoyed his mock sermon, Walk knaves, walk (1659), in which a vamper of waxed boots, got into a puritan pulpit, recommends his product to the congregation. Wit revived: or, a new and excellent way of divertisement, digested into most ingenious questions and answers. By Asdryasdust Tossoffacan (1655-6) never lives up to that pseudonym. The ODNB entry quotes Anthony Wood on Gayton’s writings for bread: Gayton ‘lived … in London in a sharking condition, and wrote trite things merely to get bread to sustain him and his wife’. At his death Dr Fell condemns his University’s former beadle as “such an ill husband, and so improvident, that he had but one farthing in his pocket when he died”.

Image, Georg Flegel (b. 1566, Olomouc, d. 1638, Frankfurt am Main), ‘Dessert Still Life’, from the Web Gallery of Art.

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