2012 March Book of the Month

Chocolate is good for you  –
according to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Chocolata inda. (Nuremberg, 1644), 12o

The Worth Library Book of the Month for March 2012 is Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Chocolata inda. (Nuremberg, 1644), one of three books on chocolate collected by Edward Worth. Chocolata inda was the earliest of the three and the most important. First published at Madrid in 1631 under the title Curioso tratado de la  naturaleza y calidad del chocolate it was subsequently reprinted and translated into many editions.


The frontispiece of Colmenero de Lesdesma’s work represents the divine origin of chocolate – it was regarded quite literally as a gift from the gods. According to Mayan and Aztec legend, the Plumed Serpent God gave cacao to humans and it was subsequently used in rituals. Spaniards first encountered it as early as 1502 at Guanaja and certainly by 1544 it had been brought to Madrid. At roughly the same time, Spaniards moved away from the original Nahuatl term ‘cacahuatl’ to call it ‘chocolatl’. By the time Colmenero de Ledesma was writing in 1631, ‘chocolatl’ was ‘much used in Spaine, Italy and Flanders, and particularly at Court’ and had become a topic of debate among physicians. Colmenero de Ledesma thus concentrates his work on answering four questions: what chocolate is and what are the qualities of cacao; what is the quality of chocolate; how to make it and how to drink it; when and how much to drink. The emphasis is on chocolate as a drink and the author gives us an early seventeenth-century recipe for drinking chocolate:

‘To every 100 Cacao, you must put two cods of the long red Pepper, of which I have spoken before, and are called in the Indian Tongue, Chilparlagua; and in stead of those of the Indies, you may take those of Spaine, which are broadest, and least hot. One handfull of Annis-seed Orejuelas, which are otherwise called Vinacaxlidos: and two of the flowers, called Mechasuehil, if the Belly be bound. But in stead of this, in Spaine, we put in sixe Roses of Alexandria beat to Powder: One Cof of Campeche or Logwood: Two Drams of Cinamon,; Almons’ and Hasle-Nuts, of each one Dozen: Of white Sugar, halfe a pound: Of Achiote, enough to give it the colour. And if you cannot have those things, which come from the Indies, you may make it with the rest.’

As Norton (2006) points out, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe shows us how Spanish consumers were gradually changing the flavour of the import by adding sugar and spices more congenial to their palate than the rather more bitter flavouring favoured by Mexicans and Mayans.


As the title page makes plain, Colmenero de Ledesma was a physician from Andalusia. His inclusion of his title, in conjunction with commendations from some of the leading medical practitioners of his day: Dr Mechor de Lara, the Physician General of Spain, and Dr Juan de Mena, the Physician to the King of Spain, point to the medicinal nature of Colmenero de Ledesma’s work. For him, chocolate was a medicinal drink with specific health-giving qualities. Colmenero de Ledesma’s target was the Spanish physician Bartholomé de Marradón, who is 1618 had published a tract in Seville, castigating chocolate as ‘obstructive’. Colmenero de Ledesma fundamentally disagreed, arguing that chocolate was a beneficial health drink and could (albeit with a little difficulty), be fitted into his galenic medical philosophy. In this he was not alone: seventeenth and eighteenth-century writers on chocolate lauded it as a panacea for a long list of ailments which, as Dillinger et al (2000) suggest, may be divided into three main groups: a) to enable patients to gain weight; b) to stimulate nervous systems; c) to improve digestion.

This medicinal nature was further emphasised in the subsequent editions and translations of the Chocolata inda. The medicinal claims became ever more strident – most notably in the additional title added by its English translator, James Wadsworth, to his 1652 edition: ‘By the wise and Moderate use whereof, Health is preserved, Sicknesse Diverted, and Cured, especially the Plague of the Guts; vulgarly called The New Disease; Fluxes, Consumptions, & Coughs of the Lungs, with sundry other desperate Diseases. By it also, Conception is Caused, the Birth Hastened, Beaty Gain’d and continued.’ That there was a commercial element involved is readily apparent in Wadsworth’s 1652 translation which was printed ‘by J.G. for Iohn Dakins, dwelling near the Vine Tavern, in Holborne, where this Tract, together with the Chocolate itselfe, may be had at reasonable rates’. Albala (2007) has drawn attention to the attempt by physicians to corner the chocolate market: by claiming that it was medicinal in nature, they would have greater control of this luxury import. Their efforts were doomed to failure, not least because, as the dispute between Colmenero de Ledesma and Bartholomé de Marradón demonstrates, chocolate could be considered to be either ‘cold and dry’ or ‘hot and moist’ in the humoral galenic system.

Worth’s copy is bound in seventeenth-century Dutch parchment lace-cased in boards. The original owner of the text evidently decided to have it bound with works of a similar nature for alongside it we find a text by the editor of Chocolata inda: Johann Georg Volckamer’s Opobalsami orientalis in theriaces confectionem Romae revocati examen, doctiorumque calculis approbati sinceritas (Nuremberg, 1644). On either side of these two related texts we find  Jean Prevost’s Medicina pauperum (Lyons, 1660), and Jean Pecquet’s Experimenta nova anatomica (Harderwijck,1651). Evidently the original owner considered Colmenero de Ledesma’s tract on chocolate to be a medical text and Worth concurred, including it in the medical part of his collection. As Pucciarelli and Grivetti (2008) demonstrate, chocolate continued to be considered medicinally beneficial for treating a host of diseases well into the nineteenth century and current medical research (Engler, 2006) suggests that dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidant flavonoids, may be beneficial for heart health – but only when taken in moderation!



Albala, Ken (2007), ‘The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th century Medical Theory’, Food and Foodways (15), 53-74.

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael (1996), The True History of Chocolate (London).

Colmenero de Ledesma, Antonio (1640), A Curious Treatise of The Nature and Quality of CHOCOLATE. Written in Spanish by Antonio Colmenero, Doctor in Physicke and Chirurgery. And put into English by Don Diego de Vades-forte (London).

Colmenero de Lesdesma, Antonio(1652), Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke(London).

Dillinger, Teresa L; Barriga, Patricia; Escárcega, Sylvia; Jimenez, Martha; Salazar Lower, Diana; and Grivetti, Louis E. (2000), ‘Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate’, The Journal of Nutrition, supplement.

Engler, Mary B., and Engler, Marguerite M. (2006), ‘The Emerging Role of Flavonoid-Rich Cocoa and Chocolate in Cardiovascular Health and Disease’, Nutrition Reviews (64) no. 3., pp. 109-118.

Lippi, Donatella (2009), ‘Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?’, Nutrition (25), 1100-1103.

Norton, Marcy (2006), ‘Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics’, The American Historical Review (111), no. 3, 660-691.

Pucciarelli, Deanna L. and Grivetti, Louis E. (2008), ‘The Medicinal Use of Chocolate in Early North America’, Molecular Nutrition and Food Research (52), 1-13.



Text by Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Worth Library.

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