Love, sex, and marriage in medieval Europe were hemmed in all around with rules dictated by both the Catholic Church and the social and moral attitudes of the era. Yet lovers still met, married, and had children. With both Church and State looking over their shoulders, though, sometimes, they needed a little a help. They often turned to aphrodisiacs to create love where love did not exist, to be better lovers, or to jump-start procreation. Medieval love potions, powders, charms, and spells were many and varied; some were even deadly, so do not try a medieval aphrodisiac without checking things out for safety first.
Many foods considered aphrodisiacs during the Middle Ages were deemed so because they looked like or shared certain characteristics of human male or female genitalia. For instance, carrots, cucumbers, ginseng, mandrake root, chick peas and pine nuts are just a few of the vivacious vegetables and roots that could put the “love” back into your lover, but the animal kingdom was not reticent in romance either. Oysters, eels, rhinoceros horns, and the body parts of snakes, bulls, rabbits, and beavers were also quite popular.
Pokerounce, a medieval English dish of toasted bread spread with a spicy, warmed honey, was considered an aphrodisiac because it was made up of a number of individual aphrodisiacs. It contained honey, ginger, and pine nuts. Ancient Egyptians had passed down the belief that honey could cure sterility and impotence. Medieval people also felt that it “sweetened” a marriage. Ginger was supposed to stimulate the circulation system and increase the pulse rate. Pine nuts were believed to stimulate the libido. Combining all these aphrodisiacs in one sweet dish, the medieval mind reasoned, was bound to result in a romantic night.
However, medieval people did not rest their chances at love solely on Viagra-like desserts. Many other options, edible and inedible, poisonous and benign, were available to them. According to The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones, and Certain Beasts, which dates from 1550, periwinkle, when beaten into a powder with earthworms and cooked in their meat, “will induce love between man and wife.” Henbane will make one attractive to the opposite sex. An eaglestone (which is a type of geode), if hung over one’s left shoulder, “getteth love between the husband and his wife.”
In the later part of the Middle Ages, chocolate was also considered an aphrodisiac. The Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, first encountered it during his conquest of the New World in the early sixteenth century. Writing some fifty years after Cortes’s 1521 conquest of Mexico ended, Bernal Diaz of Castillo noted in his book, Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva Espana(True History of the Conquest of New Spain), that the Aztec emperor Montezuma drank fifty thimble-sized cups of chocolate or xocolatl, as he called it, each day to enhance his libido. When Cortes brought chocolate home to the Spanish royal court, the story of its aphrodisiac properties came with the fashionable new concoction. However, for sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans, chocolate proved to be a mental aphrodisiac as a well as physical aphrodisiac. Because chocolate was rare and expensive, it became a courtship gift with a message. The suitor hoped that his lady would realize that he had spent a great deal of money on a luxurious gift for her because he valued her and her affections as highly as he valued the chocolate. The gift also showed that he could be a good provider.
Although many aphrodisiacs have been discredited over time, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, chocolate remains a potent aphrodisiac, at least mentally. Still the quintessential Valentine’s Day gift, a present of chocolate is always sure to secure a lady’s affections and has a permanent place in the arsenal men use to win the hearts of women.