The autobiographer Alice Thornton (1626-1707), writing in the later part of the seventeenth century, recalled the sudden and shocking death of her maternal uncle, Edward Osborne, at his home in Kiveton, south Yorkshire, in September 1647:
My dear Uncle Osborne, being at Kiveton with his lady and desiring to eat some melons at the time of year, sent for several from his gardens at Thorpe and Kiveton. And finding some excellent good, did eat a little freely. But that fruit was too cold for him and struck him into a vomiting and purging so violently that it could not be stayed, until his strength was past recovery, so that in a few days’ time he was deprived of his life.
You might be reading this and thinking ‘what on earth?’, and that would be understandable, since it is harder to imagine a less threatening foodstuff than the humble melon. Existing in infinite varieties, beloved starter choice of mass caterers, and the breakfast of many a dieter – what could possibly be fatal about a fruit consisting mostly of water? In fact, as historian of science Paolo Savoia puts it, ‘Melons were among the most desired and the most dangerous fruits in early modern Europe’, which is very much at odds with our own conceptions of this uncontroversial fruit. To explain why the melon was revered and feared over four hundred years ago, we must look at early modern medical theory and the new experimental horticulture of the seventeenth century.
At around the same time that Thornton was writing, the naturalist John Evelyn (1620-1706) was writing what is probably the first ever treatise on salads, his Discourse on Sallets (1699). In this, Evelyn confirms that melons were both dangerous and desirable:
to have been reckon’d rather among Fruits; and tho’ an usual Ingredient in our Sallet; yet for its transcendent delicacy and flavor, cooling and exhilarating Nature (if sweet, dry, weighty, and well-fed) not only superior all the Gourd-kind, but Paragon with the noblest Productions of the Garden.
Melons were cold and moist and were seen to cause putrefaction in the stomach if they were eaten to excess. As Ken Albala demonstrates in his book Eating Right in the Renaissance, sudden deaths from eating a surfeit of melons, such as that of Edward Osborne, were often recorded during the early modern period, and melons received a barrage of negative publicity from contemporary physicians for many decades, both in England, and across Europe. But this negativity campaign ultimately failed to have an effect on the level of consumption of the fruit. The more dangerous something is made out to be, the more desirable it is. We can compare this with modern-day campaigns against ‘junk food’ and sugar – in the end, the only thing that works in cutting down consumption of things considered ‘bad’ is making things too expensive either for the consumer or the producer.
Why were cold and moist melons seen as a problem worthy of the attention of early modern physicians? Mainstream medical thinking in the early modern period was based on ancient Hippocratic-Galenic frameworks of four humours (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) which existed in a unique balance within each person’s body. The four states – hot, cold, wet and dry – had an effect on the four humours. And it was the six non-naturals – air, food and drink, sleep and waking, rest and exercise, evacuations and retentions, and the passions – which affected the states and humours. So, if a person ate too much of something with cold and moist qualities and this disagreed with their natural make-up, it could put their humours fatally out of balance. This, it seems, is what caused the death of Thornton’s uncle. The melons were too cold for him, presumably because he was of a hotter, drier complexion – humoural theory held that men were hot and dry, and women cold and moist, so it was even less advisable for men to eat foods such as melons. A person of a colder, moister constitution might have fared somewhat better as those foods would have been naturally more suited to their makeup.
To counterbalance the potentially harmful effects of eating melon, early modern physicians advised that a ‘corrective’ be consumed – something warmer and drier to balance out the melon’s extreme coldness and moisture. The usual recommendations were things like red wine, cheese, and salty foods such as cured meat – so the classic melon, parma ham and cheese starter would have had a thumbs up from early modern physicians.
A second reason, Savoia argues, that melons were considered dangerous was because of the new methods of plant cultivation that had been introduced to grow them. They were one of the first examples of ‘forced horticulture’ in this period – ‘philosophical gardening’ meant that experiments with where and how plants were grown meant that melons could be grown everywhere, regardless of climate, using hothouses or, as they were called in the 17th century, ‘orangeries’, such as the example below at Kew.
This led to some problems, because melons grown in colder climates were therefore considered more dangerous than those cultivated in hotter environments. Olivier de Serres (1539-1619), the French agronomist, said that in cold climates people let melons grow in mud, ‘with no fear that the decomposition causes bad taste in the fruit’. Thornton’s uncle Osborne had eaten melons grown at his own properties in south Yorkshire – Thorpe Salvin and Kiveton. Such melons were seen to cause putrefaction in the stomach, especially those grown in colder climates where the melons were more likely to be rotten.
Unlike Edward Osborne, some seventeenth-century writers seemingly suffered no issue with eating melons. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) recorded eating melon on three separate occasions in the 1660s, always in August, when they would have been ripe (Osborne ate them in early September, which fits with the argument that it might have been over-ripe). On 23 August 1660, Pepys noted that he went ‘To Westminster Hall, where I met with W. Symons, T. Doling, and Mr. Booth, and with them to the Dogg, where we eat a musk melon (the first that I have eat this year)’.
In August 1666 Pepys noted he had bought a melon from the ‘Neat Houses’ – market gardens in what is now Pimlico, which in the 17th and 18th centuries supplied the fruit and vegetables for the city’s population. And on 6 August 1667 he recorded that he went, ‘to Sir W. Batten’s with [Sir] W. Pen and [Sir] J. Minnes, and there eat a melon and talked’. The eating and purchasing of melons was clearly part of Pepys’s elite cultural milieu in 1660s London. It was something he tended to do with his titled acquaintances.
Melons were exotic, desirable, and associated with wealth and worldliness. Due to new artificial horticultural techniques, melons were a global fruit – they could be grown anywhere due to this experimental agronomy. While melons were exotic and worldly to most people living in early modern England, they could also be grown on your doorstep or in the garden. But if you grew them in the colder climes of South Yorkshire and ate them to excess, you might only expect to meet a sudden end, as Edward Osborne did.