Nowadays, sugar is one of the most commonly used dietary substances that is primarily known for its sweetening properties. Nevertheless, the role and meaning of sugar were by far more versatile in the past than they are today. It was a luxury and was not so widely accessible to everyone until after industrialization (Pilcher 2008). Moreover, some types of sugar were regarded as essential medical remedies. The medicinal status of sucrose was promoted in medieval Arab pharmacology and, particularly, humoral medicine. The knowledge of pharmacological qualities of sugar reached Europe as well and, for several centuries, it was consumed there as part of various mixtures. However, the functions of sugar as a food and a drug did not match well in the European theological consciousness of the Middle Ages. Some theologians were against the use of syrups considering that sugar in any form breaks the fast. Others also did not trust the foreign civilization that promoted their use. These problems will be discussed in the present paper along with the historical examples of utilizing the substance as medicine in different regions.
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Medical Uses of Sugar in Arab Pharmacology
Ibn al-Baytar and Ibn al-Nafis, a leading pharmacologist and prominent doctor of the Islamic world, composed extensive manuscripts describing the uses of sugar for medical purposes. Ibn al-Baytar created The Comprehensive Book of Simple Drugs where he carefully and thoroughly recorded the effects of sugar on health that previous pharmacologists and health practitioners mentioned in their work (Sato 92-94). Additionally, as part of his multi-volume medical encyclopedia, Ibn al-Nafis created a book called The Principles of Sugar that provides an extensive overview of different kinds and properties of the substance (Sato 97). Based on the descriptions of sugar qualities as “hot” and “gentle” in these two manuscripts, it is evident that the substance was utilized mostly as part of humoral medicine (Sato 100-101). This type of medicine originates from ancient Greece and suggests that health problems occur as a result of imbalances in bodily fluids.
Consistently with humoral medicine, the consumption of products with different properties affects the liquid balance and has either negative or positive effects on health. For instance, Arabic practitioners stated that the gentle qualities of sugar allow improving digestion, and sugar crystals accumulating on sugarcane help remove eye infections (Sato 101-102). They also claimed that consumption of old sugar allows cleansing the phlegm yet may cause blood impurity (Sato 102). Overall, this evidence indicates that sugar was extensively explored in Arabic pharmacology and applied for highly versatile purposes.
Medical Status of Sucrose in Europe
The knowledge of medicinal qualities of sugar entered Europe with the translations of classical texts either from Greek or Islamic texts. According to Mintz, there may be doubts that ancient Greeks knew a lot about sugar as medicine, yet there is no question that the translators of works on humoral medicine, who introduced it to Europe, were familiar with it (96). Those translators incorporated the knowledge of sugar into the ancient Greek medical and pharmacological systems. Moreover, when translations of Arabic texts appeared, European practitioners started to regard Arabic science and medicine as authoritative sources (Mintz 98). Since sugar was praised for its medical quality in the Islamic world, European doctors also commenced prescribing and using it more actively.
According to Mintz, it is known that sucrose in 12th-century Europe was used for fever, cough, various stomach diseases, pectoral problems, and so forth (99). In the 13th century, sugar was frequently added to mixtures and tonics in England (Mintz 99). Doctors from other European countries, including Spain and France, often added sugar as one of the key ingredients to their recipes as well. Noteworthily, their remedies also comprised a plethora of other foods, starting from almond milk and ending with chicken breasts (Mintz 99). Thus, it is valid to note that the final products of their medical recommendations more resembled foods than mixtures in their traditional understanding.
Since sugar was frequently utilized alongside other dietary products, some people validly questioned its medicinal qualities. For theologians, this issue obtained particular importance since they were expected to fast and avoid foods, such as alcohol and meat, that are associated with indulgence, intoxication, and impurity and may arouse senses. Clearly, sugar, as a spice, is controversial in this regard. In the past, when the knowledge of sugar was incomplete and primarily based on presumptions rather than facts, the controversy was even stronger. Some theologians and medical practitioners also tended to question the quality of Arabic sources from where the knowledge of sugar as medicine entered Europe (Mintz 102). Nevertheless, among all other “drug foods” that Europe started to import from tropical regions several centuries ago, including chocolate, tea, and tobacco, only sugar “escaped religious proscription” (Mintz 99-100). This indicates not only that the effects of sucrose are less pronounced than of other abovementioned substances but also that sugar became an indispensable ingredient in the nutrition of different social groups.
The historical overview demonstrates that medical practitioners, especially the Arabic ones, valued sugar for its favorable impacts on health and dedicated substantial chapters in their manuscripts to the description of types, properties, and potential effects of sucrose. While European practitioners adopted many of the Arabic medical practices and commenced adding sugar to their prescriptions, it is possible to say that its use as a medicine was relatively less popular there than in the Islamic world. One of the reasons is that sugar was accessible merely to the richest strata. Secondly, Europeans grew more aware of the disadvantages of sugar more rapidly and undertook a more critical approach to its consumption mainly because of mistrust of the culture that promoted its use and due to the discussed theological resistance to sucrose.
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Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Food in World History. Routledge, 2008.
Sato, Tsugitaka. Sugar in the Social Life of Medieval Islam. BRILL, 2014.