Poor Sam Pepys' furious bouts of itching
Poor Samuel Pepys seems troubled sometimes by his food.
and to Mr. Hollyard, and took some pills of him and a note under his hand to drink wine with my beere, without which I was obliged, by my private vowe, to drink none a good while, and have strictly observed it, and by my drinking of small beere and not eating, I am so mightily troubled with wind, that I know not what to do almost. […] we sat down and eat a bit of dinner fetched from the cooke’s [a cookshop, takeaway] Wednesday 19 August 1663
Having taken some mysterious pills, stopped drinking beer, and eaten out at a cook’s shop, he gets excessively cross the next day:
Up betimes and to my office (having first been angry with my brother John, and in the heat of my sudden passion called him Asse and coxcomb, for which I am sorry, it being but for leaving the key of his chamber with a spring lock within side of his door) Thursday 20 August 1663
Anyone can get nasty reaction when they stop drinking too much alcohol. But what about Pepys’ mysterious bouts of itching?
Up (my underlip being mightily swelled, I know not how but by overrubbing it, it itching) Saturday 9 January 1663/64
Pepys’ itching is a veritable ongoing saga:
Whether the wind and the cold did cause it or no I know not, but having been this day or two mightily troubled with an itching all over my body which I took to be a louse or two that might bite me, I found this afternoon that all my body is inflamed, and my face in a sad redness and swelling and pimpled, so that I was before we had done walking not only sick but ashamed of myself to see myself so changed in my countenance, so that after we had thus talked we parted and I walked home with much ado (Captn. Ferrers with me as far as Ludgate Hill towards Mr. Moore at the Wardrobe), the ways being so full of ice and water by peoples’ trampling. At last got home and to bed presently, and had a very bad night of it, in great pain in my stomach, and in great fever. Sunday 8 February 1662/63
Could not rise and go to the Duke, as I should have done with the rest, but keep my bed and by the Apothecary’s advice, Mr. Battersby, I am to sweat soundly, and that will carry all this matter away which nature would of itself eject, but they will assist nature, it being some disorder given the blood, but by what I know not, unless it be by my late quantitys of Dantzic-girkins that I have eaten. Monday 9 February 1662/63
Could Pepys possibly have picked a higher chemical food than pickled gherkins to have a reaction to? Not only are gherkins excessively high in salicylates, these gherkins are pickled and imported – probably full of histamine and other amines, and possibly sulphites, which have been used to preserve food and wine since Roman times. Foods were widely adulterated with dubious substances designed to preserve or extend them in Pepys’ day, partly in order to overcome the difficulties and delays in getting food from the countryside to the town in due time, and partly to make a more handsome profit (nothing has really changed then).
In the morning most of my disease, that is, itching and pimples, were gone. In the morning visited by Mr. Coventry and others, and very glad I am to see that I am so much inquired after and my sickness taken notice of as I did. I keep my bed all day and sweat again at night, by which I expect to be very well to-morrow.
Tuesday 10 February 1662/63
Because we detox through the skin as well as the liver, kidneys and intestines, Pepys’ apothecary issued sound advice (unlike his advice to drink wine and beer together). Sadly Pepys is repeatedly troubled by this problem:
Thence home again by water presently, and with a bad dinner, being not looked for, to the office, and there we sat, and then Captn. Cocke and I upon his hemp accounts till 9 at night, and then, I not very well, home to supper and to bed. My late distemper of heat and itching being come upon me again, so that I must think of sweating again as I did before. Tuesday 24 February 1662/63
So to my wife, who waited my coming at my Lord’s lodgings, and took her up and by coach home, where no sooner come but to bed, finding myself just in the same condition I was lately by the extreme cold weather, my pores stopt and so my body all inflamed and itching. So keeping myself warm and provoking myself to a moderate sweat, and so somewhat better in the morning Monday 30 March 1663
What’s curious about Pepys’ bouts of itching is that they seem to occur when he wouldn’t have been getting enough vitamin D:
My pill I took last night worked very well, and I lay long in bed and sweat to get away the itching all about my body from head to foot, which is beginning again as it did the last winter, and I find after I am up that it is abated. Sunday 6 September 1663
Wonder two readers of the blog:
Was any substance added to the pickling solution, such as alum? Can recall, as a wee tyke, eating “quantitys” of ripe strawberries, and coming out in hives—-aka Aqua’s “urticaria.” Comments
Dantzic-girkins: Polish King Michael said to have died of a “surfeit of gherkins” in 1673. Comments
So here we have it. Itching reactions to food in 1663, long before refined carbohydrates, and long before the age of tartrazine and nasty antioxidants. Pepys was a rich man who ate a hearty diet of hams, birds, bread, beer and, apparently, pickled vegetables.