In honour of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to look at an Early Modern aphrodisiac – asparagus, also known as sperage or sparagus in many Early Modern texts.
Most people have probably heard of the supposed aphrodisiac properties of asparagus. Whether you believe aphrodisiac foods truly exist or not, you probably know about this vegetable’s reputation. Confusingly, there seems to be some debate over whether anyone in the Early Modern period actually bought into the idea that asparagus could really “stirreth up bodily lust”. The following exchange from Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden (1640) shows two characters discussing the nature of the vegetable:
Moneylack: Have you this Spring eaten any Asparagus yet?
Rebecca: Why is that good for a woman that longs to bee with Child?
Mon. Of all the Plants, hearbes, rootes, or fruits that grow, it is the most provocative, operative and effective.
Reb.Indeed Sir Hugh?
Mon. All your best (especially your moderne) Herballists conclude, that your Asparagus is the onely sweet stirrer that the earth sends forth, beyond your wild Carrets, Cornflag, or Gladiall. Your roots of Standergrasse, or of Satyrion boyld in Goates milke are held good; your Clary or Horminum in divers wayes good, and Dill (especially boyld in Oyle) is also good: but none of these, nor Saffron boyld in wine, your Nuts of Artichoakes, Rocket, or seeds of Ash-tree (which wee call the Kite keyes) nor thousand such, though all are good, may stand up for perfection with Asparagus.
This would seem like fairly solid evidence at first, but in an article entitled ‘Asparagus and Brome’s The Sparagus Garden’ (1971, Modern Philology Vol 68 No. 4), Leroy L. Panek argues that many herbals of the period do not actually mention the aphrodisiac effects of asparagus at all, referring much more frequently to carrots, dill, standergrass, and others. The point of the scene, Panek says, is that Moneylack is misleading Rebecca so that she will buy some asparagus.
Having delved into a few herbals and diet books, I do think Panek makes a good point about Moneylack talking up the effects of asparagus in the play, indeed I have noticed that it’s quite often mentioned without any reference to it’s more racy benefits. However, on the other hand I don’t think this means that asparagus wasn’t considered to have any beneficial effects relating to sex at all, and I have spotted a few. William Langham’s The Garden of Health (1597) lists sperage under the heading “Seed, to increase”, and William Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defense (also from 1579) states that a syrup of asparagus “doeth increase seede of generation”. Those texts are both from the late 16th century, but asparagus was still thought of as a lusty vegetable by some 30 years later, in John Gerard’s 1633 The Herball or General History of Plants he mentions that “they are thought to increase seed, and stir vp lust”.
It seems by no means a cut and dried case for whether or not asparagus was really considered an aphrodisiac. The section on asparagus from Culpeper’s The English Physitian indicates that the benefits of the vegetable were perhaps in dispute in the 16th century:
“[asparagus] being taken fasting several mornings together stirreth up bodily lust in Man or Woman (whatsoever some have written to the contrary.)”
I’m siding with Culpeper on this one for the purposes of this blog, and now I’m off to cook chicken with asparagus a la Hannah Wolley. I’ll be using her 1675 book The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery, and I’ll report back once the experiment is complete!