Little Known Connections Between Valentine’s Day and Spices (fascinating!)

I was recently reading The History of a Temptation: Spice by Jack Turner. Despite its sexy title, the book can be a bit dry and academic. So to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I picked out juicy bits and added my own twist to bring you intriguing history of our most romantic holiday, and how it links to spices, and how love, libido, Paradise and spices are all tangled up in the maze of history.

To understand how spices fit into the lust and lore of centuries, and into the origin of Valentine's Day, let's go back…

There were around a dozen St. Valentines, plus a pope.

Actual history is murky and shrouded in legend. But we do know that the name “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a very popular name between the 2nd and 8th centuries A.D. Several martyrs with this name were made saints over the centuries.

Saint Valentine & The Emperor Claudius

One in particular was beheaded by Roman emperor Claudius – probably on February 14, 270 A.D. Legend has it (we don't know for sure) that the priest angered the emperor by marrying young couples in the Christian tradition. The emperor preferred young men to be single and soldiers. He thought single men fought better when they weren’t worried about their wives and families back home. He became "St. Valentine of Rome" (to distinguish him from all the others) and his feast day was February 14.

Remember Chaucer from English Lit? He's the guy that invented Valentine’s Day somewhere around 1382.

It wasn't until centuries later that the first mention of St. Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday appeared in the writings of the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is well-known for taking liberties with history, placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real.

(Fake news apparently goes waaaaaaay back.)

haucer & Valentine's Day

No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day before appearing in Chaucer's poem “Parliament of Foules (Fowls).” Depicting a dreamy vision of birds' (and human) mating rituals, the poem became wildly popular. Chaucer is the original Valentine mythmaker, creating the first link between bird and human lovers and celebrating St. Valentine’s feast day.

This poem set off a wave of feasts and celebrations of love on February 14, and Valentine’s Day blossomed as a popular late winter-early spring holiday.

Now we get to spices….Chaucer links spices, sex, love and intrigue in his poems and plays.

Spices were all the rage in Chaucer's Europe, and an elite luxury of the rich. Spices stoked the medieval imagination with visions of Paradise and stimulating the senses with desirable aromas and exotic flavors. Chaucer stoked the fire for their use as aphrodisiacs in his bawdy tales.

In the Miller's Tale, a lusty local beauty is married to an old carpenter. Two handsome young men have their eyes on her as a lover. The suitor that is successful in having sex with her is described as smelling of licorice and sweet spices. The other, even though he is tempts her with spiced wine, mead and ale, can't make it to first base. When he begs her for a kiss, she presents her buttocks through the hole in the privy.

Spices in The Merchant's Tale

In the Merchant's Tale, a wealthy elderly knight named January decides to marry. He chooses a beautiful virgin named May. Even though he boasts of his still-rampant virility, January is nervous about his wedding night. Despite bragging of his sexual prowess, he seeks chemical assistance to increase his virility – aphrodisiacs of spiced wine followed by spiced sweets.

Chaucer mentions the creator of these spice concoctions: Constantine, a major intellectual and medical authority of the age between 1050 AD and the end to the 15th century. His book De Coitu (On Sexual Intercourse) was the foremost sexual manual of the Middle Ages. His influence spanned Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Spices are part of every aphrodisiac remedy Constantine prescribes: for impotence he advises a combination of ginger, pepper, galangal, cinnamon and various herbs to be taken several times a day. He has numerous spice prescriptions to boost a flagging sex drive and to strengthen the libido. Even though Constantine is a Benedictine monk, he reports that he uses these himself with excellent results.

His prescriptions work well for January as well. Even in his decrepit state, he went until dawn on his wedding night, and was quite pleased with himself.

His wife May, however, wasn't so impressed. She is smitten with Damian, January's young and handsome manservant. Damian falls in love with her as well. She arranges to meet Damian in a pear tree in January's secret garden, where they proceed to have passionate sex. And they are caught in mid act…

Such are the bawdy tales of Chaucer…and why "spicy" came to mean "sexy," among other things, in the English language.

Chaucer also mentions nutmeg-laced ale, a poor man's delicacy. The addition of nutmeg, cinnamon and clove helped make the foul ale of the day – which spoiled quickly into a stinking soured slop – more palatable and resistant to spoilage. Craft brewers of today have revived spiced ales, albeit for the pleasurable taste more than spoilage prevention.

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer depicts the physician as a bit of a money-grubber, pursuing profit in cahoots with apothecaries that sold spices at high prices to the rich. Much like the profiteering pharmaceutical companies of today, the spice merchants and physicians of medieval times colluded in excessive prescriptions of expensive ingredients.

But back to Valentine's Day…

The French King Charles VI declares Valentine's Day an annual feast in the Court of Love

The earliest description of February 14 as an annual celebration of love appears in the Charter of the Court of Love. February 14th is described as "when the little birds recommence their sweet song on perceiving the newness of the gracious springtime." The charter, decreed by Queen Isabel and King Charles VI of France in 1400, describes lavish festivities to be attended by the royal court, including a feast, amorous song and poetry competitions, jousting and dancing.

Spices at French King Charles VI Valentine's Day an annual feast in the Court of Love

These spice-laden feasts featured savory sauces and sweets made with grains of Paradise, cardamom, ginger, galangal, clove, saffron and cinnamon. The royal chef Taillevant recorded his recipes in the classic cookbook The Viandier.

The French Court of Louis XV buzzes about ginger, the spice of “burning desire"

Over 300 years later, the French court was still buzzing over spices. A great beauty of low birth, Jeanne Bécu met and became the mistress of an upper-class pimp, Jean-Baptiste du Barry. He installed her in his upscale brothel where she took the name Madame du Barry and began to attract wealthy clients.

She eventually made it to Versailles, catching the eye of the aging King Louis XV who fell under the spell of the extravagant young courtesan. Due to her background, she was received coldly by the majority of the court. But with her beauty, charms and skills she rose to official royal mistress to the King in 1769. One of those skills was knowing how to animate her elderly rich customers. It was whispered that she served ginger to all her lovers to get the blood flowing to all the right places and making pleasure last longer.

Madame du Barry used Spices

The good times didn’t last, however. On Louis XV's death in 1774 she became vulnerable to those secretly longing for her downfall. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had her imprisoned for a year. The 1780's were a happier time, as she moved into her own chateau in the countryside, taking one lover after another, patronizing artists and being a lady bountiful to the local people. But in 1793 this spicy lady was executed by the Revolutionary Tribunal for her aristocratic associations.

Before there was Viagra, there was ginger. And spices.

Madame du Barry was not the first to use ginger. The spicy root has titillated the senses for millennia. Historically one of humanity’s most-used and most-loved aphrodisiacs, the history of ginger dates as far back as 500 B.C. in writings from the Chinese philosopher Confucius. He is said to have eaten ginger every day.

Cleopatra used fragrant perfumes and potions of spices in seducing some of the most powerful men on the planet – Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. She was particularly fond of cinnamon and cardamom.

The Romans used cinnamon and pepper, among other things, as aphrodisiacs.

The Kama Sutra, the ancient erotic manual of India prescribes ginger, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, nutmeg and ashwagandha for stimulating sexual drive.

Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, the ancient Persian physician Avicenna (writer of the influential Canon of Medicine) all advise the use of spices.

Is there any hard evidence to this spicy lore?

My inquiring mind wanted to know. What I found: evidence is sketchy but promising. Animal studies indicate that yes, spices can improve sexual function (in animals).

Spices: Ginger

Here are a few results:

  • Ginger and cinnamon do indeed stimulate the male reproductive system. They do it better together than separately, increasing sperm quality and motility, and total serum testosterone. Healthy testosterone levels contribute to healthy libido, so that's a good sign.

More ways spices may boost your love life

Erectile dysfunction is a vascular disorder that is caused in large part by endothelial dysfunction (endothelial cells line the inner surface of blood vessels). Both share the common problem of impaired circulation.

Spices – as supplements and used generously in whole, non-processed foods -- can actually help improve endothelial function and circulation when taken regularly. Pairing lots of spices, loads of fresh veggies and olive oil in a Mediterranean diet can all boost circulatory power. Just don’t expect the immediate effects of Viagra.

For a fast acting boost the amino acid l-arginine, available in supplements, is shown to help in a number of studies.

While chocolate is often regarded as a gift to the ladies, it has powerful benefits for men, as shown in a study by Harvard scientists. They show that high flavanol cocoa – the kind we use in our chocolate elixir -- contributes substantial results towards a healthier cardiovascular system:

High flavanol cocoa improves blood flow via endothelial function (as measured by improved flow-mediated dilation)—which benefits the entire body. Good circulation is the key to heart and brain health, and diabetes risk is increased by poor endothelial blood flow. Interestingly, erectile dysfunction is also fundamentally a circulation problem—Viagra is also shown to improve flow-mediated dilation, similar to cocoa.

So guys, give Golden Goddess Turmeric Chocolate a try!

Spices in Golden Goddess Chocolate Elixir

Or gals, consider it as the perfect Valentine's gift. If cocoa can be compared to Viagra pertaining to blood flow, then cocoa is doing something right.

Our chocolate elixir also contains KSM-66, the most clinically studied ashwagandha extract. Among its many benefits are reducing stress and anxiety, promoting healthy weight loss, building muscle, and improving sexual function in both men and women.To close, sexual energy is a reflection of an overall state of health and well-being. A healthy sexual appetite is as natural as an appetite for food. Whenever possible, I think we are better off looking for nutritional and herbal substitutes for drugs, not only to treat sexual dysfunction, but also to treat the conditions that may cause loss of libido in the first place.

With this approach, may you enjoy your lover in health and happiness -- not only on Valentine's Day but year-round.

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Kitty Wells

Award-winning formulator, author and entrepreneur, Kitty Wells left Silicon Valley to follow her passion for botanical medicine and create Spice Pharm. She combines leading-edge science and ancient wisdom to create unique wellness products. She travels the globe studying and speaking on the art and science of spices and plants.

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