The Disease of Kings? Nah!

Why is it that some diseases evoke laughter instead of sympathy?

The problem is that gout is widely misperceived as a self-inflicted disease that affects only the upper classes. It has been referred to, maybe a touch inaccurately, as “The disease of kings and the king of diseases.” English caricaturists like William Hogarth, George Cruikshank and James Gillray took special pleasure in portraying the Tory squirearchy of the 18th century as universally debauched, periwigged and gouty. In the next century American humorist, Ambrose Bierce, defined gout in his Devil’s Dictionary as: “A physician’s name for the rheumatism of a rich patient.”

A more appropriate response would have been a commiserating handshake and a few kind words. For the gout sufferer, the disease is anything but a source of humor. In fact, attacks of gout are so painful that they are described as being comparable only to the agony of childbirth. Sufferers say it’s like being jabbed with a “million tiny white-hot needles.” This humble writer of yours can confirm the pain after having given birth at least 50 times in the last 30 years.

The reason for this misperception is that overindulgence in food and wine has long been thought to be the primary cause of gout. While it is true that diet is related to gout, the notion that only the rich get gout is not. Gout, in fact, strikes many people of all social and financial backgrounds, currently more than one million people, almost all of them male, in the U.S. Women rarely develop gout and, then, only after menopause. The disease usually appears between the ages of 40 and 50, although it can occur both earlier and later.

Gout is essentially a form of rheumatic arthritis characterized by recurrent episodes of joint inflammation. The pain and swelling of gout are caused by uric acid crystals that deposit in some joints, most notably the big toe, but the disease can also strike the knee, ankle, foot, hand, wrist and elbow. Most men contract gout for one of two reasons: First, it is a hereditary problem, like baldness, and if your father had it you probably will too (thanks Dad!); and second, because they have a diet high in purines. Normally uric acid passes out of the body through the kidneys in urine. An excess of purines causes the body to make more uric acid than the kidneys can dissolve, a condition called hyperuricemia. (It is possible to have hyperuricemia without having gout, however.) In addition to the two causes mentioned above, hyperuricemia can also occur from using diuretics, which can impede the kidney’s ability to remove uric acid.

Anyway, rather than a boring full medical description of symptoms, causes and treatment, I looked up what would be a normal “meal” at the Tudors period. King Henry VIII was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death. He was Lord, and later King of Ireland and claimant to the Kingdom of France. Henry was the second monarch of the House of Tudor, succeeding his father, Henry VII. By the way, it is believed he suffered from gout.

The Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast was sumptuous and lavish. New foods and spices were being imported during the Tudor period and unusual recipes were being created which made use of the finest foods and ingredients. The Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast prepared for Tudor royalty were the most magnificent. King Henry VIII was always in competition with the French King, Francis I. Cooks employed by Nobles during the Tudor period would have been aware of the high standards set by the French and endeavoured to provide King Henry VIII with a Tudor feast or banquet of a similar standard and content. The following description is of a lavish French banquet and feast described by a historian of French cookery, Legrand d’Aussy given in 1455 by the Count of Anjou:

The Tudor Dining Table
“On the table was placed a centre-piece, which represented a green lawn, surrounded with large peacocks’ feathers and green branches, to which were tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers.

In the middle of this lawn a fortress was placed, covered with silver. This was hollow, and formed a sort of cage, in which several live birds were shut up, their tufts and feet being gilt.

On its tower, which was gilt, three banners were placed, one bearing the arms of the count, the two others those of Mesdemoiselles de Châteaubrun and de Villequier, in whose honour the feast was given.”

The Tudor First Course
“The first course consisted of a civet of hare, a quarter of stag which had been a night in salt, a stuffed chicken, and a loin of veal.

The two last dishes were covered with a German sauce, with gilt sugar-plums, and pomegranate seeds….

At each end, outside the green lawn, was an enormous pie, surmounted with smaller pies, which formed a crown. The crust of the large ones was silvered all round and gilt at the top; each contained a whole roe-deer, a gosling, three capons, six chickens, ten pigeons, one young rabbit

To serve as seasoning or stuffing, a minced loin of veal, two pounds of fat, and twenty-six hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavored with cloves.

The Tudor Second Course
There was a roe-deer, a pig, a sturgeon cooked in parsley and vinegar, and covered with powdered ginger; a kid, two goslings, twelve chickens, as many pigeons, six young rabbits, two herons, a leveret, a fat capon stuffed, four chickens covered with yolks of eggs and sprinkled with powder de Duc (spice), a wild boar.

The Tudor Third Course
Some wafers (darioles), and stars; a jelly, part white and part red, representing the crests of the main guests

The Tudor Fourth Course
Cream with Duc powder, covered with fennel seeds preserved in sugar; a white cream, cheese in slices, and strawberries; and, lastly, plums stewed in rose-water.

The Tudor Fifth Course
Besides these four courses, there was a fifth, entirely composed of the prepared wines then in vogue, and of preserves. These consisted of fruits and various sweet pastries. The pastries represented stags and swans, to the necks of which were suspended the arms of the Count of Anjou.”

Serving Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast
Serving Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast required organization skills and the hard work of the Tudor servants:

  • The purchase and choice of Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast was usually entrusted to the squires of the kitchen assisted by the senior Tudor cooks
  • The various Tudor food dishes were prepared by the cooks and were placed, with the help of the esquires until the moment of serving and then carried to the tables in the Great Hall
  • The Great Table was set on a dais, which was strictly reserved for Tudor royalty or nobles, was often covered with a table cloth
  • Tudor guests were shown to their seats, after washing their hands, at the entrance of the Great Hall
  • Stepped Buffets – these were a series of wooden planks with a number of stepped shelves. The greater the number of shelves indicated the higher rank of the Tudor host. The Tudor ‘Stepped Buffets’ were covered with rich drapes and assembled for use at Banquets and Feasts
  • The Tudors finest plates of gold or silver were displayed on the ‘Buffet’ and servants served from them
  • Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast consisted of three, four, five, and even six courses
  • The main courses were sometimes made to imitate a sort of theatrical representation
  • Tudor Food for a Banquet or Feast might have included coloured jellies of swans, of peacocks, or of pheasants adorned with their feathers, having the beak and feet gilt, which would have been served as a speciality and placed on the middle of the table on a sort of pedestal

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