Home > History of Wine > The Medical Use of Canary Wine in 17th Century England

The Medical Use of Canary Wine in 17th Century England


Canary Island wines were not just popular for their taste but also for their medicinal value. In addition to their use by Dr. Thomas Sydenham in London their medical use is documented in such countries as France by the early pioneer in geriatrics Francois Ranchin, “Talia autem funt canarium album spirituosum admodum & substantisicum vinum maluaticum…”. Very much like their popularity as a beverage Canary wine was medically used through the 19th century. In fact the wines of Tenerife were the official wine used by the U.S. Pharmacopeia. For in the early 19th century there was little American wine made, with the best grown on the banks of the Ohio River in Vevey, Indiana. To expand on my previous post on A Brief History of Wine from the Canary Islands I shall focus on the medical uses of Canary Island wines in 17th century London.

Medical history is a complex subject which I find fascinating and I hope that this post on the medical use of Canary Wine might expose you to an alternative history of wine. I have spent my New Year’s vacation researching original medical texts and cramming on medical history. Most of what I present here is not new and I must admit it is presented in a unimaginative chronological format. However this blog inherently reflects the chronology of the wines I tasted and subjects which interest me. In that light I see this post as a starting point fo future posts. For others you will find many references which you may spend many hours happily reading.

A Brief Introduction to English Medicine in the 17th Century

The Royal College of Physitians London, Image from Royale College of Physicians

The Royal College of Physitians London, Image from Royale College of Physicians

In 1600 London was the largest city in England having a population of 200,000. Mortality rates were high and the average life expectancy in a better parish of central London was only 35 years of age. There were many diseases in London such as dysentery, typhoid, and salmonella along with the plagues of 1603, 1625, and 1665. A typical sick person often treated themselves or relied on a family member. Medical lay knowledge was widespread with clergymen and their wives often treating the sick. A wealthy person could hire a Physician for diagnosis and advice. Physicians were considered at the top level of the medical hierarchy having attended university, possessing a gentlemanly bearing, and being a member of the College of Physicians. Beneath the physicians were the surgeons for they used their hands to cure patients. They trained by apprenticeship and could handle external issues, setting of bones, and some internal operations. Parallel to the Surgeons were the Apothecary’s who dispensed medicines prescribed by the surgeons. Finally there were the quacks and mountebanks who could purchase the privilege to practice their own form of medicine.

London’s large population ensured a sizeable number of physicians and surgeons. In 1600 it is estimated that there were 50 members in the College of Physicians, 100 surgeons, 100 apothecaries, and 250 unlicensed practitioners. The College of Physicians of London was created in 1518 to admit members through examination, the Barber-Surgeon’s Company was created in 1540 licensing through apprenticeship and examination, and the Society of Apothecaries was created in 1617. Medical knowledge was typically communicated through texts particularly those of Galen. Between 1486 and 1604 some 193 different vernacular medical works were published in England. In the 16th and 17th centuries most books published in England were written in English and not in Latin. These books ranged from remedy books for the literate population to textbooks written specifically for physicians. Between 1640 and 1660 some 238 medical books in England. This increase in the availability of medical knowledge followed a trend of increased literacy and demand by the middle and upper classes for accessible medical knowledge.

The Medical Texts

Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, London, John Marriott, 1639, British Museum

Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, London, John Marriott, 1639, British Museum

There are a great number of 17th century English medical texts which are readily accessible for research. I have relied on Google Books to provide quotes from these medical texts. I have tried to preserve the actual spelling and formatting. Any mistakes are solely my own.

The Canary Islands were first known for exporting sugar. As an aside, while Canary sugarcane is mentioned in John Daniels Mylius’ Opus Medico-Chymicum, 1620 I found no references to Canary sugarcane in the English medical texts. For Canary wine I have chosen texts by physicians, surgeons, and empirics to illustrate the various uses of the wine. The introduction of Canary wine in English medicine seems to track the general popularity as a drink. During the 1660s and 1670s Canary wine was one of the most expensive wines available. The maximum prices charged for claret were 6d. per pint, Rhenish 9d. per pint, sack 11d. per pint, and Canary 12d. per pint. This price may be reflected in the infrequent use of Canary wine in a remedy. Though it is found in medical texts by all sorts of practitioners it often only appears in a few remedies. It was drunk alone as part of a regular prevantative diet. In compound remedies there is at least one mention of boiling the ingredients with the wine but it appears to typically have ingredients steeped in it or as a cordial for drops of the actual remedy to be put in.

In 1618, one year after the Society of Apothecaries was created, the College of Physicians published the first Pharmacopeia in London. This text ensured that compound remedies were made using a standard set of ingredients. Under the Vina Medicata section there are four remedies listed: Vinum Benedictum, Vinum Chalybeatum, Vinum Scilliticum, and Vinum Viperinum. Though the catalog of ingredients simply list vinum the description of the remedy is more specific Vini albi Hispanici or Spanish White Wine. From what I can gather the College of Physicians does not include the use of Canary wine until the 18th century when they published their New Pharmacopoeia.

Croci Metallorum pulv. unciam imam. Vini albi Hispanici feíquilibram Macerentur. Colac.

Pharmacopoeia Collegii Regalis Medicorum Londinensis. 1618.

It is not until 1638 that I found a medical reference to Canary wine. Though only two decades later the amount of Canary wine taxed at London rose from an 10 year average of 1774 pipes in 1619 to 5,033 pipes in 1633. James Howell remarked in 1634, “I think there’s more Canary brought into England than into all the World besides….they go down everyone’s throat both young and old, like milk.” Perhaps this popularity led Alexander Read, Doctor of Physick to include it in his remedy for Syncope. Throughout his text he references the use of wine, white wine, red wine, astringent red wine, strong wine, spirit of wine, and claret (for cleaning a wound of extraneous bodies). But only for Syncope does he specifically recommend Allicante, Malmsey, Canary Wine, or White Bastard.

Syncope then is a sudden decay or abolition of the strength of the body, according to Galen, 12 method, c 5 As lipotlbymia is only an imminution of the same: the part affected the heart.
Internall meanes.
As for the internall meanes, a Sop in strong wine, as alligant, malmesee, canary wine, or white bastard is very good, so that the wine be drunke together with the toast. Confectio alkermes dissolved in cinamome water, or treacle dissolved in aqua celesiis and ministred are effectuall.

Read, Alexander. A treatise of the first part of chirugerie. 1638

These first two books were intended for professional physicians and surgeons. In 1656 The Skilful Physician was published for the general public. It instructed how to maintain good health through diet and if that failed then a comprehensive list of remedies is provided. An entire section is devoted to wine featuring 58 recipes. In the list of ingredients we find such specific wines as: Allegant, Bastard, Batew, Claret, Deal, Graves, Hollocks, Malaga, Malmsey, Muskadine, and Sack. There is but one remedy involving Canary wine and that is for dropsie.

A very good Drink to cure the Dropsie.
Take of Peperitis Roots, otherwise called Horse Rhadish, three ounces, slice them by the length very thin, of Licoras scarped and bruised two ounces, Winter Savory, Time, Peniroyal, the tops of Nettles of each a small handful; of Smallage roots, Fennel roots, of each one ounce, of sweet Fennel seeds bruised three ounces, infuse all these things one night in two quarts of fairwater, and three pints of Canary Wine, then boil all together the next day one quarter of an hour, then take it from the fire and let it run through a clean cloth and so drink a small draught thereof in the morning fasting, and as much in the afternoon at three a clock and fast two hours after it, and so continue taking it until you be wel. Mr. Smart.

Deodate. The Skilful Physician. 1656.

In the diary of Samuel Pepys there is a unique reference to Canary wine. In a letter dated July 2nd, 1664 we find, “Dr. Burnett’s adivce to mee. Old Canary or Malaga wine you may drinke to three or 4 glasses, but noe new wine, and what wine you drinke, lett it bee at meales.” This is the only reference to “Old Canary” wine. The most famous medical book for the general public was Nicolas Culpeper’s English Physitian. Though published prior to The Skilful Physician I have only been able to access The English Physitian Enlarged which was published in 1666. There are hundreds of references to wine but only a handful for specific wines. In fact I only came across four references to Claret wine and one for Canary wine.

Rest-Harrow, or Cammoak.
Government and Vertues. It is under the Dominion of Mars, It is singular good to provoke Urin when it is stopped, and to break and drive forth the stone, which the Powder of the Bark of the root taken in Wine performeth effectually.
Balneo Marie with four pound of the Root hereof first sliced small, and afterwards steeped in a gallon of Canary Wine, is singular good for all the purposes aforesaid, and to cleanse the passages of the Urin.

Culpeper, Nicolas. The English Physitian Enlarged. 1666.

The popularity of Canary wine continued to grow from a post Plague 1665 and Great Fire 1666 level of 5500 pipes imported into London to a high of 6700 pipes in 1687. These are ten year averages which hide such peaks as 9210 pipes in 1681. It is during this period that Dr. Thomas Sydenham publishes his recipe for Laudanum which uses Canary wine. Dr. Sydenham employed a variety of wines such as Claret, French, Malaga, Rhenish, Sack, and Spanish. Towards the end of the 17th century increased consumer spending lead to an increase in medicines and texts from empirics. Dr. Thomas Willis attempted to provide a rational explanation on the operation of remedies in the body. He preferred chemical remedies in which he used Florence, Malaga, Rhenish, Spanish, and White wine. Canary wine was featured in several remedies including that for Consumption of the Lungs.

Instrctions and Prescripts for the Cure of the Phythisick, and Consumption of the Lungs.
5. Balsams.
Take Artificial distill’d Balsam, commonly call’d Mother of Balsam two Drams: The Dose is from Six Drops to ten, in a spoonful of Syrup of Violets, or of Canary Wine at Night, and in the Morning.
In a Constitution that is not hot, especially if there be no fervent heat of the Blood or Praecordia, to six or seven Pounds of Milk add of Canary Wine a Pound or two, and in a Phlegmatick or Aged Body, instead of Milk,, let the Mestruum be Ale or Brunswick Beer.
Willis. The London Practice of Physick. 1685.

At the peak of the Canary wine imports we find it being used in other chemical remedies.

Of MERCURY, or Quick-silver
The Sweet Oyl of Mercury.
…; Prevalent in the Distempers of Venus, Dropsies, Quartans, &c. The Dose is from four to six drops in Canary, Conserves, or Syrups, every other day, until a perfect Cure.

Y-Worth, W. Chymicus Rationalis: or, The Fundamental Grounds of the Chymical Art. 1692.


If I were to pick one reference to recommend it is Andrew Wear’s Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. It is this book which has placed a medical structure to the history of Canary wine.

Deodate. The Skilful Physician. Tho. Macey, London 1656
Culpeper, Nicolas. The English Physitian Enlarged. John Streater, London, 1666.
Hori, Motoko. “The Price and Quality of Wine and Conspicuous Consumption in England 1646-1759”, English Historical Review, Vol 73 N0. 505, 2008.
Mylius, Johann Daniel. Opus Medico-Chymicum. Frankfurt, 1620.
Pechey, John. The Whole Works Of that Excellent Practical Physician, Dr. Thomas Sydenham. 9th Edition, J. Darby, London 1729.
Physicians, College of. Pharmacopoeia Collegii Regalis Medicorum Londinensis. Typis G. Bowyer, Londini, MDCCXXI, 1721
Ranchin, Francois. Opuscula medica utili, iocundaque rerum varietate referta. 1627
Read, Alexander. A treatise of the first part of chirugerie. John Haviland, London 1638.
Steckley, George F. “The Wine Economy of Tenerife in the Seventeenth Century”, The Economic History Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, 1980.
Thacher, James. The American new dispensatory. T.B. Wait and Co, Boston, 1810.
Wear, Andrew. Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.
Wear, Andrew. Medicine in Society, Historical Essays. Cambirdge University Press, Cambridge, 1994.
Wheatley, Henry B. The diary of Samuel Pepys. George E. Croscup, New York 1894.
Willis. The London Practice of Physick. Thomas Basset, London, 1685.
Wood, George B. The Dispensatory of the United States of America. Grigg & Elliot, Philadelphia, 1833.
Y-Worth, W. Chymicus Rationalis: or, The Fundamental Grounds of the Chymical Art. Thomas Salusbury, London, 1692.

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