Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Chocolate created a commotion in Chiapa cathedral

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Man Carrying a Cacao Pod. Aztec, volcanic stone with traces of red pigment, 1440–1521. Brooklyn Museum. CC BY 3.0

“Beware the chocolate of Chiapas.”
—Mexican saying

The cacao bean, the essential ingredient in chocolate, is native to Southern Mexico, Central America, and South America. There is evidence that chocolate was used in Ecuador over 5,000 years ago.1 The Aztecs produced a ceremonial drink called chocolatl. The Spanish invaders of the New World considered chocolatl a pleasant drink and a medicinal substance.2 Chocolate was introduced into England in the 1648 book Travels in the New World by Thomas Gage (1602 – 1656). Gage was British, but was taught by Jesuits in anti-Catholic England. He rebelled against Jesuitical discipline and joined the Dominican order in 1625. He was sent to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Gage became anti-Catholic himself after seeing the greed of Catholic missionaries and their indifference to the poverty and suffering of those whose souls they came to save.3,4 He returned to England in 1637, and converted to Anglicanism and anti-Catholicism in 1642. He even turned in Catholic priests—including his own brother—to the authorities.5

His book presented his reasons for leaving the Church, as well as the events he witnessed in the New World. He wrote about the small Mexican cathedral town of Chiapas, which had both Dominican and Franciscan monasteries. Four hundred Spanish families lived in the town. The Spanish ladies attending Mass in the cathedral needed their “medicinal” chocolate to prevent weakness, fainting, and stomach pains during the long church service.6,7 Their servants would enter the church with pots of chocolate, cups, and pieces of cake, and make enough noise to disrupt the service. The main point, however, is that a Catholic must be in a fasting state in order to receive Communion. Dom Bernardo de Salazar, the cathedral’s bishop, spoke forcefully against this snacking during Mass and was even driven to threaten excommunication, saying, “God’s house was built for worship, and for that alone.” He finally had soldiers posted at the cathedral’s door to prevent the entrance of chocolate-bearing servants.

The unhappy worshippers then started attending services at the chapels of the two monasteries in town. There, their chocolate habit was allowed to continue, since they gave substantial financial support to these institutions. The bishop declared that laypeople must attend Mass only in the cathedral, which caused the women to boycott the cathedral for a month. At the end of this period, the bishop became ill and died eight days later. It was widely suspected that he had been given a poisoned cup of chocolate.

Given Gage’s rabid anti-Catholicism, one might question the truth of this anecdote.


  1. Miss Jessel. “The bitter taste of poison: Death by chocolate.” The Haunted Palace Blog, January 2, 2019.
  2. Ann Ball. “When the church said ‘No’ to chocolate.” MexConnect, January 2, 2019.
  3. Sue McGrady. “Gage, Thomas (c. 1602–1656).” Encyclopedia.com.
  4. Alexander Ping. Antichrist in the Indies: Anti-Catholic Discourse in English Responses to Roman Catholic Missions in the Americas and East Asia, c. 1558–1600. Dissertation, University of Adelaide, December 2022. https://hdl.handle.net/2440/137533
  5. Mexfiles. “Death by chocolate.” Mexfiles blog, April 20, 2010. https://mexfiles.net/2010/04/26/death-by-chocolate/
  6. Ball, “When the church said ‘No.’”
  7. Mexfiles, “Death by chocolate.”
  8. Sabine Baring-Gould. “Chiapa chocolate.” 1896. Still Point Arts Quarterly, 53, 2024. https://www.shantiarts.co/SPAQ/SPAQ53/files/baring-gould.pdf
  9. Mexfiles, “Death by chocolate.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Summer 2024



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