Cheese it is a Peevish Elfe,
It digests all things but itself
(Old English Proverb).
I had a bad dream the other night. I suppose it was a nightmare. It wasn’t really terrifying; no blood and gore, just oddly disturbing. One of those dreams in which the social order of your life is radically dismantled and leaves you certain that you’ll never be able to put it together again. Sort of a humpty dumpty moment. I always wonder what brings on dreams like this. And when they happen I tend to ponder stresses in my life, particular things that might provoke anxiety so I can explain them away. But I also think back to my childhood and my penchant for eating toasted cheese sandwiches before bed. If my mother caught me, she had a threat ready. “That damn cheese!”, she’d say, “it’ll give you nightmares.”
Nightmares and cheese? Now, I’ll admit that I occasionally imagine Mr. Kraft’s demonic creations as the food of Beelzebub, but not the delightful morsels that I usually gorge myself on. And yet, according to Caroline Oates in a somewhat disjointed essay published in the journal Folklore, the association between scarfing down cheese and a restless sleep has a history that is traceable to the 17th century – at least among Brits like my lovely Scots mother. The rest of Europe seems to have no problem sleeping after a late night cheese plate, which makes one wonder if it’s the quality of the cheese that brings on the wrath of the Mare.
While it wouldn’t surprise me to hear some French cheese maker claim that it’s the particular characteristics of British cheese that’s to blame for British nightmares, a more common explanation has revolved around the role of cheese in the kind of meal that brings on indigestion, and – if we’re to believe the dusty old scrolls of physicians like Galen – nightmares (let’s not even start to think about what Frued might have made of cheese and nightmares). This ultimately became known as the “Heavy Supper Theory” of vivid dreams. As an example, recall that old miser Ebeneezer Scrooge trying to explain away his haunting encounter with his dead partner Jacob Marley – “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you…” (no one delivers this line like Alastair Sim). His mention of that ‘crumb’ of cheese is a nod to an old proverbial belief that cheese is indigestible. Want the proof? Crack open an old tome like Wordsworth’s Dictionary of Proverbs and you’ll find some variant of this canny couplet: Cheese it is a Peevish Elfe, It digests all things but itself.
But cheese-induced indigestion seems an all too rational explanation for nightmares – something that those ‘educated’ physicians might come up with to chase away more common, but darker, explanations – that nightmares are caused by Old Hags, witches who leave their bodies at night and travel to the beds of their victims where they sit on the sleepers bellies and bring on terrifying dreams. Now, just think of a nightmare – you have the sense of being awake but can’t move or speak. You feel a crushing weight on your chest that leaves you gasping for air. You wake in the morning feeling exhausted and haggard (i.e., hag-ridden). Doesn’t that sound more like the result of some old crone sitting on your chest, than that morsel of cheese you had after your dinner?
But, does it have to be one or the other – indigestion or witches? Maybe not. How many of you can think back to high school physics class? Remember Hooke’s law of elasticity? No? Well it doesn’t really matter, except that Robert Hooke, that venerable old father of microscopy who coined the term “cell” to describe the basic unit of life, was also a cheese fan. And he made a entry in his diary for 22 March 1674: “Slept ill after cheese; Dremt of viragoes and other strange phenomena.” Hmm … now picture Hooke laying in his bed on a fine Oxford spring evening assailed by viragoes – noisy, strong, domineering, scolding women – hags in other words, and blaming it on cheese. Witches, cheese, nightmares? Is there a connection? Stay tuned for the second installment.
Oh, and sleep well.