The Pharmaca of Jozeph Coelho: A Family of Converso Apothecaries in Seventeenth-Century Coimbra

By Benjamin Breen

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

The apothecaries of early modern Portugal were tradesmen, and, although they were typically literate and well read, they left few archival records. The “Pharmaco de Jozeph Coelho,” a little-known manuscript housed in the National Library of Portugal, stands as a remarkable exception. The face that peers out at us from the title page—long-haired, surmounted by an angel, wearing a dapper black hat along with a rather quizzical expression—appears to be this manuscript’s primary author, Jozeph (or Joseph) Coelho.[1] Although Jozeph’s “Pharmaca” mainly consists of excerpts from Greco-Roman and Islamic medical authorities like Dioscorides and Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue), it also tells us a surprising amount about Jozeph and his family.

One of the first things that jumps out at anyone who consults Jozeph Coelho’s “Pharmaca” (which has recently been digitized) is the surprising number of doodles and visual puns. Coelho’s talent for drawing is evident from the very first page, which, in addition to his apparent self-portrait, features an ornate border abounding with fruits and flowers as well as some typically Baroque scrollwork. Coelho has even gone to the trouble of highlighting two plume-like vertical objects (jets of fire? feathers?) with green ink.

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

After a short dedication written in Spanish by another hand (an ode to the wisdom of Andrés Laguna, a converso physician who authored one of the most influential sixteenth century commentaries on Dioscorides), the text gets down to business, with minimal ornamentation to distract from a series of Latin and Portuguese quotations of Dioscorides’ De materia medica and Pseudo-Mesue’s Canones universalis. But when he segues into translating Pseudo-Mesue’s list of medicinal simples (De simplicibus), Coelho’s decorative inclinations seem to kick in. Many medicine names receive ornate borders, like these for Cassia fistula (the “Golden Shower tree,” native to Southeast Asia) and conserve of violets, where Coelho plays on the similarity between the Portuguese words for violet (violeta) and guitar (violão).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.

 

By page thirty, Coelho’s doodling has ramped up even further. On fol. 33v, a list of pills described by Mesue and the Byzantine physician Nicolaus Myrepsus, there are no less than seven decorated initials, including two personified moons, two men holding arrows, and a man wearing a headdress (a motif that reocurrs throughout the text and might reflect Coelho’s idea of an indigenous Brazilian).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.

 

Coelho’s “Pharmaca” may have been a didactic work designed to instruct journeyman apothecaries, so this visual ornamentation might amount to something more than mere doodling. Perhaps we can liken Coelho’s drawings to the early modern equivalent of New Yorker cartoons: visual jokes that allow the reader to pause and catch their breath before diving into another complex block of text.

 

Not only does the manuscript abound with unusual drawings, it also offers some useful clues about the Coelho family’s practice. One place to start is the title page itself, which identifies itself as a product of the botica (apothecary shop) of Rua Larga (Broad Street) in the Portuguese town of Coimbra. From this we can surmise that the botica supplied the physicians of the University of Coimbra, because that university’s school of medicine was located on the same short street. Indeed, although the shop of the Coelhos has long since been replaced by boxy buildings of gray concrete and student parking, the Rua Larga is still the home of the University of Coimbra’s School of Medicine today.

 

Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”
Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”

A 1598 bird’s eye view map of Coimbra gives a sense of the town as the Coelhos would have known it. It was already an ancient settlement by this time, having been founded by the Romans as a frontier outpost in the first century CE and successively controlled by a series of Visigothic kings, the Islamic caliphs of Al-Andalus, and finally the Portuguese crown. The map testifies to this complex history, depicting both Roman ruins (the three columns to the left of the Rua Larga) and a gate to “Almedina” (the medina quarter of the old Moorish city). Following the forced conversion or expulsion of Portuguese Jews in 1496, the University of Coimbra became a haven for the converso, or “New Christian,” descendants of Sephardic Jews who chose to remain in Iberia.

 

The Coelhos numbered among this New Christian community. We know this not only because Coelho has historically been a Sephardic name in Portugal, but because a member of their family, Maria Coelho, was arrested by the Inquisition of Coimbra on charges of judaísmo (retaining Jewish customs) in August of 1666. The “Processo” relating to her case records her father as the apothecary Filipe Coelho, and describes Maria as an unmarried, thirty-year-old “boticaria” (female apothecary). Working from the assumption that there was unlikely to have been two different apothecary families named Coelho working in Coimbra at the same time, my conjecture is that Jozeph Coelho was Maria’s brother.

 

After being interrogated and jailed for three years, Maria was in 1669 transported to Brazil as a degredado (deported criminal), where her fate is unknown. Although Maria likely spent the end of this period in Lisbon, from whence degredados were usually shipped, she would have initially been jailed in the Inquisition prison of Coimbra. As the 1598 map reveals, this was just a few minute’s walk from Maria’s family shop on the Rua Larga. The anguish that Maria and her family would have felt about this drawn-out imprisonment is hard to detect in the surviving sources, but painfully easy to imagine.

 

I suspect that the the “Pharmaca” actually contains a portrait of Maria. The manuscript’s title page announces that it was written in 1668, and Maria would therefore have been absent from her family for one to years by this time. Given this context, I interpret the drawing of a “Boticario” and “Botica[ria]” (male and female apothecaries) on fol. 76r of the “Pharmaca” as a tribute to Maria’s memory, created by a brother who would never see her again.

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.

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Benjamin Breen, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing a dissertation on the early modern drug trade. His articles have appeared in The Journal of Early Modern History, The Journal of Early American History, and History Compass. He is the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a journal of narrative and experimental history.


[1] The manuscript actually contains at least four different hands, but I am making the assumption that the hand that appears in the first half of the text along with the title page is Jozeph Coelho. I suspect that hands in the second half of the text are additions by either Coelho’s family members or perhaps (if my surmise that this was a didactic text is true) by journeyman apothecaries adding further notes and commentaries.


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