Category Archives: Trade

Consumers of the Exotic: summary of a workshop in Cambridge, April 5-6, 2017

By Emma Spary and Justin Rivest

By Reede tot Drakestein, Hendrik van,1637?-1691 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The project “Selling the Exotic in Paris and Versailles, 1670-1730”, running in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, and funded by Leverhulme Research Grant 2014-289, held its planned workshop in April this year. Its theme, “Consumers of the Exotic: European commerce and the consumption of exotic materia medica, 1670-1730”, brought together a group of international scholars working on these questions in a broad variety of European contexts.

Our goal at the workshop was to produce a comparative picture of the ways in which exotic plant materials were processed, bought and consumed in Europe. Why did European consumers buy—and more significantly ingest—exotic plant materials? What did exoticism mean to them? While recent work has focused on colonial bioprospecting and the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, our aim was to investigate demand within Europe itself, exploring divergences and similarities across contexts. The choice of a restricted timespan—the decades around 1700—provided a baseline for comparison of drug production, sales and consumption in different cultures. Alexandra Cook (University of Hong Kong) kicked off the programme with a study of a proprietary drug, Garcin’s “Maduran pills”, sold around Europe in the early eighteenth century by an entrepreneur whose Protestant faith led to a complex intellectual and commercial itinerary. Cook argued that exotic ingredients were not necessarily a selling point for eighteenth-century patients. Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania) provoked us to think about the complexity of defining the exotic, and the importance of a multi-perspectival view of the history of drugs: Ottoman healers associated New World exotica like cinchona bark and ipecacuanha root with French medicine, since these substances often reached them via French commercial and intellectual networks. Continuing the global theme, Samir Boumediene explored the place of drugs in the missionary activities of the Society of Jesus. The decades around 1700 represented a decline in the relative importance of Jesuits in the global drug trade, as new players came to disrupt their initial privileged position.

Šebestián Kroupa (University of Cambridge) offered a counterpoint to the workshop’s focus on European consumption by exploring the supply of European drugs to transplanted European populations—Manila in the Philippines. European drugs were in fact imported in large volumes to this “exotic” locale; little attention was paid to the pursuit of plant substances that might be commodified in the metropole, an exception being the Saint Ignatius bean. Victoria Pickering explored the diverse trajectories, contacts, and exchanges that were necessary to assemble the massive collection of exotic plant substances of Sir Hans Sloane.

Moving to early modern Russia, Clare Griffin suggested that its unique geographical connections—in the form of a land route between Europe and the Far East—led commentators to represent distant substances and peoples as subject to incorporation into the Empire, rather than “exotic” in the sense of “foreign”, as the case of rhubarb showed. Paula De Vos concluded the first day with an account of Palacios’ prominent 1706 pharmacopoeia. Early modern Western pharmacy was indebted, for its materia medica, to the Indo-Mediterranean world rather than the continent of Europe. The slow appropriation of new drugs spread outwards from this Indo-Mediterranean core to the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean, and eventually the Atlantic world.

On day 2, Laia Portet explored the architecture of exoticism in printed French materia medica. Where familiar European plants tended to be classified alphabetically, unfamiliar exotics were classified by parts (roots, barks, leaves) since this was the form in which they entered the European marketplace. Emma Spary used a case history of an exotic aromatic, cinnamon, to point up the disjuncture between textual, material and empirical knowledge of drugs, a conundrum for medical experts, market regulators and individual consumers. Hjalmar Fors provocatively suggested that for early modern Europeans, “the exotic” primarily evoked traded material goods, including spices and drugs, rather than foreign peoples or distant geographies. Lack of knowledge about the places of origin of drugs was critical to a substance remaining “exotic” in European eyes.

Justin Rivest spoke of the encounter between political power, the emerging state and the large-scale administration of drugs in France, looking at how personal trialling of drugs by successive ministers of war led to a centrally administered programme of dispensing exotic drugs like tobacco, quinquina and ipecacuanha to French troops. In a very different take on the end-user, Wouter Klein introduced us to the uses of print culture as a research tool for relating newspaper advertising and ships’ cargoes of drugs in the Dutch republic after 1700.

Several common themes emerged from the papers. It seemed that “colonial bioprospecting” had its limits as a way of understanding European engagement with non-European materia medica. Most substances discussed did not reach Europe thanks to state intervention, but rather were trafficked by a heterogenous set of actors: missionaries, trading company officials, entrepreneurial merchants and court physicians. Many papers also showed that “exoticism” was not necessarily inherently desirable. A drug’s value was established through consensus-building over time. Furthermore, “exoticism” was a relative, context-specific category, subject to change, not solely a feature of geographic origin, or of a core-periphery relation between European metropoles and their colonies. The papers demonstrated that exoticism was also, perhaps largely, a product of degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which varied widely across different European contexts. In sum, rather than being inherently valuable objects of appropriation, exotic drugs were socially constructed goods.

‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees’: Medicinal recipes and tree ingredients

By Anne Stobart

As a herbal practitioner, I have long been interested in historical uses of trees from folklore to domestic practices related to health. Recently, I have been looking at early modern medicinal recipes to consider how people might have obtained tree-based ingredients. Here, I briefly overview recipes in several English printed seventeenth-century books, the highly popular Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) [1] and compare with a later publication Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies (1692).[2]

Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.
Figure 1. Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall. Frontispiece of 1671 edition.

Trees can be defined as large woody perennial plants, often self-supporting with a single stem and having branches at some height from the ground. Many medicinal items can be obtained from trees including fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, sap, bark and twigs, and provide ingredients for medicinal recipes. These can be readily distinguished as sourced either from native and naturalised trees in the British Isles or from trees native to other countries and regions. Most native trees are regarded as having considerable folklore use, although the actual records evidencing such uses may be partial.[3 ]

Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).
Figure 2. Young oak seedlings (author’s photograph).

In Elizabeth Grey’s Choice Manuall (Figure 1), just under a third of the recipes, 112 altogether, contain ingredients originating from trees. Of these, 19 recipes can be identified as using parts of native trees – mainly ash, elder, hazel, hawthorn, holly, oak (Figure 2). Some recipes are simples, involving a single key ingredient, often based on leaves or fruits that might be available in the hedgerow at certain times of the year. Amongst recipes for bruises is the instruction to ‘Take the sprigs of Oak trees, and put them in paper, roast them, and break them, and drink as much of the powder as will lye upon a sixpence every morning’ (p.77). Another more complex recipe for distillation of ‘Aqua composita for the Collick and Stone’ (p.137) calls for birch leaves and haws, or the fruits of hawthorn (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws
Figure 3. Hawthorn berries or haws (author’ s photograph)

Some tree-based ingredients, such as bark (often called rind), may have required some effort to obtain. The use of bark dried to a powder appears several times, as in this example:

“For the Strangullion or the Stone.

Take the inner rind of a young ash, between two or three yeares of growth, dry it to pouder, and drinke of it as much at once, as will lye on a sixpence in Ale or White wine, and it will bring present remedie: The partie must be kept warm two hours after it.”(p.88)

Another recipe uses the inner bark of elder seethed with daisy roots in a butter ointment for an inflamed throat (p.90). Obtaining bark, particularly its removal from the tree and preparation, could require tools with sharp edges. If taken from the entire circumference, bark removal would cause the death of the branch or tree. Some tree barks were readily available because they were felled for other purposes such as timber, but they were destined for use in tanning leather. Apart from building needs, trees produced other valuable crops from fuel and fodder for livestock. Although some trees might have been accessible in a hedgerow, many were in woodlands or fields, requiring permission to access their produce, and these rights or ownership could be subject to conflict [4].

However, ingredients from native trees were few in number compared to exotic trees in the Choice Manual recipes. The great majority of tree-based ingredients (83%) were imports derived from tree bark and fruits, such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, as well as resins such as myrrh and frankincense. Other fruits and nuts such as dates and walnuts were included in medicinal broths and syrups. Recipes for external preparations often called for oils deriving from almond or olive trees. These items were generally products to be purchased from an apothecary or spicer.

Such imported ingredients were also popular in the later seventeenth-century recipe book of Robert Boyle’s Medicinal experiments, which included tree-sourced items in fourteen recipes. There were no native trees to be seen, with the exception of oil of juniper which was probably of European origin and purchased. Boyle’s recipe book contained a (relatively) new introduction from North America which was sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Figure 4). The aromatic bark and roots were particularly noted for their medicinal uses, and sassafras appeared in recipes for ‘A Lime water for Obstructions and Consumptions’ and ‘A Stomachical Tincture’ (pp. 12, 88).

Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Sassafras tree leaves (Wikipedia)

In comparing these two English recipe books, from mid to late seventeenth century, we see that the popular Choice Manual included a range of native tree items, but such native sources were not included in Medicinal Experiments. However, both books included many exotic tree-derived ingredients, and Boyle’s book of recipes added a new item of sassafras from the Americas. I hope to investigate further how the uses of tree ingredients developed in the early modern period.

[1] Elizabeth Grey, A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653).

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments, or, a Collection of Choice Remedies, for the Most Part Simple, and Easily Prepared (London: Printed for Sam Smith, 1692).

[3] On folklore see David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004) and Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[4] Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford: Windgather, 2009).

How to establish trust

By Agnieszka Rec

How do you make a recipe look effective? How do you convince a reader that your recipe will work before they’ve even tried it? One solution, as discussed by Sietske Fransen for medical recipes, was to include the names of noblemen and women, validating the recipe by showing who it was effective for. Early modern alchemists were even more concerned with these questions since they continually faced accusations of fraud. This led to meticulous, even overscrupulous, records of how recipes were acquired.

Georg Mymer – whom you met in my previous post on his family’s part in a vast network of Central European practitioners – included such details in his recipe collection. Written between 1568 and 1571, the manuscript contains alchemical texts and recipes, laboratory expenses, and narrative accounts of his exploits. In today’s post, we’ll consider one such account in which George explains at length how he got a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. (The story is abridged and in my own translation.)

Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]
Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]


Georg writes:

In the year 1570 on 21 August, Lorenz Sehehaufer of Magdeburg came to me in the marketplace in Breslau and told me that in the land of the Poles there was a tincture about which his master, Paul Gese, the town piper of Breslau, had learned so much that in eight weeks he was able to make it himself. Then I asked him where it was. He answered, “In Poland.” But I knew nothing about it. And he wanted to know whether I wanted to know anything about it. Shortly, in just a few hours, I knew about it too.

Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.
Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.


Following this meeting, Georg leaves the marketplace and returns to the home of Wolf Freyberger, the Imperial Münzmeister (mint master), with whom he has been staying. Freyberger greets him and says,

Mr. Georg, two apprentices came to see me on the market square. They said they were goldsmiths and both brothers. And they were your countrymen, they said, from your homeland. If you please, they wanted to see you as soon as they could. They also wanted to tell you something of your father. They will wait for you for two more hours at the most and no longer. So you must go immediately.

Georg continues:

As I had already had my midday meal, I soon went to them and asked who they were and what they wanted. They were Joachim Wimmer and Christoff, his brother; both journeymen goldsmiths who were known to me.

They spoke to me thusly: “Listen, my dear Georg Mymer. As you well know we are well-versed in the art, and we have a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. We wanted to give it to you rather than Paul Gese and Lorenz, who cheated me once. I will not believe him anymore,” said Joachim Wimmer. “So I will tell you how I came to the art and discovered it in Posen.

“So here’s the thing: There is a voivode in Poland, who has had a learned man for seven years now and has spent 8,000 florins on him.[1] The voivode recently found this tincture in the Greek tongue. Then he had the learned man translate it into the Latin and German languages, and also the Polish.

“He immediately set to work to discover the truth of the recipe in Posen with the Count of Gurk[?].

Georg picks up the story once more:

The learned man, however, sought Joachim Wimmer out, saying that because he was a goldsmith, he might know how to work the recipe correctly.

The learned man let Joachim Wimmer copy the recipe, and Wimmer proceeded to copy one for him as well. Then, when Joachim Wimmer left, he came directly to me and left quickly again.

So I acquired the tincture from him in the manner I have described above. He also left his signature next to it as proof. There is much more to say about this, but it is not so important, and I will leave the story here.

Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.
Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.


Georg is obsessed with the specifics. He tells his reader who gave him the recipe, how he found them, how they found the recipe, and so on, going back to a Greek original. He cites the involvement of a voivode and a count. He collects witnesses – Paul Gese signs this account, while Joachim Wimmer writes his own confirmation, copied elsewhere in the manuscript. He praises Joachim Wimmer’s technical skills as a goldsmith and thus his ability to judge a recipe. This reflects well on Georg and by extension his own story, as Georg was himself a goldsmith. Georg finishes his tale promising that there is more that could be told if need be. Anyone reading the account in Georg’s presence could presumably ask him to supply information not available in the written copy. One wonders, however, what Georg left out of his account, given that he already notes that he had lunch on the day in question.

Georg brought together this overwhelming collection of details to establish the truth of recipe among his fellow alchemists. The stakes of reliability were high. He risked losing access to future recipes, as did Lorenz Sehehaufer, if his good reputation were called into question.

Whether Georg and his recipe were, in fact, trustworthy is another question. A modern reader might be excused in wondering whether Georg Mymer protests too much.



Agnieszka Rec is the 2016-2017 Herdegen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Beckman Center of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She will receive her PhD in Medieval History from Yale University in December 2016. Her thesis, titled “Transmutation in a Golden Age: Reading Alchemy in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cracow,” uses the biography of an alchemical manuscript to reconstruct the community of practitioners in the Polish royal city and their ties to wider European traditions of alchemy.


I am grateful to Anna-Maria Balbach, Center for Language Study, Yale University, for her assistance with the early modern German. The archival trip behind this project was made possible by a SHAC New Scholars Award and a Scaliger Fellowship from the Leiden University Library.

[1] This is an extraordinary amount of money for the period. Jan Zamojski (1542-1605), royal chancellor and the richest man in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was worth about 30,000 florins. Olbracht Łaski (1536-1605), the famed patron of alchemy and eighth richest man in the Commonwealth, was worth 4 or 5,000 florins. Rafał T. Prinke, “Beyond Patronage: Michael Sendivogius and the Meanings of Success in Alchemy,” in Chymia: Science and Nature in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Miguel López Pérez, Didier Kahn, and Mar Rey Bueno (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 205.

Transmission of drug knowledge in medieval China: A case of Gelsemium

By Yan Liu

Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.
Figure 1. Illustration of gouwen (Gelsemium) in an early sixteenth-century materia medica text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008.

One striking feature of classical Chinese pharmacology is the abundant use of toxic substances. Prominent examples are aconite, arsenic, and bezoar. Fully aware of the toxicity, or du, of these materials, Chinese doctors developed a variety of methods to prepare and deploy them for therapy. How was such knowledge produced in traditional China? And how did it migrate from one space to another? Here I use several medical documents from the seventh century to explore these questions, focusing on gouwen 鈎吻 (Gelsemium), a toxic herb growing in southern China (Fig. 1).

The seventh century is a crucial moment in the history of Chinese medicine. The favorable political environment of early Tang dynasty (618-755) fostered the flourishing of medical ideas and the formation of a number of influential texts. One of them is the Newly Revised Materia Medica (Xinxiu bencao 新修本草, 659), the first state-sponsored pharmacopeia produced in China. Compiled by more than twenty court scholars, the text reflects the government’s effort to standardize medical knowledge. Gelsemium is one of the 850 drugs in the book (Fig. 2). Defined as warming, pungent, and highly toxic, the root of the herb could cure, among others, wounds inflicted by metal weapons ulcers, swelling, and convulsion. The authors also stressed the great danger of the herb by showing that drips squeezed from one or two leaves would suffice to kill a person. But not a goat. Quite the contrary, its sprouts could make the animal grow large. It must be, the authors mused, the case that everything in the world submits to something else.

Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659). This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 2. The entry of gouwen (Gelsemium) in the Newly Revised Materia Medica (659).
This copy of the text is from Dunhuang (P. 3714), dated to 667. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

Gelsemium was also embraced by contemporary doctors. Sun Simiao 孫思邈 (?-682), one of the most famous doctors in Chinese history, incorporated the drug into his Essential Recipes of A Thousand Gold Worth (Qianjin yaofang 千金要方, mid-seventh century). The toxic herb appears in nineteen prescriptions in the text, primarily for topical treatment. In one case, Sun presented a recipe called “Ointment of Gelsemium” to treat toxic swelling, pain and numbness in the limbs, ulcers, weak feet, among other conditions. At the end, Sun warned: “This recipe should not be given to vulgar people. Be cautious.”

Why did Sun keep the recipe away from vulgar people, a term referring to commoners? Two possible reasons. First, handling Gelsemium was a delicate matter. Due to its high toxicity, any misuse of the herb could result in devastating, if not lethal, consequences. Commoners may not possess the proper knowledge of deploying the herb, hence they should refrain from taking this recipe. Second, because Gelsemium straddled medicine and poison, laymen might easily use it to harm others. By restricting its access, Sun tried to prevent such malicious misuse. Contemporary sources echoed Sun’s concern. According to an eighth-century statute of medical practice, private families were forbidden to possess Gelsemium. The government tightly controlled the access of the toxic herb to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji  Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.
Figure 3. Gelsemium root preserved in the house of Shosoin in the Todaiji
Temple in Nara, dated to the eighth century. The roots are 0.5-2.0 cm in diameter and 17-24 cm in length. Image courtesy of the Imperial Household Agency website.

This begs the question whether the plant was actually used as a medicine. At the high level of the society, this is likely the case. The evidence came from a precious collection of medicines preserved in the Todaiji Temple in Nara , donated by the Empress Dowager Komyo in 756 as a gesture of benevolence. Because of the vibrant cultural interaction between China and Japan at the time, many drugs of Chinese origin travelled eastward. Gelsemium was one of them (Fig. 3). It is possible that the herb reached Japan as an item of exchange between the two imperial courts that appreciated its medicinal value.

Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).
Figure 4. Drug substitution in a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang (P. 3731). The recipe of the “Ointment of Illicium” is highlighted by the blue box. The arrow points to the note, written in small characters, that specifies the substitution of Phytolacca for Gelsemium. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France (Gallica).

In the local community, the situation is different. We get a clue from a seventh-century manuscript from Dunhuang, a town located in the far west of the Tang Empire on the Silk Road. The manuscript contains miscellaneous recipes, many for external application. One, called “Ointment of Illicium,” merits our attention (Fig. 4). It closely resembles Sun Simiao’s recipe that I showed above, but with an important variation: it doesn’t use Gelsemium. Underneath the ingredient Phytolacca (danglu 當陸), we find an explanation: “The original recipe uses Gelsemium. Nowadays it cannot be obtained, so one uses Phytolacca to replace it.” We can posit why this happened, given Gelsemium’s habitat in southern China, that is, far away from Dunhuang and its restricted access to commoners, as explained earlier. By contrast, Phytolacca was a local herb whose medical function substantially overlapped with that of Gelsemium, making it a reasonable substitute for the distant, unattainable plant.

This example of drug substitution is telling. Compared to social elites, lay people in local communities faced the challenge of limited medical resources. Consequently, they sought alternative options. The rise of authoritative texts at the imperial center thus went hand in hand with its fluid transformation as it moved in various geographical and social domains. Medical knowledge, upon transmission, was destabilized, begetting varied practices in society.