Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum

By Kathleen Walker-Meikle

Ground-up burnt elephant bones (spodium), musk, sumac, white sandalwood, ginger, mace, musk, cinnamon, roses, camphor, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg, galia muscata (a mix of musk and ambergris, a secretion from sperm whales)…

This is just part of the list of ingredients required by an electuary recipe to bring comfort to the melancholic, the timid, those suffering from stomach or intestinal complaints, or affected by windiness.

Apothecary shop,  British Library Ms Sloane 1977 f. 49v. From an early 14th century manuscript of the Circa instans (and other works), France (Amiens). Image Credit: The British Library.
Apothecary shop,
British Library Ms Sloane 1977 f. 49v. From an early 14th century manuscript of the Circa instans (and other works), France (Amiens). Image Credit: The British Library.

The recipe that follows it, another electuary thanks to the alphabetically-minded compiler, was destined for those weak in the stomach and generally feeble. It also presents an eclectic list of ingredients not seen in previous antidotaries such as zedoary, musk, and camphor, which would be all mixed together with sugar and ‘candi’ (a preparation made from sugar).

In the same text, an antidote for those suffering from mania, timidity, lunacy, and epilepsy asks for the brain of an onager (the Asiatic wild ass), along with bitumen of Judea, myrrh, musk, and dragon’s blood (a plant resin), along with a mole’s heart and a horse’s spleen.

All these recipes come from a very long, very novel and very influential pharmaceutical compendium: the Antidotarium magnum (the Great Antidotary). The text, compiled in Southern Italy in the late eleventh-century, details around 1300 recipes. There are recipes from ancient and Byzantine anthologies, along with a substantial number of recipes that calls for ingredients from the Arabic tradition, for the first time in a Latin medical text.

The novel ingredients are copious: myrobalans from India, ambergris from the shores of the Indian Ocean, sumac from the Middle East, sesame from the Middle East and India, turmeric from India, antimony from Asia, tamarisk from the Middle East, among many others. Another notable feature is the appearance of sugar and assorted sugar syrups and confections (julep, candi, confit, etc.) which were just starting to appear in Latin recipe collections at this time.

As a general rule, the recipes featuring ‘new’ ingredients are long and complicated. The compound’s name and its efficacy against a variety of ailments is listed. A long list of ingredients follows, along with details on preparation and administration. For example, a recipe for the ‘Great Diarodon’, declared as good for a hot stomach, liver, spleen, lung, and the entire body, along with weak hearts, strangury, and complaints caused by excessive heat, asks for roses, white and red sandalwood, tragacanth, spodium, two different types of balsam, crocuses, liquorice juice, citrus seeds, mastic, aloe, fennel, basil seeds, rhubarb, camphor, cardamom, and more, all bound together with ‘enough’ rose syrup, to be given morning and night to the patient.

In contrast, the ‘earlier’ recipes are usually shorter in comparison. They can often be found under the general title of ‘Medicamentum’ and their structure is simpler. For example: ‘Medicine against alopecia. Fry a live tortoise on a pan. Place ashes in a new pot with three parts of alum, deer marrow and boil with wine. Rub on alopecia.”
The Antidotarium magnum, a indispensable text in major twelfth century European libraries, was by the early thirteenth century superseded by an abbreviated version of the text: the twelfth-century Antidotarium Nicholai, which derives the major part of its recipes from the Antidotatium magnum.

A folio from a 12th century manuscript of the Antidotarium magnum. Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. Image Credit:  Wellcome Library, London.
A folio from a 12th century manuscript of the Antidotarium magnum. Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The shorter text would end up being one of most influential pharmaceutical texts in Western medicine, with some recipes still in use up to the nineteenth century. Thus the Antidotarium had a lasting legacy, and introduced soon-to-be staple ingredients to pharmacy. Our current list of manuscripts numbers just over thirty copies, nearly all from the twelfth century–although this number will undoubtedly increase as more manuscripts are identified.

Professor Monica Green and I are creating a digital edition of the Antidotarium magnum. Digital images of the folios of manuscripts are uploaded into T-Pen, an online transcription tool. They can then be transcribed digitally, folio-by-folio, with space for notes and the ability to tag words or phrases of interest (for example, place names, cited authors). The entire transcription of each manuscript can then by exported in xml to Tradamus, a digital edition web application. Both tools, which are free to use, have been developed by Saint Louis University’s Center for Digital Humanities.

As the Antidotarium magnum is an unstable text, due to additions and abbreviations, it is an ideal candidate for a digital-only edition. Not only will this allow hypertext additions of variant readings and easily-searchable content, but it will enable future contributions from other scholars as more sources and parallels to the text are identified.


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