Introduction – Joyful News of Medicine from Iberian Worlds

R.A. Kashanipour

Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569).
Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569).

In 1565, the Spanish physician and herbologist, Nicolás Monardes wrote of the great secrets of nature revealed by Spanish encounters of the New World. In the first book of his Dos libros of medicine, Doctor Monardes remarked of the discovery of new and diverse kingdoms in the Occident that abundantly produced gold, silver, pearls, emeralds, and turquoise that were “a greatly admired by the millions all over the world.” The physician, who never ventured across the Atlantic, marveled at the bounty of the Indies as he wrote from the capital and imperial port of Sevilla. He noted that every year hundreds of ships arrived laden with animals and agricultural products—from across the region came “parrots, monkeys, griffons, lions, falcons, owls, tigers, wool, cotton and sugar.” [1] For the doctor, however, the wealth and abundance of the Indies lay not in minerals, animals, and cash crops, but rather in the botany and knowledge of medicine that grew in the Iberian worlds.

Our Indies have given unto us many trees, plants, herbs, roots, juices, gums, fruits, seeds, liquors, and stones that have great medicinal virtues, that have been found to have great effect and precious value, all of which is said to be excellent and more necessary for corporal health than those things known through the world… And as our Spaniards have discovered new regions, new kingdoms, and new provinces, so too have they brought unto us new medicines and new remedies that cure many infirmities, which, without them, would be incurable and without any remedy.

In the Dos libros, Monardes celebrated the remedial uses of saps and resins, bitumen and bezoars, and fruit and stones that came from the provinces of New Spain and Peru, such as the incense Copal from Mexico, the gum of the Caranna from Cartegena, and the Sulphur vivo (quick sulfur) of Peru. He advocated for the use of the Piedra de sangre (blood stone) as a remedy for the bloody flux the Pimienta de Indes (Indian Pepper) as a purgative. In the first published accounts to detail Çarçaparrilla (sarsaparilla), Monardes characterized the plant as critical medicine well known to both Natives and Spaniards from Nicaragua to Peru. Knowledge of the plant could provide remedies to grave pains and afflictions.

El tobaco. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.
El tobaco. Nicolás Monardes, Joyfull Nevves of the newe founde world (London, 1577). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.

Although Monardes championed Spanish discoveries of subject populations and mineral wealth in the New World, he noted that medical knowledge was a product of experimentation and consultation with local sources of authority, including Natives and Africans. For instance, the knowledge of the healing roots of a plant known as Mechoacan, which were used to treat sores and pox among other afflictions, came from indigenous caciques and healers that encountered the first conquistadores in Central Mexico. Similarly, Spanish friars learned of purgative qualities of the milk of Pinipinichi plant from Nahuatl-speaking natives of the region. Africans experimented with sarsaparilla and Natives across the New World knew of the curative properties of tobacco.  Monardes, a resident of Sevilla all of his life, drew upon the diverse sources of knowledge that flowed through Iberian intellectual and material world.  Based on his work, it is clear that he drew upon the experience and perspectives of Spanish merchants and settlers as much as he took inspiration from Native informants and African healers.

Joyfull Nevvs of the new founde world (London, 1577). John Frampton’s 1577 translation of the compilation of the works of Nicolás Monardes. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., USA.

Within a decade of the publication of  Nicolás Monardes’s Dos libros, the work was translated and published across Europe, with editions in Latin, French, Italian, German, and English. John Frampton’s English publication in 1570 bore the laudatory title Joyfull Newes of the New Found World, which emphasized the optimism and triumphant themes in the original work.

Although some have [medical] knowledge, it is not common to all people, for which cause I did attempt to heal and to write, using all things from our Indies, utilizing to the art and practice of medicine and remedies for the pains and diseases that we do suffer and endure, where of no small profit does follow to those of our time and also unto them that shall come after us…”[2]

El armadillo. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
El armadillo. Nicolás Monardes, Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal (Sevilla, 1574). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

In subsequent works, the doctor went on to provide some of the earliest descriptions of the useful qualities of materia medica from the Iberian World, including tabaco (tobacco), dragon (dragon fruit), and armadillos.  He championed the materia medica of the Iberian world of the sixteenth century.  His work, however, was but one in an expansive intellectual world.

This series of posts on medicine in Latin America and the Iberian World will look at those connections as a means to examine material, intellectual, and power relations. Monardes work demonstrated that the so-called Joyful New of medicine in the Iberian world was not simply a product of colonial discovery, but a result of complex interactions between Europeans, Natives and Africans across Iberian worlds. As the search for remedies took place across the Atlantic , medical knowledge systems created connections within and across imperial boundaries. The history of early modern Iberian and Latin American medicine shows that these connections were the products of local interactions that connected diffuse, diverse, and often disparate knowledge systems that took place on a global scale.  In these posts we will explore remedies from across Iberian worlds, from Mexico to Peru to Brazil and the Caribbean.  The recipes and posts that come in this series, we hope, will further shed light on the fascinating growing scholarship on the history of medicine in the early modern Iberian world, much as Monardes did himself more than four centuries ago.   Joyful News!

[1] Nicolás Monardes, Dos libros, El uno que trata de las cosas que traen de las Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de Medicina y como se ha de usar dela raiz del Mechoacan, purge excelentissma. (Sevilla, 1569), 1v, 2r.

[2] Monardes, Dos libros, 2v-3r.


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