Category Archives: Apothecaries

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!

Palm Trees and Potions: On Portuguese Pharmacy Signs

By Benjamin Breen

Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.
Figure 1. A pharmacy sign in Paris. Photo by Daniel Stockman, 2010.

Anyone who has walked in a European city at night will be familiar with the glow of them: a vivid and snakelike green, slightly eerie when encountered on a lonely street, beautiful in the rain. They were once neon; now most are arrays of ultra-bright Chinese LEDs that blink on and off in intricate patterns. The glowing emerald cross of the pharmacy is among the most familiar symbols in Europe.

When I moved to Lisbon in 2012, however, I was interested to find that the pharmacy on my street bore a striking variation on the iconic green cross. In Portugal, the green crosses of many farmacias contain a small palm tree with a snake wrapped around it, or inside of it.

Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.
Figure 2. Farmácia Moz Teixera, on the Rua do Poço dos Negros, Lisbon.

At first glance, there’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this: the iconography seems to owe its origin to the Sociedade Farmaceutica Lusitana (Portuguese Pharmaceutical Society), the emblem of which has featured a variation on the snake + palm tree + cross motif since the 19th century. But as with many explanations in history, this doesn’t really explain much at all. The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in London glosses the symbol as simply representing the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms.

But this doesn’t satisfy – why a palm tree, in particular? Why Portugal?

As with many things in Lisbon, when we peel back a century or two, we find something surprising. The name of the street on which my local pharmacy was located, Rua do Poço dos Negros, offered a hint: literally translated, it means “The Road of the Pit of the Blacks.” Poço can also be translated as “well,” but as the historian James Sweet notes, this poço was in fact a burial pit, and Rua do Poço dos Negros was the main thoroughfare of a densely populated African neighborhood in sixteenth-century Lisbon known as Mocambo, the Kimbundu word for “hideout.” It was a center for what the Portuguese call feitiçaria, or sorcery, a term that was often employed by Portuguese-speakers in the early modern period to describe the practices of African healers who combined medical cures with religious rites that invoked ancestral spirits and divinities.

The snake and the palm tree were frequent motifs in early modern Portuguese depictions of African and indigenous American medical practices. To a Christian reader, the combination called to mind the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, thereby flagging the supposedly Satanic origins of cures from the non-Christian world.

But it also functioned as a proxy for the exotic and the tropical, showing up in places like the frontispiece illustrations of early scientific works about Brazil and the religious manuals of Catholic monks in Africa. Whenever early modern Europeans wanted to signify that a place was heathen, tropical and exotic, the trusty serpent and palm could be counted on.

Breen pharmacy 3
Figure 3. Left: an Italian capuchin monk destroys a Congolese “house of a feitiçeiro [casa d’un Faticchiero] filled with diabolical superstitions.” Source: Paolo Collo and Silva Benso, eds., Sogno: Bamba, Pemba, Ovando e altre contrade dei regni di Congo, Angola e adjacenti (Milan: published privately by Franco Maria Ricci, 1986), 163. Right: detail from the frontispiece of Willem Piso and Georg Marcgrave, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Amsterdam: Franciscus Hack, 1648).
To be sure, there were many, many ways of symbolizing the exotic and the colonial in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: alligators, dragons, Chinese maidens toting parasols, and mustachioed Turks with enormous turbans, to name a few. My personal favorite is the moose skull, seashell and pineapple combo that adorns this fanciful anonymous painting of an apothecary shop from early eighteenth century France.

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Figure 4. Anonymous eighteenth-century painting of an apothecary shop, University R. Descartes in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences in Paris, France.

 

But the snake and palm showed real longevity in the field of medicine and pharmacy, emerging as a common motif for the ceramic jars used to store drugs. Since at least the late medieval period, these jars had functioned as a form of advertising to display the wealth and judicious taste of the apothecary who dispensed drugs out of them: a shop with a full set of colorful Italian-made Maiolica jars, or with the more austere but beautiful blue-and-white Delftware jars favored in England and the Low Countries, promised to be a well-run establishment.

The introduction of new design motifs into drug jars was thus far from a random process. It was guided by the commercial needs of the drug merchant: how do I advertise the purity and potency of the drugs I have for sale? How do I broadcast my links to the Indies, where the most expensive drugs come from? We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find our friends the serpent and the palm appearing as a prominent motif on jars containing tropical drugs by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

 

Breen Pharmacy 5
Figure 5. Nineteenth century drug jars for Basilicum (Basilicum polystachyon, a medicinal plant native to Africa and South Asia) and “Sapo Animal” (likely meaning “animal soap,” but perhaps the medicinal venom of the Amazonian sapo frog?) showing the serpent and palm motif in exoticized landscapes. Via Aspire Auctions.

The commercial pathways that carried medicinal drugs and recipes from the non-European cultures of Amazonia, Brazil and Africa also carried symbols. Can the palm and serpent motif of Portuguese pharmacies be directly attributed to this colonial-era transfer of materials and ideas between Europe and the tropical world? It certainly seems that way to me, although I acknowledge that the link is largely circumstantial.

What is more certain is that the larger culture of drug use in Portugal and its colonies was strongly shaped by indigenous American and African influences. Although today the contents of a pharmacy are divided from the domain of recreational drug use by formidable cultural and legal boundaries, this was not the case in the seventeenth century. This was a time when apothecaries freely dispensed opium, tobacco, alcohol and even cannabis alongside more familiar remedies like chamomile tea. And it is here, in the etymologies of three familiar words associated with recreational drugs, that the influence of the colonies upon Portuguese drug culture is most apparent.

Unlike other speakers of Romance languages, who typically puff on tubos or pipes, Lusophones smoke from cachimbos, a term derived from the word kixima in the Kimbundu language of West Central Africa. (This is an especially intriguing etymological origin because pipes are typically thought of as being introduced to Europeans via indigenous Americans, not Africans). From colonial times to the present, at least some of those who used cachimbos were filling them not with tobacco but with maconha, i.e. cannabis, derived from the Kimbundu makaña.

And perhaps they washed this down with a fortifying swig of jerebita, now known as cachaça or sugar-cane liquor, which, according to the historian João Azevedo Fernandes, has a not entirely unexpected point of origin: “the word jerebita very probably originated from the Tupi word jeribá, a species of palm tree.”

 

Controlled substances in Roman law and pharmacy?

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.48.8.3.3):

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.
“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.
The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.
Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

From bloodstone to fish soup: iron recipes

By Marieke Hendrikksen

In my research on the use of metals in eighteenth-century medical chemistry, iron has a special place. Unlike other metals, which were increasingly regarded as dangerous, iron remained a safe bet in blood-related diseases. However, up until the early nineteenth century, this understanding was not so much based on a chemical understanding of iron, but on the ancient principle of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is associated – often materially – with the body part or disease it treats. An excellent example of this is bloodstone.

From antiquity onwards, the terms ‘lapis haematites’ and ‘bloodstone’ were used to refer to minerals or precious stones spotted or streaked with red, or red in colour, used as pigments by artisans and medicinally in the treatment of hemorrhage, or as a charm against injury or bleeding. Most descriptions seem to refer either to what is now known as heliotrope, a form of chalcedony, or more commonly to hematite, an iron oxide. Whereas in hermetic alchemical texts ‘blood’ often refers to the transforming arcanum, now commonly believed to be a form of mercury, bloodstone occurs predominantly in pharmacopeia and is clearly linked to blood because of its blood-like pigments. A quick test in my back yard shows how easy it is to yield ‘blood’ from bloodstone:

Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder...
Grinding some chips of bloodstone gives a rusty red powder…
Result after adding some water.
Result after adding some water.

By the early eighteenth century, bloodstone was routinely listed in city pharmacopeia as a mineral that had to be stocked in the apothecary shop. Its association with and supposed influence on the blood was implied by its use in recipes for styptics, without reference to its iron-like nature. This does appear in more detailed sources in Latin though. The Amsterdam physician Stephen Blankaart for example described it in his 1701 Opera medica, theoretica, practica et chirurgica (Volume 1) as ‘dark red stone, like the name perhaps suggests coagulates the blood. It appears in long streaks, like wood, and can be split into sharp needles. It is found in the veins of iron mines and can be consumed by rust.’ 

Recipe for 'cookies' to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis's Pharmacopoea.
Recipe for ‘cookies’ to cure excessive periods and bleeding hemorrhoids, consisting mainly of red ingredients. From Wouter van Lis’s Pharmacopoea.

A clear example of how bloodstone was understood and applied by early modern apothecaries can be found in Wouter van Lis’s bilingual 1747 Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica, which gives information in both Latin and Dutch on the same page.[1] Van Lis gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745 and probably authored this book to capitalize on his previous experience as an apothecary while he set up a practice as physician in another city.

Van Lis lists Bloodstone as a semi-metal, but he also refers to the origins of its name: ‘Bloodstone has a Rock- Earth- and Metal-like nature. Because of its paint that resembles blood, or because it is a styptic, it is called Bloodstone.’ In the chapter ‘Medicinal biscuits and stones,’ two recipes are listed for cookies containing bloodstone: they are said to cure heavy menses and bleeding haemorrhoids, as well as bloody stool. These two recipes are clearly based on sympathetic rather than chemical principals; they contain predominantly red ingredients, like coral and red flowers.

Ironically, anaemia caused by iron deficiency is still the most common nutritional health problem in the world today. I was fascinated to learn that health researchers are battling anaemia in rural Cambodia with reusable ‘lucky iron fish’ that are added to boiling soup or rice. The small amounts of iron released during cooking ensure the sufficient intake of iron. A vital part of the success of the ‘fish’ is its shape: fish is both a staple in the local diet, and a symbol of luck in Cambodian culture. Not exactly sympathetic medicine in the early modern sense, but this shows how important cultural understandings of materiality still can be in ensuring the correct use of medicinal substances and dietary supplements.

Just one final note–although iron, especially in small amounts, is essential and one of the more harmless metals for humans, an overdose can be poisonous. Like always, the dose makes the poison.

[1] Van Lis, Wouter, Gualtheri van Lis Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel (Amsterdam: Jan Morterre, 1747).