Category Archives: Apothecaries

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.


The Fruits of Summer in the Dead of Winter

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

In the seventeenth century, life ebbed and flowed with the seasons. In my research into the court household of Berlin, I noted seasonal shifts in livery, lighting, bedtimes, and, of course, recipes. Even with these seasonal adaptations, however, early modern Europeans sought to overcome seasonal growing constraints. One occupation primarily concerned with defying the seasonality of food was that of the court confectioner. It was his (and his wife’s) job to preserve the delicate summer fruits for wealthy Europeans to enjoy even in the depths of winter.

Nicolas de Bonnefons described the rewards of this play with the seasons in his 1654 Les Delices de la campagne, which was translated into English and German and even republished by a Berlin court physician, Johann Sigismund Elsholtz. Bonnefons raptured:

There is nothing which doth more agreeably concern the senses, than in the depth of Winter to behold the fruits so fair, and so good, yea, better than when you first did gather them; and that then, when the trees seem to be dead, and have lost all their Verdure, and the rigour of the cold to have so dispoil’d your garden of all that imbellished it, that it appears rather a desart [sic] than a paradise of delicacies; then it is, I say, that you will taste your fruit with infinite more Gust and contentment, than in the summer it self, when their great abundance and variety rather cloy you than become agreeable. For this reason therefore it is, that we will essay to teach you the most expedite, and certain means how to conserve them all the winter, even so long, as till the new shall incite you to quite the old.[1]

A view into the confectioner’s kitchen in The French gardiner, 1691,

Considering Bonnefons emphatic endorsement of summer fruits in winter, it is perhaps not surprising that confectioners were highly valued in Europe. The moist and cold properties of fresh fruit generally made it a nutritional no-no, according to Galenic principles of diet. However, candied fruits were considered medicinal and the position of court confectioner often fell under the office of the apothecary, not the kitchen.[2] In the Renaissance, it was common to seal the stomach at the end of a rich meal with either fresh or preserved fruits and fruit at a meal was emblematic of the wealth and refinement of the host.[3] By the eighteenth century, the task of the confectioner to create elaborate sugar sculptures for the table was so ingrained that one encyclopedist claimed they belonged to the artist class and prospects had to apprentice themselves to a city confectioner for six years until they had mastered their art.[4] 

Georg Flegel (1566–1638), Still life with cookies and confections (including dried cherries).

The importance of the confectioner is apparent at the court at Berlin in the seventeenth century. The household archives contain a frantic exchange from 1647 between the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688) and his counselors about finding a replacement for the deceased confectioner, Johann Schenke, whose wife did not want to carry on the job. It being early summer (Jun 27), the councilors expressed the pressing need to fill the vacancy because “now is the best time for juices and other garden fruits to be preserved.”[5] Friedrich Wilhelm ordered them to install the Prussian confectioner, Johann Tiegel, in the position. He wrote that although they would eventually draw up a contract for him, Tiegel should get started immediately collecting the fruit from the gardens and bringing them to the elector’s tables with the appropriate confections.[6]

When it was finally written, the court confectioner’s employment contract specified the supplies he would receive to carry out his charge: 700 Reichsthaler (in addition to his 80 Reichstaler salary), 960 eggs, as much flour and fruit as needed (from the gardens and from in-kind taxes), 1000 citrons, 1000 bitter oranges, as well as a supply of wood, coal and candles.[7] Occasionally, the confectioner did not get the necessary supplies, which hindered his ability to preserve fruits and was costly for the court. In 1657, Friedrich Wilhelm ordered that Tiegel surely be supplied with apples, cherries, and Black Corinths (Johannisbeere in German) in order to avoid the great expense of having to buy confections from outside of the palace, which had been necessary the previous year.[8]

Cherries were the first ripe fruits of the summer. The sandy soil of Brandenburg was well-suited to growing cherries and in 1656, there were eight varieties of cherries cataloged in the palace garden of Berlin.[9] Dr. Elsholtz wrote that cherries were ripe in June and July and described their consumption: “one eats cherries either fresh or cooked into a soup, or dried, or preserved with sugar. Some make cherry water or a syrup.”[10] Here is a translation of one such cherry recipe reprinted by Elsholtz from Bonnefons:

One makes the cherry syrup from the good, ripe cherry juice, which you press through a hair or linen cloth. For every quart of this juice, add a pound of sugar, boil that to a thick syrup. To clarify this syrup, let it run through a distillation sack.”[11]

Elsholtz’s descriptions also correspond with the menus and food receipts from the Brandenburg-Prussian household archive, which frequently list the ordering or consumption of dried cherries and cherry sauce (Kirschmus), in particular.

In some popular food literature today, there’s nostalgia for a time when humans adhered more closely to the foods nature provided each season. Even prior to industrialization, however, people clearly prized the rarity of a taste of an off-season food. What the archival record reveals, though, is that early modern Europeans of all orders were still hyper aware of what foods were available when and were careful about timing the work of preservation accordingly.

[1] Nicolas de Bonnefons, John Evelyn, and John Rose, The French Gardiner (London: Printed by F.B. for B. Took, and are to be sold by J. Taylor, 1691), p. 191-2.

[2] This was the case in Berlin. See Peter Bahl, Der Hof des Grossen Kurfürsten: Studien zur hoheren Amtsträgerschaft Brandenburg-Preussens (Koln: Bohlau, 2001), p. 365.

[3] Ken Albala, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 82-89.

[4] Johann Georg Krünitz, “Conditor,” Oekonomischen Encyklopädie oder allgemeines System der Staats- Stadt- Haus- und Landwirthschaft (Berlin: Pauli, 1773),

[5] Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz I. Rep. 36 948, p. 57

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 55. There is no mention of the quantity of sugar the confectioner would receive, but an earlier missive from the previous elector ordered the Office of the Domains (Amtskammer) to supply the confectioner with enough sugar for the dried fruits coming in as taxes-in-kind from the administrative districts (Ämter). Ibid, p. 16.

[8] Ibid. p. 73.

[9] Marina Heilmeyer, Kirschen für den König, Potsdamer pomologische Geschichten (Potsdam: Vacat, 2001), p. 10. Johann Sigismund Elsholtz’s 1656 plant catalog Horta Berolinensis can be found at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin Ms.boruss.qu. 12.

[10] Elßholtz, Vom Garten-Baw (Berlin, 1684), p. 258.  Ibid, Diaeteticon (Cölln an der Spree: Georg Schulz, 1682), p. 61.

[11] Ibid, p. 436-7. I translated Viertal as quart and “Luttersack” as distillation sack. There’s a picture of a 19th-century Luttersack here (item 30). According to Adelung, the Lutter is what came out of the first pass through the fire when making brandy (which required two firings).

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.

Breen pharmacy 4
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.”