Category Archives: Ingredients

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures

By Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin

Miniature (no. 37.181) from 15th century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, and assistant with a pestle and mortar, and a scribe in an apothecary’s shop. © Wellcome Images

As readers of this blog well know, early modern Europe was aflood with recipes and drugs. One central question has long preoccupied many of us –  just how did our historical actors assess, test and try out recipes, drugs and materia medica? A few summers ago, a group of historians of science and medicine gathered to discuss just this question. This month, we present our ideas and findings in a special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. To celebrate the launch of the special issue, several authors of the volume will share their work on The Recipes Project. Tuesday’s post revisited Ashley Buchanan and Tillmann Taape‘s report on the original 2014 conference. Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn more about the research of Erik Heinrichs, Valentina Pugliano, Alisha Rankin and Justin Rivest. Finally, Tillmann Taape, who just completed his PhD at the University Cambridge (congrats!) also adds his voice to the series by reflecting on how theme of drug testing features in his doctoral dissertation.

To get us started on our month of ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’, we wanted to say a few words as the organizers and editors of the project. First, you might ask, what do we mean by ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’? Over the course of the project, we found that it was useful to view ‘testing drugs’ and ‘trying cures’ as two overlapping but distinct phenomena.

As the essays in the special issue show, physicians and apothecaries developed clear rules and practices for testing drugs as materials – from sensory analysis of materia medica to chemical analysis of substances like mineral waters or alchemical medicines. This kind of ‘testing drugs’ largely focused on gaining knowledge on the substances’ medicinal properties and played a particularly significant role in the discovery and adoption of materia medica from the New World and in assessing and establishing authenticity of exotic and/or expensive medicaments.

Paolo Antonio Barbieri, The Spice Shop, 1637. Image from Wikimedia.

‘Trying cures’, on the other hand, describes the widespread practice of trying remedies and other kinds of cures on human bodies. If ‘testing drugs’ was mainly conducted by learned physicians and apothecaries, ‘trying cures’ was performed by a broad range of healers. Within the home, women and men applied and observed the effects of remedies on family and household members. Likewise, physicians and other practitioners prescribed diets, medicines and other cures to their patients, again observing and recording the effects. Ample evidence of this kind of ‘trying cures’ survive in a range historical sources from the use of ‘probatum est’ to expressions of personal experience, customisation and rejection of recipes in household recipe collections (for more on this, see posts here and here).

For us, these two categories ‘testing drugs and ‘trying cures’ serve as helpful heuristic tools to untangle the assessment practices used by early modern practitioners. We see the two categories not as separate boxes but rather as overlapping and often intertwined practices. Many healers merged testing and trying by using patient tests to determine a substance’s properties or to refine methodologies in both drug production and application. These themes of testing and trying occupied a central place in the making of medical knowledge across a vast chronological span and broad geographical regions and social contexts. The essays in the special issue examine these crucial knowledge practices in Europe c. 1300-1800 (go here for a table of contents).

Several main themes emerged from this collaborative project. First, medicine was always an experiential art and the essays in the special issue demonstrate clear continuities between the learned physicians’ uses of experience/experiment in the Middle Ages and early modern experimental interests. Learned medicine made deliberate use of experience from a very early date and pharmacy was an area where the gathering of experiential knowledge was particularly pronounced. The senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – played vital roles in determining the properties of drugs and their effects on the human body.

Concurrently, as many essays in the volume demonstrate, structured drug testing had a long history. Medieval physicians developed meticulous rules for drug testing, as Michael McVaugh’s essay shows, although they left no record of actual medical trials. This focus on establishing protocols for drug testing continues throughout the medieval and early modern period, with significant expansion in scale and scope. By the eighteenth century, the testing of mineral spa waters (in Michael Bycroft’s essay) or proprietary drugs (in Justin Rivest’s essay) became large-scale undertakings situated in learned academies and hospitals.

When taken together, the essays in the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ special issue collectively argue that ‘experimental thinking’ played a crucial role in learned assessments of medicine and drugs throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. From the time of Galen, drug testing was structured and evidence-based with an aim to produce transferable results. For us, this fascinating and multifaceted story of premodern drug testing enriches and extends current histories of experimentation and we hope that our explorations into topic will inspire others to join us too!

Further Reading and Acknowledgements:

This post is a very condensed version of Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin’s ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures: Experiment and Medicine in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 91 (2017), 157-182. The full version of the article is available here. The entire special issue is available here.

The ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ project was funded by the Max Planck Society as part of the Minerva Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Nature in Early Modern Europe’.  We also extend our grateful thanks to all the participants of the 2014 workshop, the editors of the BHM and the anonymous reviewers of the articles in this special issue.

Tales from the Archives: Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Over the next few weeks, The Recipes Project will feature a selection of case studies from the current issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine on “‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures”. This special issue grew out of a 2014 workshop held at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. We were very lucky to have two then graduate students Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape, join us for and grateful that they took the time to pen the post below. It seems fitting to begin this month on testing drugs and trying cures with a revisit to their post. Elaine (editor).


By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.


For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.

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.

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565),, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879,; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at:; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.


Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves