Tag Archives: antidotes

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).


Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

Valuing “Caesar’s and Sampson’s Cures”

By Claire Gherini

Between 1749 and 1754 in South Carolina, the South Carolina Colonial Assembly (the governmental body of the British colony) freed two enslaved healers, Caesar, and Sampson, in exchange for their willingness to publicize the ingredients in their antidotes for rattlesnake bites and poisons. This was not the first time that antidotes for snakebites and botanical poisons appeared in the colony. In 1743, a peripatetic Frenchman, Mr. Bonnetheau, set up in Charleston and boasted of his ability to cure “bites of the most venomous serpents, scorpions, and mad dogs,” with the use of “Rattle-snake-stones.” [1]   In 1749, the colony’s newspaper and journal of record, The South Carolina Gazette, reprinted an article from Britain on an herb known as the Sensible Weed, which the article claimed an “extraordinary specific antidote against the Indian or Negro poison” in South Carolina.[2] The prevalence of colonists’ fears about African botanical knowledge in societies like South Carolina where enslaved Africans formed a black majority certainly added to the credibility given to the therapeutic claims proffered by enslaved healers. But snakebites, this post shows, also formed an unrecognized feature of enslaved people’s work in plantation South Carolina, one that made antidotes for venomous bites part of enslaved people’s therapeutic armamentarium. These two features of plantation agriculture in the colony, this post argues, augmented the value of antidotes that functioned as specifics in the cure of snakebites and poisons and goes far to explain why lawmakers panted after Sampson’s and Caesar’s cures specifically. Sampson and Caesar, in turn, manipulated the environmental and social circumstances of colonial South Carolina for their own ends to augment the value of their cures and acquire manumissions from slavery.

Rattle-snake with section of rattle and tooth, from Mark Catsby, (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Rattle-snake with section of rattle and tooth, from Mark Catsby, (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

For enslaved people, encounters with venomous snakes formed a significant occupational hazard of tidal rice cultivation, one that often terminated in death. Far too often, the fangs of Cottonmouths (water moccasins), Copperheads, as well as Pigmy, Eastern Diamondback and Timber Rattlesnakes pierced the legs and arms of the slaves as they tramped out into maritime grasslands and tidal pine forests, pulled weeds and hunched down to plant rice at the behest of their owners. Whites probably suffered less from actual cases of poisoning than they imagined. But colonists’ fear of enslaved people’s motivations and loyalties made them wary of the botanical knowledge possessed by many slaves even as they acknowledged their skill in this area of medicine. “The negro slaves here seem to be but too well acquainted with the vegetable poisons… which they make use of to take away the lives of their masters who they think uses them ill, or indeed the life of any person for whom they conceive any hatred or by whom they imagine themselves injured,” the South Carolina naturalist Alexander Garden complained in a letter to the Edinburgh botanist Charles Alston. [3] The idea that enslaved people were exceptionally skilled with botanical poisons and their antidotes enhanced the epistemological weight of the medical claims made by enslaved healers like Caesar and Sampson.

The members learned about Caesar and his cure before hearing of Sampson’s. In November of 1749, “another member,” of the Assembly “acquainted the house that there is a negro man named Caesar belonging to Mr. John Norman of Beach Hill, who had cured several of the inhabitants of this province who had been poisoned by snakes.”[4] Caesar leveraged the urgency for an antidote to snakebites in his dealings with the Assembly. Caesar “expected his freedom and a moderate competence for life, which he hoped the committee would be of opinion deserved one hundred pounds currency per annum,” in exchange for “the satisfactory discovery of his antidotes against poison.”[5] Yet as a slave, the value of Caesar’s knowledge was not legally his to claim, it belonged to his owner, John Norman. The Assembly resolved to manumit Caesar and to compensate Norman for the loss of “all the advantages the said Negro Slave Caesar (aged nearly sixty-seven years) might be to the owner of his knowledge and skill,” which they set at £500 Carolina Sterling.

Caesar had been unknown to the colony’s lawmakers. Sampson, in contrast, cut a striking figure in Charleston as a snake-handler, one who “used frequently to go about with rattle-snakes in Calabashes, and who would handle them, put them into his pockets or bosom, and sometimes their heads into his mouth, without being bitten.”[6] In January of 1754, a motion passed in the Assembly to form a committee in order to find “the most effectual way to procure a discovery of the cure for the bites of rattle snakes from Sampson, a negro fellow belonging to Mr. Robert Hume.”[7] Sampson’s pension and valuation were considerably less than Caesar’s.  Sampson was paid less, I think, because he only offered an antidote for rattlesnake bites whereas Caesar’s cure could alleviate both poisons and venomous bites. In exchange for his cure, the Assembly decreed that “the said Sampson be from thenceforth manumitted and delivered from the yoke of slavery,” and the members resolved to provide a lifetime annuity “for the said negro Sampson,” which amounted to £50 per year.[8] The Assembly paid to Mr. Robert Hume £300 Carolina Sterling to compensate Hume for the loss of Sampson’s earnings.[9]

Part I of this series on the “discovery” and publication of Caesar’s and Sampson’s poison antidotes examined why the South Carolina Colonial Assembly was so keen to get their hands on the two enslaved people’s medical secrets as well as lawmakers’  struggles to determine the monetary compensation the two enslaved men would receive in exchange for their cures. In their negotiations with the Colonial Assembly, Caesar and Sampson exerted a strong hand in determining the value of their antidotes: by deliberately leveraging their familiarity with the destruction that poisons wrought on the social fabric of white colonists as well as their intimate knowledge of the havoc that venomous snakebites visited on the fortunes of slaveholders (and, by implication, the economy of the colony), the two healers put manumissions from slavery and annual annuities on the bargaining table and won these compensations from the colonial government.

[1] Mr. Bonnetheau’s adverstisement for Rattle-snake-stones in South Carolina Gazette, November 21, 1743 and September 10, 1744.

[2] South Carolina Gazette, July 24, 1749.

[3] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[5] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 303-04.

[6] South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756.

[7] Journal of the Commons House of Assembly (November 21, 1752-September 6, 1754), Vol. 15, Edited by Terry. W. Lipscomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 313.

[8] Ibid, 333.

[9] Ibid, 513.

[1] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[2] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[3] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, February 18, 1756, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 303-04.

A recipe fit for a king

Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.

By Laurence Totelin

One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening.  He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.

Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper.  He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:

There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.[1]

Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:

Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.[2]

Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:

White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.[3]

Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!


[1] Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.11. A sextula is a sixth of an ounce. An hemina is a half of a sextarius. A sextarius is roughly the equivalent of a British pint.

[2] Galen, On Antidotes 1.1 (14.2 Kühn).

[3] Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Types 1.13 (13.414 Kühn).