Tag Archives: astrology

Painting Plants in Roman Egypt

By David Leith

The illustrated herbal is a genre of pharmacological book known in Graeco-Roman antiquity from at least the first century BCE. The encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (Natural History 25.8), for example, mentions a number of writers of herbals who provided pictures of the plants above descriptions of their medicinal effects. One of the earliest surviving examples of such illustrated herbals, dating to around 400 CE (to judge from its handwriting), is a lavish, papyrus codex leaf with full colour illustrations named ‘the Johnson Papyrus’ (P. Johnson), after John de Monins Johnson who found it in 1904.[1] He discovered it in the city of Antinoupolis in Middle Egypt, and it is now held in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0015764 Johnson Papyrus, fragment of an illustrated herbal.On one side of the page, we find a cabbage-like plant with dark, bluish-green leaves bearing the name Symphyton, perhaps to be identified as comfrey (symphytum officinale L.). The surviving caption, written directly underneath the picture, is as follows, though the text may have continued on for several more lines after the break:

‘This plant, when ground down, cures every haemorrhage and agglutinates wounds and severed tendons. It cures coughing up of blood …’

On the other side, the plant Phlomos, perhaps mullein (verbascum Thapsus L.), is depicted with green and yellow leaves sprouting from five stalks and a large bulb with roots. This time the plant is not recommended as medically useful by itself, but rather in the form of a compound drug along with several other ingredients (here the end of the caption seems to be preserved):

Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos
Johnson papyrus, verso. Phlomos

‘(1 word unread, e.g. ‘Apply’) … the juice of the plant, marjoram, deer marrow, all-heal, wax, turpentine resin, and old olive oil. It cures those who have been harmed by (pains?) and all kinds of (weariness?).’

On the papyrus, the paint used to depict the plants remains remarkably vibrant, though the same cannot be said for the captions describing their medicinal applications. This is due to the metal-based ink used, called iron gall ink, which is prone to fading over time, and the poor state of these texts meant that continuous sense has been gleaned from them only recently. However, the ink tends to show up much more clearly under ultraviolet light, as you can hopefully see from the image just below , and we now have a much better idea of the sort of medical information that the herbal contained.

P Johnson UV

Significantly, these plants, Symphyton and Phlomos, and the same therapeutic recommendations are also to be found in a work of astrological medicine which was similarly composed in Egypt. This is a treatise named On the Powers of Plants (De virtutibus herbarum) attributed to ‘Thessalus the philosopher’, whose identity has been the subject of some controversy (in particular, whether or not he is the better known first century CE doctor Thessalus of Tralles – I don’t think he is). This astrological treatise records medical information on 19 separate plants, each associated with either one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, or with one of the 7 ‘wandering stars’ (which is what the Greek ‘planetes’ means) that were known at the time, i.e. the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The entries are much longer and more detailed than those preserved on the illustrated herbal, with several different medicinal applications included for each plant, and specific quantities in the compound recipes, as well as notes on the correct dates, given in various calendrical systems, for harvesting the plants to maximise their potency. The surviving manuscripts of this astrological text, however, contain no illustrations of the plants.

It is unfortunately unclear precisely what relationship the illustrated herbal had to this astrological work, whether they were both dependent on a common source, or one was the source for the other. It is to be noted, however, that the surviving parts of the papyrus herbal show no trace of the astrological material found in On the Powers of Plants. There is a further piece of information which might be suggestive of some sort of direct relationship. If all 19 plants in the astrological treatise are re-arranged in Greek alphabetical order, it is at least a striking coincidence that the final two plants turn out to be Symphytum and Phlomos, which of course were juxtaposed in the herbal. Perhaps the compiler of the illustrated herbal used On the Powers of Plants to create a new, alphabetically arranged and non-astrological text, yet that would not explain where the illustrations came from, which are unlikely to have been painted from life.

[1] First edited by C. Singer, ‘The Herbal in Antiquity and its Transmission to Later Ages’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 47 (1927), 1-52 (at 31-33); see also D. Leith, ‘The Antinoopolis Illustrated Herbal (PJohnson + PAntin. 3.214 = MP3 2095’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 156 (2006), 141-156.

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording Medical Information in the Seventeenth Century

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a much more haphazard, and far less regimented, process.
For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period. It could often be bought easily enough; apothecaries often sold reams or ells of paper, as did other retailers from merchants to haberdashers. But it was nonetheless quite costly. Unlike today, where scribble pads and notebooks can be bought for pennies, the buying of paper, or a bound book of notepaper, would have been something out of the ordinary, especially for those on low incomes.

Firstly, the recording of remedies was an expedient and often pragmatic process. Remedies usually spread firstly by word of mouth, with people passing on their favourite receipts to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. As Adam Fox’s work on early modern oral culture has shown (Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)) people had a strong ability to commit information to memory, and this made sense at a time when the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. Nevertheless, for those wishing to record the remedy accurately for future use, there was a need to do so quickly, and often using whatever was to hand.

As such, many ‘remedy collections’ are little more than assemblages of roughly scribbled notes, sometimes on torn bits of paper, sometimes on the back of unrelated documents, and sometimes even including a variety of other information on the same page. In fact, the very survival of many remedies is probably attributable to the fact that they have been incorporated into other, non-medical, documents.

Nevertheless, the recording of remedies in certain types of document was often a more deliberate decision. In Wales, for example, there were several instances of medical remedies being written on notepaper purloined from a church. In one sense this was pragmatic and reflected the simple availability (and probably abundance) of paper, given the needs of the church to keep records. But some were written inside church documents. In parish registers, for example, it was not uncommon to find receipts. A common example was that of a ‘receipt for the biteinge of a mad dogge”, often originally attributed to the register of Cathorp Church in Lincolnshire, but which seemed to move around the country. An example of the remedy, occurring in the Monmouthshire church of Llantillio Pertholey, can be seen here: http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/Item/7637-a-recipe-to-cure-the-bite-of-a-mad-dog-llanti.

In another sense, though, putting remedies in amongst religious verses, as often occurred in commonplace books and notebooks, was a way of allying the remedy to the power of religion. If it was next to God’s word on paper, perhaps it would have more power?
Above all, for the remedy to be of any use, it had to be easy to find when needed. Some, for example, kept remedies within the pages of their business ledgers. Here, the regimented layout perhaps suited ease of future reference. But perhaps most common was to keep remedies within the pages of personal sources. Many diarists noted down examples of favoured remedies, especially when they had suffered from an ailment and attributed their recovery to the taking of a particular remedy.

Commonplace books, notebooks and copy books were also common places for the jotting down of useful information, and could be easily referred to if needed. It was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records, locating it firmly within the context of ‘useful’ information. Many literate families also kept letters. Health was a regular topic of conversation amongst letter writers, and it was common to fire off a few missives seeking potential remedies from within one’s social network. When a reply duly came, here was a ready-made receipt that could be kept without needing to write it down again. Prescriptions and directions from practitioners might be especially prized as they represented a virtual consultation, specially tailored to the recipient’s humoral constitution.

One often-overlooked method, however, were medical almanacs. It’s worth looking at a typical example of how these sources could be used. Cardiff Public Library MS 1.475 is a small memoranda book dating to around 1708, and seemingly originating from London, with the names John and Elizabeth Price prominent. A little list of family notes inside the front cover reveal a touching and tragic tale.

February 10th 1708/9
Married then to the pretty, the charming Mrs Elizabeth Price by the Rev’d Dr Typing of Camberwell.

My daughter Anne was born the 17 of April 1712 about twenty min(utes) after eight in the morning and baptised the 1. of May
She was a very beautifull, lovely child but God was pleased to take it May 3. 1712

Much of the document, however, is actually drawn on the reverse side of copies of almanacks. These were part-astrological, part-magical and part-news documents which contained everything from prognostications and predictions to religious dates, weather information and medicine. The first almanac in this document is ‘Merlinus Liberatus, being an alamanack for the year of our Blessed Saviour’s Incarnation, 1708…by John Partridge, student in Physick and Astrology at the Blue Ball in Salisbury Street in the Strand, London”. Partridge was clearly an entrepreneur; the very next page of his almanck is dedicated to ‘Partridges Purging Pills, useful in all cases where purging is required”!

A second almanac pasted into the book is “The Country Physician; or a choice collection of physic fitted for vulgar use: Containing 1) a collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, excerpted out of the most approved authors 2) Historical observations of famous cures collected out of the works of several modern Physicians 3) A Cabinet of specific, select and practical chymical preparations in two parts, made use of by the Author, by W. Salmon M.D”

This sort of document was a cheap means of buying a ready-made remedy collection, complete with the latest thinking and couched in terms of the layman. There were many self-help volumes of family physick available, but these cheaper almanac and chapbook style documents were easier to read and easier to keep. It is also clear that the spaces on the back of pages were useful places to note down other remedies as they accrued.

For example, the Prices noted down a number of receipts on the back pages, including a receipt “To prevent a return of the ague”, another for the “dead palsy”, including mistletoe, oak and saffron, and another for “flushings in the face”. Here, then, the printed and the written remedy intertwined to become a completely distinct and individual family collection. In many ways this was as formal a collection as a ‘receptaria’, and probably included many of the same sorts of remedies, but in a different form.

The recording of remedies, and the idea of a ‘remedy collection’, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a single, formalised and regimented document. These were organic documents, sometimes constructed carefully, but often just growing as collections of rough notes. Remedies might be deliberately placed within documents, or they might be the result of a roughly-scribbled note. Equally, people might keep ready printed or written remedies, and simply add their own notes as required. In this sense, there is no single ‘remedy collection’ document; instead, there are a myriad different ways in which people collected remedies.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog: dralun.wordpress.com (22 August 2012).