Tag Archives: knowledge

The Senses of the Apothecary in Early Modern Italy

By Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore

Lunette of the Apothecary shop in a fresco at the castle of Issogne, 15th century, Valle d’Aosta.

The making of remedies today, especially industrial pharmaceuticals, relies very little the human senses, or at least this is how we imagine it. Industrial pharmaceutical recipes, we believe, are and should be impersonal and completely based on impartial measurements and detached formulas. Most of us believe that detaching the science and technology of medicine and pharmacy from everything that is subjective – let alone bodily –leads to progress. Things, we know, have not always been like they are today. How did early modern apothecaries understand their craft and knowledge? How did apothecaries relate to the substances they handled? How important was theory in the process of making remedies, and how important were experience and the senses?

One of the most insightful answers on how early modern apothecaries understood their craft comes to us from Filippo Pastarino, a sixteenth-century, well-established apothecary active in Italy, in the city of Bologna. In 1575, Pastarino published ‘A Reasoning of Pastarino on the Art of Apothecary’ (Ragionamento di Pastarino sull’arte della speciaria).[1] In this short booklet he sought to present apothecaries to his fellow citizen in an effort to reestablish their social role within the city, at a time when they felt their position was threatened. Apothecaries Pastarino claimed were first and foremost artisans with a strong religious vocation. They were experts in materia medica (all the substances apt to make remedies) who acted as merciful caregivers.  I have discussed at length the identity of early modern apothecaries in the article Craft, Money and Mercy, an apothecary’s selfportrait in sixteenth-century Bologna.[2] Here, we can delve in this work to answer to the question of how was apothecaries’ expertise achieved and enacted daily, according to themselves.

A good Apothecary knows about substances (substantie), so to say, by their taste, smell, and color not only with his intellect, but with his whole person: smelling, tasting, and touching he can perceive solidity, liquidity, density, lightness, roughness, softness, and such other qualities of touch. Also bitterness, sweetness, ripeness, acidity, sharpness, salinity, the heaviness and other flavors, which I here omit to mention, and bad flavors, such as rancid, burnt, putrid.[3] Apparently, to Pastarino touch, smell, and taste came before sight. He knew substances through ‘his whole person.’ Similarly, when a judge questioned another Bolognese apothecary about how he was able to recognize a good compound, the apothecary’s answer left no room for theory: “A good Theriac [the most prestigious compound in the early modern period and beyond] can be recognized by its smell, color, taste, and its by body or consistency.” The consistency of substances was substantial to apothecaries.

Apothecaries relied on all five senses in their relationship to matter. Daily, apothecaries manipulated hundreds of substances with dozens of different procedures, which could go wrong producing unwanted, and unpleasant, outcomes. The scope of the physical sensations described in these two passages evokes in us a range of physical experiences that go beyond today’s everyday experience of cooking or taking care of a house. But we can imagine that even today artists and artisans who produce artifacts from natural substances (like lute makers or ceramists, but also cooks) must have a deeply embodied sensibility for materials. Apothecaries drew from their daily and constant relationship with matter; they “knew” through their bodies and their senses. But, what about their intellect and theoretical knowledge?

Traditionally, early modern society valued theory and knowledge above practical expertise. Artisanal knowledge, or the mechanical arts, was essential for the functioning and well-being of the society but it had less prestige than the liberal arts. Pastarino was quite original in claiming an opposite balance between mind and body knowledge: “The sum of perfection in an Apothecary, besides knowledge, is vast experience, the mistress of all the arts that can be learnt and that can be put into practice. This is (in my opinion) the best, and most reliable method we can learn […] I say that experience […] is the true method of an apothecary; however, to their perfection, they also have knowledge”. [4] In Pastarino’s treatise, the value and importance given to bodily artisanal expertise stands out as a statement overturning the consolidated conception of knowledge (scientia) being seen as superior to experientia, at least in regard to the apothecary art.

Pastarino was certainly original in his views, but he was not alone. Historian of science Pamela Smith has shown that many early modern artisans shared a bodily awareness of their own art.[5] From the fifteenth century onward, artisans expressed such awareness and expertise not only in their writings, which were both technical and autobiographical, but also in paintings, drawings, statues, jewels, furniture, swords, and guns.[6] Artisanal practice did not merely consist of applying formulas and automatic gestures, but required a high degree of reflection and thinking. Like Pastarino, many other artisans blended the knowledge coming from theory and the expertise coming from embodied knowledge. They knew that a complete knowledge came only combining mind and body: “Those who see usual things only with the eyes of the intellect, those who cannot understand and accomplish them with their corporal hands, appear to live in darkness and misery”.[7] In a way, this view seems opposite to the modern idea that perfect knowledge should be voided of all subjectivity. And yet, sometimes this artisanal view seems to have the seeds of a wisdom which could help us (and the planet) progress even more.


After several years as editor of history textbooks, Barbara went back to historical research. She is now a doctoral candidate in the History of Science and Medicine Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on the medicines culture and market in early modern Italy and beyond, using theriac—the most famous drug in the Western world up to the nineteenth century—as a case study.

[1] Filippo Pastarino, Ragionamento di Pastarino sopra l’arte della speciaria (Bologna: Giovanni Rossi, 1575).

[2] Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  ‘Craft, money and mercy: an apothecary’s self-portrait in sixteenth-century Bologna,’ Annals of Science, 74:2 (2017), 91-107.

[3] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 20.

[4] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 16.

[5] Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan. Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 95.

[6] Smith, The Body of the Artisan, 7.

[7] Pastarino, Ragionamento, 8.

Hunting for herbs: chasing migraine remedies across the centuries

Katherine Foxhall

I was delighted to see Mrs Corlyon’s recipe book (Wellcome MS.213) as the subject of Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ recent post on this blog. Here, I am going to explore another of Mrs Corlyon’s recipes:

A Gargas or Medecine for the Megreeme in the heade.

Take Sage Rosemary and of Pellitory of Spaine, the rootes of eche of these a like quantity, and boil them in a pinte of Vineger, uppon a chafing dish of coales, untill halfe be consumed, then putt therein two good spoonefulles of Mustard beyng made with good vineger, and so lett it boile a while, And then take a litle of it, as hott as you can suffer and holde it in your mouthe, as you shall feele occasion and then spitt it out, and take more and doe this five or six times every morninge so long as you shall fynde occasion or feele your selfe greeved.

My current book project is a history of migraine from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century (funded by the Wellcome Trust). Having found nearly a hundred different recipes for migraine treatments in published and manuscript remedy collections from the late sixteenth to the mid seventeenth century, I have become fascinated by examples of knowledge transfer from print to manuscript and vice versa.

It seems likely that recipes would often have made this leap. Cheap medical books were common in the seventeenth century, and recipe collections were among the most affordable, costing only a couple of pence. For example, in his Breviary of Helthe (1547) – one of the earliest medical texts to have been published in English, and which went through at least six editions by 1598 – Andrew Boorde recommended that sufferers of ‘megryme’ should avoid eating garlic, ramsons and onions. Similar advice appeared in Philip Barrough’s Method of Phisicke (1583). Sure enough, a few years later we find Mrs Corlyon recommending that sufferers of migraine should ‘forbeare much butter or anything wherin Garlicke, onions, or any leeke be used’.

It is also interesting to note the recipes that did not end up in manuscript collections, suggesting knowledge that remained purely theoretical. Bleeding for migraine was common in print, but did not seem to translate into personal collections. Neither did recipes for migraine reflect a fashion for New World tobacco, nor feature ingredients such as bole armoniac or terra sigillata deriving from classical medical traditions. Many published books contained details of simples (single ingredients, often herbs) but compilers of manuscript recipe collections rarely stuck with one, when several would do.

B0009211 Tanacetum cinerariifolium Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Tanacetum cinerariifolium Sch.Blp. Asteraceae Dalmation chrysanthemum, Pyrethrum, Pellitory, Tansy. Distribution: Balkans. Source of the insecticides called pyrethrins. The Physicians of Myddfai in the 13th century used it for toothache. Gerard called it Pyrethrum officinare, Pellitorie of Spain but mentions no insecticidal use, mostly for 'palsies', agues, epilepsy, headaches, to induce salivation, and applied to the skin, to induce sweating. He advised surgeons to use it to make a cream against the Morbum Neopolitanum [syphilis]. However he also describes Tanacetum or Tansy quite separately.. Quincy (1718) gave the same uses Woodville (1792) only recommends it for intestinal worms, Bentley (1861) used it as a tonic and for intestinal worms, Flucker & Hanbury (1879) used it to induce salivation. Martindale (1936) had all the insecticidal uses from scabies to mosquito repellent and as a treatment for intestinal worms. Whatever the confusion regarding names, it is hard to see that it was used as an insecticide until a hundred years ago. Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London. Photograph May 2009 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html
Tanacetum cinerariifolium (Pellitory of Spain) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
To return to Corlyon’s recipe: sage, rosemary and pellitory of Spain were considered hot and dry herbs, and therefore  good for migraines, as they were supposed to draw out excess phlegmatic and waterish humours from the head (see Anne Stobart’s post on herbal qualities). Sage and rosemary also have a strong aromatic smell, and combined with the pungent vinegar and mustard would have enhanced a sensation of the remedy infusing through the head.

So the rationale behind the recipe seems clear, but can we trace its provenance more precisely? Searching for pellitory of spain in recipe collections from Early English Books Online yields some interesting leads. In 1526, the anonymous A New Book of Medecynes contained a recipe ‘for the mygrayme in the heed’ requiring ‘rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, to be ground together, boiled in vinegar, mixed with honey and mustard and held in the mouth a spoonful at a time. This recipe was not new even then: it also appears in a fifteenth-century leechbook, with the additional instruction to hold the preparation in the mouth ‘as long as though mayest say two Agnus Dei’. We find a similar recipe in Thomas Vicary’s English Man’s Treasure (1586), this time requiring ‘Pelitorie of Spaine’, ‘Stavisacre’, ginger and cinnamon in a linen bag soaked in vinegar and held in the mouth. I was excited to be able to trace this back further still to a fourteenth-century collection containing a remedy for ‘Þe mygrenen’ requiring ‘peletir of spane and stafsacre in a litil poke’.

V0044644 Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering st Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering stems and leaves. Coloured lithograph. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mrs Corlyon’s recipe simply replaces Stavesacre, a poisonous plant of the delphinium family, grown in southern Europe, and Spikenard, an aromatic plant from the Himalayas, with similarly hot and dry herbs (sage and rosemary) that she could more easily obtain or grow herself. It is always difficult to know how ordinary people read books, and the extent to which knowledge on paper was adapted in practice, but tracing recipes such as this shows how practical knowledge could remain ‘current’ even across the space of several centuries.