Controlled substances in Roman law and pharmacy?

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.48.8.3.3):

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.
“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.
The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.
Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

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.

Recipes and Experiment: A Poison Trial on Dogs

By Alisha Rankin

To what extent did early modern individuals experiment with their recipes and cures? I puzzle over this question quite a bit in my research, as I see fleeting evidence of experimentation in letters and other documents, but it is always hard to pin them down. Every once in awhile, however, I find an entry in a recipe collection that shows without a doubt that ample experimentation was going on.

And so it is with this fascinating entry bound into recipe collection belonging to the Princely Palatine Library in Heidelberg (Biblioteca Palatina), compiled by Countess Elizabeth of the Palatinate-Lautern (1552-85). The document is an account of a trial conducted in the city of Kassel by the ruling Prince, Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel (1532-92). Wilhelm was known for his scientific endeavors, especially his interest in astronomy, but this document shows that he had medical interests as well.

Codex palatinum germanicum 177
University of Heidelberg Library, Codex palatinum germanicum 177

The text begins by explaining that, on St. Jacob’s Day [July 25], 1580, the landgrave had “tried” a poison antidote, terra sigillata, on dogs. It continues on to detail eight different tests of the antidote: in pairs, two dogs were given a poison, and only one received the terra sigillata. The details of the effects on each poor dog are carefully recorded, numbered 1 through 8. Interestingly, the recipe is half in German, half in Latin: in each case, the description of the dog and what poison he was given was recorded in German, with the outcome in Latin. The entire document has the feel of a rather formal report. Because the antidote appeared successful – all of the dogs who took it survived, while the ones who did not eat it died – it represented a testament to a potentially potent cure for poison. Clearly, the court in Kassel found the results significant enough to share; an even more detailed version appears in print.

Now, there are many fascinating aspects to this document, and it plays a starring role in my book-in-progress on evaluating poison antidotes. In this post, however, I’d like to focus on its place in the recipe collection of Countess Elisabeth. Like many noblewomen, Elisabeth was active in making medicines, at least according to physician Jacob Theodor Tabernaemontanus, who dedicated a book to her in 1577. Several of the recipe collections in the Bibliotheca Palatina can be traced back to her, as the fabulous digitization project led by Karin Zimmerman has shown. She loved to write her name in the margins to mark recipes she felt were proven. This particular collection is a mishmash of loose recipes and other medical documents that were bound together when the library’s holdings were captured and taken to Rome during the Thirty Years’ War. We do not know whether Elisabeth would have chosen to bind these particular papers together, but they seem to have been stored together. Many entries involve people who were close to Elisabeth, including a recipe attributed to her father, Elector August of Saxony (1526-86); a recipe for “the aquafetta,” which refers to the aqua vitae for which her mother, Electress Anna (1532-85), became famous; and one entry in the hand of her close confidant, Countess Anna of Hohenlohe. Marginalia by Wilhelm Rascalon, a court physician who worked closely with Elisabeth, appear in several recipes. A good number of entries also contain Elisabeth’s own edits and/or her name scrawled in the margins, as can be seen in the recipe below.

A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.
A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.

We can’t make too much of the fact that Elisabeth seems to have kept the dog trial record among these recipes; we have no idea whether she even read it, as she would have had trouble with the Latin bits. However, the evidence suggests that she found the results significant, as one would expect given the craze for poison antidotes in courtly circles. For various reasons, poison represented a special case: both particularly easy to test and particularly useful given the panacea qualities of many antidotes. It is not surprising that a princess interested in recording proven cures would be intrigued. And the circulation of the trial report suggests that the Kassel court expected to have eager readers.

In the end, the antidote did not help Countess Elisabeth: ten years later, she died after (purportedly) being poisoned by her estranged husband, Count Johann Kasimir. But I think her possession of Landgrave Wilhelm’s dog trial report does provide direct evidence of that the oft-stated claim of probatum est in regards to cures was sometimes taken very seriously!

Editorial: To find out more about the Heidelberg University Library and the Bibliotheca Palatina, watch out for the March edition of the First Monday Library Chat when we’ll be talking to Karin Zimmermann, Deputy Head of Manuscripts and Early Printed books.

Interested in experimentation and drug trials? Visit the webpage of the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in the Pre-modern World’ working group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Want to learn more about women, medicine and recipes in early modern Germany? Check out Alisha’s book Panaceia’s Daughters. Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany.

The dose makes the poison: dangerous plants

By Marieke Hendriksen

'The gift of chemistry', by P.H. Looff, 1773
‘The gift of chemistry’, by P.H. Looff, 1773

My current research focuses on how certain materials, particularly metals, gemstones and glass, mostly disappeared from the medicine of Boerhaave and his followers. This primarily had to do with how these substances were chemically understood. When I tell this to people, they mostly nod in agreement, assuming that Leiden professor of medicine, chemistry and botany Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) discovered how poisonous metals are for the human body through chemical analysis, and subsequently banished them from his medicine. The truth is a little more nuanced. Boerhaave’s ideas about these substances and his idea of poisonousness were deeply influenced by those of illustrious medical men like Paracelsus (1493-1541) and the common alchemical understandings of matter at the time.

The reason that Boerhaave thought most metals were poisonous for humans for example was not because he had systematically tested the effects of ingestion, but because he argued from an alchemical understanding that the corrosive nature of most metals, except for gold and iron, meant that they were generally damaging for the human body. Only in very severe cases of otherwise incurable diseases, such as syphilis, could an appropriately cultivated preparation of a heavy metal like mercury be used as a last resource. Neither did Boerhaave’s discouragement of the use of substances such as metals in medicine mean that he thought all vegetable substances were safe to use, and he discusses vegetable poisons in his lectures.

Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) Courtesy of  Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.
Poisonous hemlock (Conium maculatum) Courtesy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.

However, Boerhaave, although critical of Paracelsus, was also aware of the truth of his adage ‘the dose makes the poison,’ and a fervent advocate of critical thinking and practical research, who told his readers to think for themselves and undertake their own experiments. The impact of his work and attitude becomes clear from an array of eighteenth-century works on medicine, ranging from academic chemistry and medical handbooks to private recipe collections and small practical medical treatises in the vernacular. A nice example is a pamphlet by Philip Looff (1745-1778), a medical doctor from Groningen, published in 1773 under the title Donum Chemicum, literally ‘the gift of chemistry.’[1]

Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulentum). Couresy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.
Rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulentum). Courtesy of Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de.

Although Looff obviously never met Boerhaave, he dedicated his book to Boerhaave’s successor and former student H.D. Gaub (1705-1780), who endorsed it, and Looff repeatedly speaks of Boerhaave’s work admiringly in the book. Completely in Boerhaave’s line of thought too is his discussion of the medicinal use of rough chervil (‘dulle kervel’ or Chaerophyllum temulum), a slightly poisonous plant. It was often confused with hemlock  (Conium maculatum), which is said to have been the active ingredient in Socrates’ poisoned chalice. Like Boerhaave, Looff begins with a warning that any use of poisonous substances by the uniformed is extremely dangerous, and continuous to describe an observation of the usefulness of rough chervil in the cure of leprosy. According to Looff, he and his father in law, also a medical doctor, had successfully cured a woman suffering from leprosy be treating her with a very week solution of rough chervil and sarsaparilla – a handful of rough chervil and an ounce and a half of sarsaparilla boiled in 28 or 30 ounces of water for three hours. Although the patient went temporarily blind each time she took a two-ounce dose of the brew, after seven weeks of two daily doses, she was cured of her leprosy.

In hindsight it seems rather risky that Looff published his findings in the vernacular, as it is very easy to confuse rough chervil and hemlock – ingestion of only 6 to 8 leaves of fresh hemlock can be fatal. Yet however dangerous, these kinds of case studies were also essential for the study of the effects of potentially poisonous plants on the human body, and thus indirectly for the early nineteenth-century invention of isolating plant alkaloids  – the active chemical principles of plants that had been used medicinally for centuries and that we still know and use today.[2]

 

Plant prints: permission from Kurt Stüber, www.biolib.de

 


[2] Swann, John P. “The Pharmaceutical Industries.” edited by Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone, The Cambridge History of Science. Volume 6: Modern Life and Earth Sciences: 126–40. (The Cambridge History of Science, 2009), p. 127-8.