Turning Herbs into Drugs in the Middle Ages

We here at Points are delighted to welcome a new guest blogger for the next few weeks: Winston Black, an intellectual historian of medieval England and France who has published several essays on medical and religious education, and an edition, translation, and study of Henry of Huntingdon’s Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century (Toronto and Oxford, 2012). He is currently the Haslam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of the University of Tennessee.

A recent essay in The Guardian┬ácompares modern cough medicines to the medieval cure-all theriac. The picture painted of medieval medicine is not so patronizing as usually found in the press: according to the author, neither ‘drug’ actually cures anything, there was a vigorous market for both, and both possessed some sort of placebo effect. The similarities end there. Whereas most modern cough medicines rely on sweeteners, affordability, and easy access for their appeal, the lure of theriac lay in its exotic, even repulsive content (viper’s flesh as the main ingredient), its cost (exorbitant), and the supposed difficulty in preparing it. Arnald de Villanova, a professor at the medical school of Montpellier around 1300, wrote an entire treatise on the topic, “On the dosage of theriac medicines” (De dosi tyriacalium medicinarum).

A copy of the “Tacuinum sanitatis” (‘Tables of Health’) from Vienna, ca. 1400, uses a well-stocked apothecary shop to illustrate the description of triacha, theriac.

Theriac is frequently held up as the medieval drug par excellence, and it probably was by the fourteenth century, but there were centuries of drug therapy before theriac was rediscovered. There was, in fact, an intellectual and economic gulf between the herbal pharmacy of much of the Middle Ages and the mature drug culture of the Later Middle Ages. How did this change occur? How did herbs become ‘drugs’?

Albarello vase for theriac; Italy, 1641.

There are several problems in discussing medieval drugs. The main problem is one of definition. The word ‘drug’ was not used until the very end of the Middle Ages to refer to medicine (droge meant ‘supply’ or ‘barrel’). Moreover, most of the substances we call ‘drugs’ didn’t exist or were rarely used then, such as refined or synthesized chemical compounds, legal stimulants like caffeine or nicotine, or illegal recreational drugs derived from marijuana or opium poppies. But if we use ‘drug’ in the broadest sense not as a substance that has by its nature a medicinal or intoxicating effect on an organism but rather as one that the user or provider thought would have such effects, this allows us to consider as ‘drugs’ a huge range of natural substances used in medieval medicine. For God, in a popular medieval view, provided the entire world for the benefit of mankind, and drugs could therefore be found everywhere, potentially in any animal, vegetable, or mineral.

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