Medieval Drugs, Part 2: The Drugstore in Paradise

Welcome to the second instalment on Winston Black’s excellent Points series on medieval drugs. To read the first post in this series, check out ‘Turning Herbs Into Drugs in the Middle Ages‘.

Where do quality and health come from? Apparently only from jungles and primitive tribes.

One of the favorite advertising gambits of the alternative medicine industry is to promote the exotic nature of a cure. This is done with images of rain forests or Tibetan monasteries, hard-to-pronounce names (ylang-ylang or acai berry), or by dressing up a homely remedy (cornflower becames echinacea). This industry plays on fears of or hostility to modern, chemical pharmaceuticals, and popular beliefs that a plant sourced from an unsullied, non-Western locale, and preferably used by “primitives” must necessarily be better than our local weeds.

Such beliefs about exotic, natural remedies (whether genuinely believed or used deceptively) are not new. The favorite drugs of the High Middle Ages were advertised as coming from far away, in the lands of Arabs and Indians, or from Paradise itself. Our modern paradises tend to be jungles or hidden valleys, the farther from Europe or America, the better. Medieval people didn’t need new paradises; they had the real thing in the Garden of Eden, never seen by sinful humanity but firmly believed in. Everyone knew it was the best place on Earth, and most agreed it lay far to the East. (Want to know more? Try Jean Delumeau’s History of Paradise).

Exotic materia medica laid out neatly on a shelf, including sapphires, coral, mercury, a squid, and mumia, a secretion of the spinal column in Egyptian mummies. From Robinet Testard’s lavishly illuminated edition of the Livre des Simples Médecines, a French adaptation of Matthaeus Platearius’ Circa instans.

In last week’s post, I put forward the idea—as a historical exercise—that drugs were an invention of High Medieval culture. This applies not to the contents of the drugs, but how they were understood, sourced, packaged, and sold—drugs as a cultural construct, representing new attitudes toward medical practice and herbs that had been used for centuries. The transition from herbs to drugs included a change in where philosophers and pharmacists thought the best drugs came from, or at least in where they claimed they had come from. Ideas about the nature of Paradise were central to this change: even if we can’t enter Paradise any more, so the argument ran, we can still obtain its healing plants and craft the very best drugs. But like modern websites, which can deliver health secrets from the deepest jungle to your door by UPS, exotic medieval drugs also had to be made accessible (if only to the wealthy) through pharmaceutical manuals and urban apothecaries.

One of the main aspects of Paradise was abundant spices, valuable in commerce, cuisine, and medicine. Clear lines were drawn between “spices” and “herbs”, even if we now find all of them on the spice rack. In the seventh century St. Isidore, archbishop of Seville, made the distinction: “Spices are whatever India or Arabia or other regions produce that have a fragrant scent”. The herbals of Macer Floridus and Henry of Huntingdon both have separate sections for herbs and spices. Macer’s twelve spices were pepper, pellitory, ginger, cumin, galangal, zedoary, cloves, cinnamon, costus root, spikenard, frankincense, and aloe. Henry added several dozen more spices, but both authors were right: these spices did come from central and east Asia. As European knowledge of Asia grew, the spices moved farther away. In the fourteenth century the travel writer John Mandeville claimed that farther east than Eden itself is the land of Java where “there grow all manner of spices more abundantly than anywhere else, such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmegs, cedar and mace”. (For more on medieval spices, I recommend Paul Freedman’s 2008 book, Out of the East

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