Author Topic: Turning Herbs into Drugs in the Middle Ages  (Read 944 times)

Alexandros Kokkinos

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Turning Herbs into Drugs in the Middle Ages
« on: 07 July, 2016, 06:36:16 PM »
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).

This illumination of ca. 1325 from
an antidotary called “Circa instans”
shows a customer inquiring about a drug from a pharmacist.
No natural substances are shown, and drugs have been
confined to a series of jars. London, British Library,
ms Sloane 1977, fol 49v.
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’?
Medieval pharmacy until the twelfth century was based on ‘simples’, single ingredients (herbs, spices, stones, animal parts) whose properties could be learned through apprenticeship or, for the literate, from a ancient and early medieval herbals, like the seventh-century Alphabet of Galen. Recipes survive which call for multiple ingredients, but most cures were dependent on these simples, usually from local plants, well known and easily obtained.

What was new after ca. 1100 was the notion that a natural substance could be, and in fact should be, identified, collected, studied, modified, measured, and administered by professionals trained in the art of medicine or, later, pharmacy. The ingredients of drugs were still found in nature, like the old materia medica, but patients, physicians, and pharmacists came to expect these natural substances to be unlocked, and their secrets to be compounded, inhaled, applied, or injected for the purposes of healing or intoxication. This change in attitude can be seen in antidotaries, pharmaceutical texts providing recipes for compound medicines like theriac, which became popular after 1100, overshadowing though not replacing simple herbals in the Later Middle Ages.

Herbes to Season, Herbes to Cure: The Wellcome Library in London has (excitingly) digitized a huge chunk of their extensive library of ANTIQUE DOMESTIC “RECIPE” BOOKS & MANUSCRIPTS

« Last Edit: 07 July, 2016, 07:08:27 PM by Alexandros Kokkinos »