Sunday, June 15, 2008

Remedies and Recipes

Renaissance apothecaries compounded a vast array of medicines to treat the aches and pains early modern life. Monique Rossignol, in her book Medecine et medicaments au XVIe siècle à Lyon [Medicine and Medications in Sixteenth Century Lyon] (PUL 1990), describes four sorts of medicines popular during the Renaissance: those of human origin, derived from feces, urine, saliva, ear wax, and the like; those of animal origin, made from the milk, droppings, urine, fat, and body parts of beasts; vegetal medicines, compounded from herbs and other plants; and mineral medicines, fashioned from elemental matter. 

Medicines of human origin are probably the most repugnant to our contemporary sensibilities. Renaissance doctors and druggists relied heavily on human excrement, ingested as well as applied externally, for various cures. In this they followed the example of the doctors of antiquity, who prescribed a mixture of dried children's feces and honey for inflammation of the throat. But Renaissance doctors did not stop at excrement: they used a combination of mud and ear wax to cure migraine and applied saliva, preferably that of a "fasting young man" on dog bites and itchy rashes. Human blood was considered an excellent fortifier; weak patients were given blood to drink, while lepers soaked their limbs in tubs of blood. (I imagine with blood-letting being one of the most popular treatments for a variety of ailments, it wasn't difficult for apothecaries to provide the ingredients for these fortifying drinks.)

Medicines of animal origin were equally inventive. Dog turds were considered remarkable for treating pleurisy and colic; pig urine lowered fevers. Crow droppings dissolved in wine were good for dysentery; the chopped meat of geese and "well nourished kittens," roasted and distilled, cured jaundice. Ground unicorn horns from India and Ethiopia (!) were of great repute for treating plague, rabies and scorpion bites. Even in the sixteenth century, viper's venom was known to be a powerful antidote to the bites of poisonous animals and was used to combat the effects of poisonous plants. All parts of the viper, not only the venom, were used in various cures; the bodies were dried, then pulverized and mixed with wine and other ingredients.

The pharmacological properties of plants were well known to Renaissance healers. Apothecaries mixed innumerable aperitifs, digestifs, purges, and simples. Exotic herbs and spices from all over Africa and the Far East entered France through Lyon and found their way onto apothecaries' shelves. Tobacco was introduced into Europe by Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century and was consumed in many different forms: as oil, salt, syrup, perfume, water, leaves and powder. Smoking tobacco was considered useful for strengthening the memory, curing cataracts, and mitigating headaches and asthma. Tobacco oil was used on pimples; dropped in the ears it cured deafness. Tobacco salt whitened teeth; tobacco syrup arrested colds. Other plant products much used in medications included pepper, ginger, saffron, almonds, and fennel. Chewing on cloves relieved toothaches, a remedy Jollande's mother-in-law relies on in The Measure of Silence.

As for inorganic medications, soluble salts of gold, silver, sulfur and mercury were used as elixirs for long life. Copper was used for stomach ailments; iron dissolved in vinegar soothed ulcers. Mercury, mixed with butter, killed lice; it was mixed with vinegar and oil and drunk as a treatment for syphilis. Precious stones such as agate, emeralds, onyx and pearls were ground and swallowed as powders or mixed into sauces.

As you can see, the range of medications in the sixteenth century ran the gamut from useful and effective to outrageous and downright harmful. Apothecaries and doctors had their favorite cures which they prescribed based on their clinical experience. As the printing industry expanded, noted doctors and apothecaries began publishing books of their "recipes" for the benefit of others in the field. I'll leave you, as promised, with apothecary Jean Liébault's recipe for earthworm oil:

"Take a half measure of earthworms, wash them diligently in white wine, then cook them in two measures of olive oil and a bit of red wine, until the wine is consumed, then pour off and squeeze out the entirety and save the oil. It would be even better to put other worms in this oil and leave them there as long as the oil lasts. This oil is singular for comforting cold nerves and for joint pain." (quoted in Rossignol, p. 111; translation mine)

I think I'll stick with ibuprofen.

(All of the factual information in this post was taken from Chapter Six of Rossignol's informative book.)

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Heehee! Remind me not to read your posts before breakfast! I can't help but notice, there has been some research going on here, could this possibly be a clue as to the plot of the upcoming book...?hmmmmmmm. Renee

Catherine Delors said...

Well, Julianne, glad to hear that you are already feeling better.

Now, as for old-fashioned treatments, about leeches around the anus? No kidding, that was the remedy applied in 1800 to one of the "terrorists" in my second novel. He had suffered a concussion after the explosion of the bomb he had set off. That, and a good ole bleeding, and he felt like new!

Feel free not to post this, and best wishes of recovery.

Catherine Delors said...

It's not a bleeding, of course, it's a bloodletting. I am losing my English here in Paris, as my son likes to remind me...

Julianne Douglas said...

Renee--No, the new book doesn't have anything particular to do with medicine. The recent forays into medical history were all motivated by my mishap. Actually, I'd done most of it for TMOS, then wound up not using it.

Catherine--An interesting placement for the leeches to treat a concussion! And don't worry about your English--if only my French were as good!

Mariya Joan said...

So is all of this information fake, or is all of it true? I am doing aa project on Renaissance medicine and i really need some info.

Julianne Douglas said...

The information was taken from a scholarly work cited at the beginning of the article, so it should be trustworthy. You should try to get hold of the book itself if you are doing research.

Mariya Joan said...

Okay, thank you very much, this has helped a lot!

Julianne Douglas said...

You're welcome! Glad it helped.

Joe Revelator said...

Was having trouble getting a grasp on Renaissance Apothecaries. Thanks for this.