Apothecaries in the Middle Ages
May 14, 2008 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Any good reading about apothecaries in the middle ages?

I'm doing some research into what was stocked (herbs, leaches?), who ran them, what service apothecaries in the middle ages offered, superstitions, anything. Has anyone read any good books on the subject and recommend some? Can be historical fiction, but would prefer something academic.
posted by slyrabbit to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I know more about the 18th century (and only in Britain), but let's see if any of this helps. (For background.) Back then, there was no unified medical profession. You had apothecaries, you had physicians (the only ones really called doctors), you had barbers, and you (kind of) had surgeons. Apothecaries administered drugs (they really liked mercury preparations, but also used herbs, spices, and any sort of other substance thought to have a magical or medicinal quality). They also made poisons! Barbers used leeches, bled people, did dental work and minor surgeries, and generally made a mess of things. If a poor person was sick, they went to see a barber. Surgeons did, well, surgeries, and a lot of the things that barbers did, except that they usually had to train for a long time first (apprenticeships usually, until about 1750). (Barbering was a business, surgery was an art.) In 1540, an Act was passed that merged the barbers with the surgeons, a move that caused a lot of PR problems for the surgeons down the road. Physicians were the only respected position of all of these (because it was the least messy), and held more political clout than any of the other groups. That's a pretty important thing to understand before going into the sundry bits of the apothecary business.

Which, unfortunately, I know little about. Where to start, though: the idea of apothecaries was brought to Europe from the Arabs, and (I think) for a long time it was Muslims only who actually were the practitioners. A good place to start would be to find mentions popular texts (think Chaucer), and work backwards from the public opinion of them. Also, unless you have extensive knowledge of other languages, I would stick with Britain. Those people were anal about their records-keeping, which really helps us historians.
posted by phunniemee at 8:43 AM on May 14, 2008

The Midwife's Apprentice is young adult fiction. Definitely not academic, but an interesting read.
posted by PatoPata at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: Hildegard of Bingen's Medicine focuses on Hildegard, who wasn't an apothecary per se, but a really intellectual nun. She wrote on all sorts of topics.

This covers other medical practices aside from apothecaries.

Unrelated, but still good for what ails ya: Ale, Beer and Brewsters
posted by palindromic at 10:18 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Thackray Medical Museum have a big medical library with all sorts of stuff in it. Here's the relevant page on their website - if you can't get down to see them in person (Leeds, England) then it might be worth emailing to see if they can help you find some resources. They have students using their library so it's the right place to go if you want academic!
posted by cardamine at 12:12 PM on May 14, 2008

This might not be quite the time period you're looking for, but this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet (Act 5, Scene 1) offers some insight:

I do remember an apothecary,--
And hereabouts he dwells,--which late I noted
In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.
Noting this penury, to myself I said
'An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.'

Sorry it's not more academic, but I had to memorize this in 9th grade and your question reminded me!
posted by Jemstar at 8:15 PM on May 14, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everyone! I wanted the information for a little comic I'm writing. I'll post it up when I finish it. Wanted basic information and lots of illustrations, so I will check out all the books mentioned, and try to get to Leeds. Nice bit of imagery Jemstar!
posted by slyrabbit at 2:45 AM on May 15, 2008

In the early Middle Ages, apothecaries were often known as 'spicers' or 'pepperers' because the main part of their business was the import, weighing and distribution of spices (e.g. pepper, ginger, cloves, saffron, sugar). The word 'apothecary' (from 'apotheca', the place where wine, spices and herbs were stored) first came into use in England in the thirteenth century. The leading apothecaries dealt in a wide range of goods -- spices and spiced wines, medicines and ointments, sweets and confectionery, perfumes and cosmetics. Basically, the apothecaries dealt in anything that had to be weighed out in small quantities -- as opposed to the grocers, who dealt in heavy goods (hence the name 'grocer', from peso grosso, the standard measure by which heavy goods were weighed). In the late Middle Ages there were frequent squabbles between the two groups, as the grocers tried to muscle in on the apothecaries' business.

For a helpful guide to what you might find in a fourteenth-century apothecary's shop, see Leslie Matthews's article, King John of France and the English Spicers, published in the journal Medical History in 1961 (and now available for free on the Internet, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust). This lists the spices and drugs supplied by John Donat, spicer-apothecary of London, to King John of France during his imprisonment in England in 1359-60. Spices include anise, caraway, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, grains of paradise and pepper. Drugs include 'Alexandrian Stone' (zinc oxide, used in ointments), balsam, camphor, rhubarb, sandalwood and spikenard. Then there was sugar (lots of it), honey, olive oil, nuts, and much else besides, as well as several mysterious items that Matthews can't identify, such as 'diaire azon', 'saudre batu' and 'rout plon'. Note the international scope of the spice trade (e.g. the grains of paradise came from West Africa, the sandalwood from India).
posted by verstegan at 2:54 PM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

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