Friday 6 March 2020

'The Cure for Every Plague and Poison' by Karen Maitland

The Apothecary (circa 1752)
Artist: Pietro Longhi (1701-1785)
Of all the dangers that daily surrounded our ancestors the one that seem to strike dread into the hearts of the upper classes was the fear of being poisoned, and throughout history the search for a universal antidote against poison obsessed them as much the search for gold, the alchemist's stone or the Holy Grail.

Legend has it that the first universal antidote, known as Mithridate, was invented by Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (NE Turkey), who reigned from 120BCE, enthroned when he was just thirteen. He was terrified of being assassinated by poisoning, as other members of his family had been, and attempted to create an antidote to all poisons and venoms, as well as to the ‘systemic poisons’ which developed inside the body and were thought to be the cause of illness.

He first experimented with a number of single ingredients as antidotes to individual poisons by trying them out on condemned criminals. Then combined all the effective substances into one antidote, to produce a universal prophylactic against poisons and plagues, which he consumed daily. He believed that the interaction between the blended ingredients as they matured resulted in far greater healing properties than consuming any of the individual antidotes alone. Legend has it that it proved so effective that when, in 63BCE, he eventually tried to commit suicide using poison to avoid the humiliation of being taken prisoner, the poison had no effect and he was forced to ask his bodyguard to stab him.
Image on a coin of Mithridate VI

His records fell into the hands of the Roman conquerors of Pontus and Roman medici began to use them. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and honey, along with some forty other ingredients including many herbs, roasted copper, sea squills and beaver castoreum. Andromachus, Nero's physician, is said to have removed some ingredients such as lizard from Mithridates’ concoction and added others, particularly viper's flesh. He called his new recipe ‘Galene’, ‘tranquillity’. Galene became known as ‘theriac’. Andromachus ‘improved’ upon mithridate by bringing the total number of ingredients to sixty-four.

Theriac took at least forty days to make and was supposed to be left for twelve years to mature, though the Emperor Marcus Aurelius apparently couldn’t wait that long and consumed after it had matured for only two months without any harm.
Sea Squills or Sea Onion (Drimia maritima)
Photo: Zeynel Cebeci

Theriac was usually swallowed with wine or dragon water (distilled from dragon-wort, polygonum bistorta, also known as Snake-weed or Bistort), but could instead be rubbed on the skin or eyes, which was advised particularly when being administered to babies and young children. It was used to treat malaria and also a plaster to heal venomous stings or bites. The 11th century Saxon leech book of Bald claims that in 9th century, Abel the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent theriac to King Alfred the Great and the book also includes a recipe for theriac.

The writings of the Greek and Roman physicians and alchemists re-emerged in Italy via Islamic scholars, who introduced them to the great medical universities such a Salerno. By 12th century, theriac was being produced in Venice and exported all over Europe. In England, it was called ‘Venetian treacle’, treacle being a corruption of theriac. It was used widely in Europe in the Middle Ages in an attempt to ward off or cure the Black Death.
Dragon-wort (Polygonum bistorta)
Photo: Muriel Bendel

But the cities of Bologna, Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo, Genoa, Padua and Milan also competed to produce the best theriac from their own recipes and such was its value and importance that theriac was prepared in public with elaborate ceremony, so that potential customers could be assured that all the ingredients claimed to be in it had been added. If it failed to cure, the apothecary who had made it was held responsible for not having prepared it correctly and could be punished by the authorities.

Mummy’ made from ground-up human corpses mummified in Ancient Egypt was added to many theriac recipes during the Middle Ages, as that too had come to be regarded as a universal panacea and the tombs of Middle East were ransacked by Syrian merchants to keep up with the demand. When these became scarce, merchants and apothecaries were forced to use modern cadavers. The herbalist, John Parkinson, (1567-1650) maintained that the best mummy was obtained from bodies embalmed in the Egyptian manner, but Oswald Croll (1580-1609) recommended making mummy from hanged felons, preferably of ruddy complexion and around 24 years old.
Egyptian Mummy - Louvre Museum
Photo: Dada

In London in July 1586, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Master and Wardens of Grocers Hall discovered ‘Jeane Triacle’ (Genoa treacle) being sold, which they found to be
‘unwholesome, being compounded by certain rude and unskilful men.’
As a result, they petitioned that the recipe for theriac’s proper manufacture should be kept on record at Grocer’s Hall and preparation of this treacle in London was entrusted to only one of their members, William Besse, an apothecary. He had the monopoly for the whole of London and seven miles around. This attempt at regulation by the Grocer’s guild had the effect of stimulating a flourishing illicit trade in unlicensed mithridate and theriac, and a great many more ‘unwholesome’ treacles were sold behind the backs of authorities. Human nature never changes, nor does our ending search for the wonder drugs which will cure all.
'The Village Apothecary' (who keeps his face masked)
Artist: David Tenier the Younger (1610-1690)

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