Poison, Medicine, and the Medieval Apothecary

Poison, Medicine, and the Medieval Apothecary

Session: Poison and Medicine in the Fourteenth Century

By Marie A. Kelleher, California State Univ.–Long Beach

This paper explored the role of the medieval apothecary as a semi-medical agent and merchant. It also examined how apothecaries were viewed by the authorities and the rules developed surrounding their profession. Was the apothecary a merchant or medical practitioner?

The 14th century was the “golden age” of poison and concern over being poisoned….

In 1374, a merchant purchases white vinegar from a friend (Perra Terassa) and asks for arsenic to ‘take care of a rat problem’. Arnau really wished to use it to murder his wife, Antonia as he suspected his wife had tried to poison him at an earlier date.

Was the apothecary a merchant or medical man? The profession was ambiguous at best; dual names like ‘spice seller’ and ‘apothecary’ were mingled due to the cross over of spices and drugs being sold in the same place; i.e., arsenic could be used to cure as well as to kill. There were two types of drugs sold in apothecaries, ‘simples’, which consisted of one ingredient, and ‘compounds’, mixtures of ingredients. Was the apothecary a simple shopkeeper or a medical professional? The apothecary trade may have been between professionals.

In Barcelona during the 1370′s there were no formal guilds but spice sellers (a.k.a apothecaries) congregated in a certain area, i.e., all the shops were located close together. This indicated a professional self-identity, but what was that identity? Donations could also be tied to identity, as donations were often made to the same churches and monasteries. Groups often patronized a certain religious centre demonstrating their identification as a community.

In Barcelona, apothecaries identified themselves as sellers of rare goods and only later as medical professionals. They were the targets of special legislation in 1372 and 1373; no spice seller or shop keeper, or his wife, or shop assistants could sell arsenic to anyone other than a medical professional. Perra Terassa must have known this and thus explaining  his attempt to recover the arsenic from Arsenau; the fine was very steep, 500 sous. The regulations were aimed at shopkeepers who viewed themselves solely as merchants who kept dangerous spices which was a great source of anxiety due to the unintentional or careless actions by apothecaries. The perceived necessity of these controls showed awareness and axiety of the fuzzy line of these semi-medical men who sold dangerous goods as well as spices and perfumes. They were perceived as lacking professional medical training. Foreign spice sellers had to prove they were plying their trade for at least 10 years before being given license to practice in Barcelona.

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