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The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages

The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages

By John M. Riddle

Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H.2 (1965)

Black Peppercorns

Introduction: Medical recipes are scattered in numerous manuscripts both in Latin and the vernacular. Many date from the so-called “dark ages”, that is, pre-Salernitan Europe before the first translations of the Islamic medical writings. Examination of the nature and sources of this early medieval recipe literature has disclosed an interesting connection with eastern drugs. The importance of this connection is grasped when we note that the large amounts of oriental products mentioned in western texts indicates both extensive trade contact and a type of communication about new drugs. This development comes prior to any known translations of medical texts and when, according to the old Perenne thesis, Europe was introverted and isolated from contact with the Islamic east.

Before launching this study it might be wise to make some introductory comments about the nature and content of the medieval recipe literature. Few existing manuscripts are completely devoted to the antidotaries and receptaries, words used to describe the Latin recipe literature, although numerous medical and non-medical manuscripts contain folios of prescriptions for all sorts of afflictions. The authorship is always anonymous. Sigerist and Jorimann agreed that the antidotaries were compiled by monks having some medical knowledge. Most recipes are derived directly out of the works ancient authors, especially Alexander of Tralles, Aetius or Amida, and Paul of Aegina, but not two antidotary or receptary are alike. Individuality and originality are present in so far as the compiler had to make the selection himself from the plentiful supply of prescriptions in ancient texts and, therewith, came person al judgment. Galen was the most named author, Hippocrates being in the background, but many classical names were attached to the prescriptions. Some have emperors’ names, e. g., Vespasian and Alexander of Macedonia, and other writers of the early middle ages, e. g., Afrodisius, Thomas, Gentilis, Neuclerius, and Eugenius. There is evidence that new material was translated from the Greek. Still some recipes cannot be attributed to extant classical works, and it is certain there were new additions. What we have in most cases are original compilations, Sigerist said, which the writer has gathered for the necessity of his monastic needs.

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