Medieval European Medicine and Asian Spices
By Jong Kuk Nam
Korean Journal of Medical History, Volume 23, Number 2, 2014
Abstract: This article aimed to explain the reasons why Asian spices including pepper, ginger, and cinnamon were considered as special and valuable drugs with curative powers in the Medieval Europe. Among these spices, pepper was most widely and frequently used as medicine according to medieval medical textbooks.
We analyzed three main pharmacology books written during the Middle Ages. One of the main reasons that oriental spices were widely used as medicine was due to the particular medieval medical system fundamentally based on the humoral theory invented by Hippocrates and Galen. This theory was modified by Arab physicians and imported to Europe during the Middle Ages. According to this theory, health is determined by the balance of the following four humors which compose the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Each humor has its own qualities such as cold, hot, wet, and dry.
Humoral imbalance was one of the main causes of disease, so it was important to have humoral equilibrium. Asian spices with hot and dry qualities were used to balance the cold and wet European diet. The analysis of several major medical textbooks of the Middle Ages proves that most of the oriental spices with hot and dry qualities were employed to cure diverse diseases, particularly those caused by coldness and humidity.
However, it should be noted that the oriental spices were considered to be much more valuable and effective as medicines than the local medicinal ingredients, which were not only easily procured but also were relatively cheap. Europeans mystified oriental spices, with the belief that they have marvelous and mysterious healing powers. Such mystification was related to the terrestrial Paradise. They believed that the oriental spices were grown in Paradise which was located in the Far East and were brought to the Earthly world along the four rivers flowing from the Paradise.