Were medieval drugs effective at helping patients? Can modern pharmaceuticals make use of their knowledge? These issues were looked at a lecture, ‘Modern Science on Medieval Drugs: New Approaches to the History of Pharmacy’, given last week by Nick Everett, an associate professor of history and religion at the University of Toronto.
Everett, who last year published The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, has turned his attention to compound drugs developed in the medieval period – those made from a variety of ingredients. For example, the Antidotarium Nicolai, written by Nicholas of Salerno in the mid-twelfth century, contains over a hundred recipes (the word ‘recipe’ actually comes from this text). Everett refers to this text as the “bible for medieval compound pharmaceuticals,” and notes how important it became throughout the medieval world – it was even mandatory reading for medical students in Paris by the 1270s.
The recipes found in this text often have a large number of ingredients, some of which originated as far Sri Lanka or Indonesia. For example Diamargeriton, which was used to treat illnesses of the heart or stomach, included cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, liquorice, deerheart bones, ginger, pearls, and fragrant onyx. Meanwhile, Requies Magna (which means Great Rest) contained opium, mandrake, henbane and deadly nightshade. This drug, which was given to patients to let them sleep, contained about the same amount of opium that is used in modern-day morphine. The text describing the drug even has its own safety warning: “it is given to men who are almost healthy, they must eat or dine a lot in a timely manner.”
Everett notes that modern science has found that some of the plants mentioned in these medieval texts have proven to be effective medicines. Besides being the main drug in morphine, opium offers several other treatments, such as reducing constipation, relieving diarrhoea and helps prevent coughing. Another more common product – pepper – has anti-asthmatic properties, and enhances the effectiveness of other drugs.
Many of these medieval drugs offered much nutritional help too. Garlic, cabbage and especially pomegranates often turned up in these compounds, and would have been a strong Vitamin C boost to the patient. Meanwhile, those who took in a medicine that contained barley grains would have also got a dose of thiamine.
Researchers are just now exploring the possibilities found in ancient and medieval medicines. In the 1970s, Chinese scientists created the medicine artemisinin, one of the most effective drugs against malaria. It comes from the plant Sweet Wormwood, which in Chinese texts dating back over 2000 years was prescribed for malaria and skin diseases. More recently, scientists in the United Kingdom and Mexico found that Anglo-Saxon medical recipes to treat wounds and infections were also effective.
Everett hopes that the scientific and pharmaceutical communities will start to rediscover what is found in historical texts, and explore more seriously what medical value these recipes and their parts have to fight against illness and disease.