If you came to a medieval physician with a problem such a trembling heart or melancholy, he may give you gold as part of your cure.
Insights about this metal as medicine are detailed by Renzo Console in his recent article ‘Pharmaceutical use of gold from antiquity to the seventeenth century’. It notes that while writers from antiquity rarely mentioned gold as medicine, many do in the Middle Ages, including Rhazes, Avicenna, Constantinus Africanus, Gilbertus Anglicus, Bernard Gordon and even Geoffrey Chaucer. Console notes that medieval medical practitioners believed that various metals possessed some kind of healing properties, and that gold, being “regarded for centuries as the perfect and most precious metal” was very effective against diseases of the brain and heart. For example, Constantinus Africanus, who lectured at the medical school in Salerno in the eleventh century, gave this opinion:
Gold is more temperate than the other metals. It has the property of relieving a defective stomach and comforts the fearful and those who suffer from a heart complaint. Galen confirms that it is effective against melancholy and baldness.
To make gold useful as medicine, one needed to get very small pieces, known as filings. The Arab physician Abulcasis (c.936-1013), living in Cordova, offers this explanation on how this was done:
Take a piece of good and pure gold; and have a plate with pure sweet water in front of you; and have a rough clean cloth of flax, one end of which you keep in your hand. The other end should stay soaking in water on the bottom of the plate. Then rub gold with the cloth, always moistening the cloth with water, and fine filings descend to the bottom of the container. Do so as long as much of that gold as you want to have been shaved. Then leave for an hour; and mix water speedily and wash three times and dry up and preserve it. Do the same thing with silver. And there are some who shave the filings thinly and then use them.
The gold could then be added with other ingredients to make a pharmaceutical medicine. Some medicinal recipes involving gold were exceedingly complex, including this one from the 16th century that was supposedly effective against diseases of the eye, leprosy, “all blemishes of the body” and could even help preserve youth:
Take the filings of silver, copper, iron, lead, steal, gold, calamine of silver and of gold, storax, in accordance with the activity or inactivity of the patient. Place them in the urine of a virgin child on the first day, on the second day in warm white wine, on the third day in the juice of fennel, on the fourth day in egg whites, on the fifth day in the milk of a woman nursing a girl, on the sixth in red wine, on the seventh in egg whites. And place everything in a bell shaped distillation tool and distil on a slow fire; and keep what you have distilled in a gold or silver vessel.
Gold was the preferred metal for cauterizing wounds. Serapion the Younger mentions that “when we cauterize with it its use does not cause blisters, and the healing is faster and better.” The use of gold in medicine continued into the Early Modern period, and various pills began to be gilded with gold, not necessarily for their medicinal properties, but rather to “hide their bad taste or offensive aroma.” However, by the eighteenth-century the physicians and pharmacists were becoming skeptical of the medical value of gold, and it gradually declined in use.
It is still found in one modern drug – Myocrisin, in which an injectable form of the precious metal is used against rheumatoid arthritis and progressive juvenile chronic arthritis. The article ‘Pharmaceutical use of gold from antiquity to the seventeenth century’ appears in A History of Geology and Medicine, a collection of essays published in 2013 by The Geological Society. Based on a conference from 2011, it us the first ever volume dedicated to the examining how rocks, minerals, fossils and earths have been used therapeutically since earliest times.