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Doing Early Modern Drugs

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Points today welcomes the first in a series of guest posts by Matthew Crawford, Assistant Professor of the History of Science and Technology at Kent State University.  A historian of the early modern Atlantic World, he is at work on a book tentatively titled “A Cure for Empire: An American Wonder Drug, Enlightenment Science, and European Imperialism, 1750-1850.” Over the next few weeks, Crawford will draw Points readers deep into his area of specialization, the history of cinchona, the tree bark from which quinine is derived.  Today, however, he offers an overview of the changing pharmacopeias of the contact period and suggests some ways that drugs might help us think about modernity.

The centuries after Christopher Columbus’ encounter with the Americas must have been an exciting time for all kinds of drug users in the early modern world. As noted several decades ago by environmental historian Alfred Crosby, the encounter between Europe, the Americas and Africa after 1450 resulted in the intentional and unintentional movement and exchange of flora and fauna on a massive scale – a phenomenon that Crosby called the Columbian Exchange. One result of this process – in addition to the environmental and biological changes outlined by Crosby – was the expansion and enrichment of both European and American pharmacopoeias.

Cataloging the Global Pharmacopoeia: Leonhart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium, 1542

As geographer Robert Voeks has suggested, the “disturbance pharmacopoeias” that result from cross-cultural contact and exchange often make use of a broader variety of plant materials than the pharmacopoeias of the original cultures. Along with Crosby’s Columbian Exchange, there emerged what we might call a Columbian Drug Trade as well. During the early modern period in Europe, physicians, pharmacists, patients and other drug users gradually had access to many novel drugs including cacao, tobacco, ipecac, guaiacum, and, later, cinchona bark, which we now know contains the anti-malarial alkaloid, quinine. As other historians have noted, if we’re looking for the roots of the modern global drug trade, the early modern Atlantic World is a good place to look.

Drugs of the Disenchanted World

The use of substances to produce a change in one’s physiology or phenomenal experience of the world seems to be nearly universal, even if the cultural and social meanings assigned to ingestion of these substances varies substantially across time and space. Recent scholarship on drug use in different social and cultural contexts has explored the contrasts between drug use in modern societies and drugs use in indigenous or traditional societies.  Modern drug use tends to be secular and utilitarian. People ingest substances to cure a disease, experience specific effects, or simply help them wake up in the morning. It is commonly associated with the societies of Western Europe and the United States, especially during and after the Industrial Revolution. Traditional drug use tends to be more socially and culturally significant. As anthropologists have observed, some drugs are a constitutive part of the identity and culture of indigenous societies through the vital role that they play in the ritual and spiritual life of these societies. At times, these different understandings and uses of drugs have created conflict between indigenous groups and so-called “modern” societies, as in the cases of peyote use among some Native Americans in North America and the chewing of coca among the Quechua peoples in various regions of South America.

Here, I have cast the distinctions between “modern” and “traditional” drug understanding and drug use in the starkest and simplest terms. Human reality is, as we know, much more complex. If, as some recent posts on Points suggest, there are cases that challenge the distinctions between “modern” and “traditional” drug use in our own time, such distinctions are even more difficult to discern in the early modern world. And it was probably during this period that such distinctions in drug use emerged in connection with the advent of mechanical and chemical philosophies in medicine – philosophies that increasingly treated the body and health as the products of natural processes rather than supernatural influences. The history of the emergence of the distinction between “modern” and “traditional” drug use is yet to be written.  Nonetheless, such a history might shed light on some interesting questions. For example, we might ask: to what extent did the very idea of “modern,” secular drug use versus “traditional,” spiritual drug use play a role in constituting the very notions of “modern” or “Western”versus “traditional” or “indigenous”? The early modern period seems a fruitful period for investigating such questions because it was in these centuries that these notions emerged, developed and to a lesser extent crystallized.

Medicinal Plant: Voynich Manuscript, ca. late-15th c., Beinecke Library, Yale University

In terms of the available drugs, anthropologists and historians have noted that at the moment of contact Amerindian societies had a distinctive suite of plant-derived drugs relative to those used in European societies. This is an important and fundamental, if overlooked, difference.  If the bio-geographical distribution of these plants is any indicator, Amerindians had a much greater variety of hallucinogenic plants available to them than did their European counterparts.  Richard Schultes, a pioneer of ethnobotany, and his students found that New World plant species account for approximately 83% (100 of 120) of the world’s hallucinogenic plant species while the Old World is home to the remainder. With virtually every new indigenous group that Europeans encountered in the Americas, they learned of a new plant-based drug that had some medicinal use or hallucinogenic property.

In spite of this difference, we find that the drugs of various groups in the Atlantic World – European, Amerindian, and African – had a similar materiality.  Even if these groups attached different meanings to these substances, the material experience of drugs was remarkably similar on all three continents. An early modern “drug” was quite different from the modern “drugs” developed primarily in Western Europe and North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is the production and physical composition of early modern drugs that most distinguishes them from those that many of us in the developed world encounter, especially those offered and recognized by medical professionals and major pharmaceutical companies.

One thing to recognize about early modern drugs is that they were what we might call more “natural.” By that I mean that they were much more directly the products of forest and field than of the laboratory. Consider the practices of pharmacies and pharmacists. As noted by Paula De Vos, the early modern period was one in which medical practitioners considered pharmacy to be more of an art, allied to cooking, than a science. An early modern pharmacist’s expertise derived from the ability to identify and select raw materials – plant, animal and mineral – and to manipulate those materials effectively. This is in striking contrast to the modern pharmacist, whose expertise derives from knowledge of the precise chemical composition and physiological effects of a given drug, which is likely synthesized in a laboratory rather than gathered from the local wood. It was only in the nineteenth century that medicine and allied fields became lab sciences and laboratory-based enterprises. For all intents and purposes, the alkaloids that form part of our technical and popular understandings of drugs after 1850 did not exist in the early modern period: people simply did not think of drugs in that way.  Many medical practitioners did believe that plants and minerals had some special properties or “virtues” that gave them their curative powers or other abilities to affect the human body.

"Guiacum and Venereal Disease: Drinking that concoction of the tree will relieve the weak limbs weighted down by this disease." Johannes Stradanus, Nova Reperta (Plate 6), early 1580s

But early modern scientific and medical theories diverged significantly from our own understandings of chemical compounds and their physiological effects. This is not to say that early modern people were stupid or ignorant. They just had a different way of thinking about drugs, about the body, about illness, about health, and about how drugs acted on the body (and the mind).

And that is the other thing to recognize about early modern drugs – even those in Europe, the site of such paragons of modernization as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: their place in the mentalities and cultures of the time was quite different from our own. In light of recent scholarship, I would suggest that early modern European understandings of plant parts and their actions were quite similar to the understandings possessed by the various societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia with whom Europeans interacted in the processes of colonization and commercial expansion. Recent work by Ralph Bauer suggests that certain strains of Renaissance European thought – notably those that championed occult philosophy – were more similar to Amerindian worldviews than previously recognized. In addition, anthropologists have noted (and debated) the prevalence of humoral theories of disease and medicine across many different societies and cultures. It was probably the similarities in European and Amerindian worldviews that facilitated the assimilation and exchange of some (but not all) drugs between cultures in the early centuries of colonial expansion. In this way, early modern drugs may have had a flexibility that allowed them to cross borders more easily than modern drugs do today.

El Tabaco: the Drug that Started it All. Nicolas Monardes, Primera y Segunda y Tercera Partes de la Historia Medicinal, 1580

This post has tried to provide a brief and provisional introduction to drugs in the early modern world. As a class of phenomena, drugs have not received much specific attention within the historical narratives of the larger processes of the Columbian Exchange, the emergence of the Atlantic World, European colonization and commercial expansion in the early modern world. Further attention to drugs in this era may be a benefit not just to early modernists but also to historians of drugs in the modern world. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch (among others) noted with regard to the trade in spices, drugs and other luxury items, new patterns of production, consumption and circulation of drugs emerged in the early modern period and these changes had a formative influence on the experience and understandings of drugs in the centuries that followed.


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