Types of Therapeutics

There were numerous ways of preparing and administering remedies. Early modern syrups were sweet, viscous herbal concoctions administered orally. Ointments, balms, and liniments consisted of medicinal ingredients suspended in a base of butter or suet that were smeared on the body to bring relief to afflicted parts. Pills – softer than the ones we take today, but still an easy way to take a pre-measured amount of medicine – were another option. While the composition of these medicines has evolved over time, the concept behind them is familiar.

Sometimes, the remedies used by early modern Europeans were substances that are now used for purely culinary purposes. For example, we often use conserves (a kind of thick, chunky jam) as a spread for toast because it tastes good. But hundreds of years ago, conserves were thought to have medicinal qualities due to the intrinsic hot or cold properties of the ingredients used to make them.

Another modern consumable that has medicinal origins is the julep. While mint juleps are a cocktail we associate with Kentucky Derby parties, juleps were originally a means of making medicine more palatable.

Some early modern remedies go by names that are unfamiliar to us. These include:

  • Cerats/Emplasters: these were essentially thicker, stickier versions of ointments and liniments, with emplasters being a bit more solid than a cerat. Wines, juices, herbs, and minerals were all added for a medicinal effect; while wax, gum, and rosin – or sometimes more questionable substances, like lead monoxide – were used to create the appropriate consistency. The thicker texture of cerats and emplasters supposedly made them more effective than the gentler ointments. These are sometimes referred to as unguents.
  • Colleries: the term collerie usually referred to a powdered medicine used to treat eye ailments, but it could also be used for a number of liquid medicines containing liquors and powders that were administered for fistulas and ulcers.
  • Fomentations: these were hot, moist substances used to relax and assuage pain. They were usually made by boiling roots, seeds, and flowers in wine.
  • Fumigation: think of this as a kind of medicinal incense. The fumes released by burning medicinal substances were believed to have therapeutic effects on distressed body parts. Tubes and funnels were used to direct these fumes to the appropriate organs. For example, fumes inhaled through the mouth were used to treat disorders of the brain, but fumes could also be directed into the ear or the uterus.
  • Electuaries: these were made by mixing powdered herbs with honey to form a thick mixture that could either be taken as it was or dissolved in wine. Sometimes the base consisted of sugar or syrup, and wine was sometimes added to it.
  • Glysters: this was the early modern term for an enema.

One type of therapeutic that became particularly widespread during the 16th and 17th centuries was distilled waters and spirits. These remedies had their roots in iatrochemsitry, or medical chemistry. Iatrochemistry was closely related to the practice of alchemy, the goal of which was to create the philosopher’s stone. This could theoretically be accomplished by chemical means, and alchemists had a keen interest in chemical processes such as sublimation and distillation.

Distillation had particularly strong applications in medicine. The goal of distillation was to extract a substance’s quintessence, or its strongest possible essence, which could produce miraculous effects. The quintessence of wine was believed to be the most powerful medical distillation, due to its alleged qualities of incorruptibility, but other materia medica could also be coaxed to give up a concentrated version of its properties.

Making distilled remedies often called for special equipment. It required a furnace, usually made of brick or clay, which was ideally round in order to allow the heat to dissipate evenly; and a special kind of vessel called an alembic. Alembics consisted of a pot that held the material to be distilled, a cap that would capture the vapors, and a long tube that extended down into the receiver. Sometimes retorts, a type of alembic where the pot and cap were part of a continuous whole, were also used. The best vessels were made out of glass.

The basic distillation process was straightforward. The substance to be distilled was placed in the pot of the alembic, heat was applied, and the vapors funneled down into the receiver, where they formed a concentrated liquid. These distilled waters could be used in a variety of ways. The most common thing was to simply drink them, but they could also be applied to the skin, or mixed with powders to form a paste.

While distilled remedies required a bit more effort to prepare, they could still be part of the everyday medicine chest. The household inventory of Englishwoman Elizabeth Freke (1641-1714) included distillation equipment, and the German noblewomen Anna of Saxony and Dorothea Manfeld (1493-1578) both used distillation to manufacture medicinal waters.

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