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:
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.