Stocking the Medicine Cabinet

The maladies that affected early modern people were often the same ones that affect us today: sore throats, runny noses, fevers, aches and pains, bruises and bumps, facial acne. Sometimes, however, the terminology used to describe ailments are unfamiliar to us. Abscesses were often referred to as apostems. The illness that we refer to as a cold was often called catarrh. The King’s Evil was a poetic way of describing scrofula, a disease that causes the glands in the neck to swell. Ailments were also described in somewhat vague terms. Texts often refer to the internal organs being hard, cold, or hot; or they might describe stoppages or blockages that needed to be eased. This relates back to the humoral concept of medicine and the need to keep everything in balance, including bodily fluids and internal temperatures.

Early modern Europeans had a number of options when it came time to treat these various maladies. Some remedies were meant to be used for one specific ailment, while others could be applied under a variety of circumstances. Some – such as distilled waters or ointments – had a relatively long shelf life, while others needed to be consumed or applied immediately.

Remedies could be purchased from an apothecary or prepared at home. Households with their own kitchen gardens would have been able to make use of herbs and fruits that they grew themselves, and purchase other ingredients such as resins, gemstones, and metals.

Early Modern Measurements

Early modern medical recipes often use measurements that are unfamiliar to us. Sometimes these were very imprecise, e.g. a handful, a finger’s worth, “enough as is necessary,” but recipes often used apothecaries’ weights. This system – which had variations based on country and even region – was used from the Middle Ages up to the point when the metric system achieved dominance in the 19th century.

Here are some of the unusual measurements that appear in this exhibit:
Dram: this was usually about 4 grams.
Scruple: one third of a dram, or about 1 ½ grams.
Lot (Loth): the exact amount of a lot varied somewhat from region to region, but it was usually between 15 and 18 grams.
Nössel: this was roughly equivalent to one American pint.
Quentgen: this word derives from the Latin word “quentius,” meaning one fifth of the whole. One quentgen was therefore one fifth of whatever the whole was, usually taken to be a loth.
Pugil: a pinch or a small handful.

Many of the recipes also call for liquids measured in pounds. Today, we usually think of pounds as a unit for measuring dry ingredients; however, this was not always a firm division.

Continue – John French