WESTERN EUROPE, 1100
An apothecary was a busy place in medieval times since it was where substances used in medicine were sold to patients, physicians and surgeons. Apothecaries were, to a great extent, the predecessor to modern pharmacists, mixing the smallest of quantities of herbs and spices to create treatments while offering medical advice and carrying out a small range of services.
It could be imagined to be a place of wonder and hope with shelves packed full of jars and vials filled with powders and liquids. The air would be filled with the scent of exotic spices and some apothecaries would work hard to maintain a feeling of mystique.
They wanted people to feel both amazed and reassured that the sometimes off-beat ingredients (fat, flayed cats, hedgehog grease, bear fat and virgin wax were involved in treatments for throat infections) would do them great good and encourage a purchase.
The shops could be found across Europe, where streets were often named after them, especially when a handful existed side-by-side (Apothecary Street in London is one such case). For those who worked in them, there was much pressure, particularly as demands for cures grew and greater quantities of ingredients became necessary. Apothecaries could be blamed if a patient’s condition did not improve – but they were seldom thanked if it did.
It didn’t seem to matter that apothecaries did not have any formal training to begin with (examinations were introduced in the 15th century). Indeed, there were many cases where apothecaries would have dual roles, perhaps doubling as a barber or even performing surgery.
It was not unusual for medicine to be done
‘on the side’, either, since the shops would sell perfumes, items for food, wines for general consumption and even stationary. Neither, come to that, was it rare for apothecaries to give advice or even diagnose illness even though the law stated their role was purely to supply medicine. Few found themselves prosecuted.
Initially, apothecaries would cultivate their own plants and herbs in a garden plot outside. This would help them to cut down on costs and ensure that there was enough supply to produce the necessary treatments. As time went on and demand rose, they would purchase their ingredients from a growing number of suppliers. As well as helping people back to health, an apothecary would make and sell perfume and other beauty products in much the same way as a modernday pharmacy. Often ingredients would have a dual use. Tragacanth, a natural gum taken from the dried sap of Middle Eastern legumes, for example, was used in both a perfume and cough medicine. Typically, an apothecary would also have live animals at his disposal, although perhaps not always permanently on the premises (to aid gout, for instance, an owl was plucked clean, opened, salted, cooked and pounded with boar’s grease). Medieval cures for burns involved rubbing the slime of live snails on a wound and, once again, that also had some scientific grounding: the slime has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibiotic properties.