All About History - - MEDIEVAL MEDICINE -

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.

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