[this used to be 3600+ words long. I’ve cut it to 1,000 , but it’s otherwise unchanged 19/04/2015]
Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on medieval ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ and not enough on medieval doing. (p.198)
Riddle made this remark towards the end of an important article, written now almost fifty years ago* but no less valuable today.
* John M.Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H.2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.
Goitein’s translations and other works illuminating the history of the ‘silk roads’ – such as Himanshu Ray’s – had not been published when Riddle wrote in 1965. The content of his article must now be read in the knowledge that it was not ‘Arabs’ who were chiefly involved in bringing eastern products into mainland Europe during the earlier medieval centuries: what were once described as Europe’s Dark Ages. We know now that the western end of the routes were travelled by Syrian and Jewish merchants, and that the trade was managed by networks of families and communities – following a model which had probably been established before the time of Constantine.
Apart from details such as that – and greater care today to distinguish the Arab from other speakers of Arabic – Riddle’s essay is concise and thorough.
I was particularly intrigued by a work he mentions, citing Arnold, which sounds very like the sort of thing which the Voynich manuscript appears to me to be. I have been unable to see a copy, myself, but according to Riddle it is a merchant’s handbook which dates to the eleventh century and perhaps earlier, and which lists ‘ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger’. A published version was evidently issued in Cairo in 1900AD/ (A.H. 1318) as Kitāb al-ishārati ilà mahāsini ‘t-tjāra.
Riddle, op.cit., p. 190 (citing T. W. Arnold, ‘Arab travellers and merchants, A. D. 1000-1500’, Chapt. 5 of: Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and travellers of the middle ages (New York 1926), 93-4.)
European antidotaries of the type with which Riddell’s article is concerned offer a surprisingly lengthy list of eastern ingredients. These works were less like the herbal, or any botanical text, than a kind of cookery book giving recipes for ready-made medicines of a type used in the monastery or associated ‘hospital’ for travellers and the sick.
Mention is made of writers’ seeking out information from local practitioners, and it is clear that many ingredients were chosen for scent as for other therapeutic effect (scent itself was considered medicinal). On these grounds, an absence of angelica is doubly curious, but it does seem that no extant western work mentions any of the Angelicas before 1500AD, including of course A.archangelica.
By contrast, pepper obtained presumably via southern India, and musk from inner Asia are among the more frequently mentioned ingredients:
… other products of eastern origin are scattered in countless prescriptions. Pepper was the most widely used substance. Musk, a product of Tibet and China, is found repeatedly as are galbanum, costus, balsam, cardamomum, all eastern products. Such items as myrrh, gariofilum, ginger, storax, aloes, opium, cinnamon, frankincense, mastic, and saffron are often found in the recipes.
Riddle, op.cit., p.192.
(Here the ‘storax’ may be meant for the plant Liquidamber orientalis or indeed the styrax).
It is possible that the Angelicas were simply unknown to southern Europe in earlier centuries. Angelica species grow chiefly in the North, A.archangelica growing abundantly along the western end of that road which, passing down the Daugava river, took one either to the Greeks or via the Black Sea to Asia. As Latvia, it had remained independent of Christian rule and culture until the thirteenth century, when a group of German-speakers colonised the site which would develop into Riga. Having the positive encouragement of both their emperor and their religious leader in Rome, they began a relentless war of conquest-and-conversion which was conducted with the same lack of restraint as any crusade.
Despite those events, and as late as 1931 – now speaking of Courland, Livonia and the low lakelands of Pomerania and East Prussia – Grieve describes how:
… there, in early summer-time, it has been the custom among the peasants to march into the towns carrying the Angelica [-archangelica] flower-stems to offer them for sale, chanting some ancient ditty in Lettish words so antiquated as to be unintelligible even to the singers themselves. The chanted words and the tune are learnt in childhood… According to one legend, Angelica was revealed by an angel in a dream to cure the plague. Another explanation of the name of the plant is that it blooms on the day of Michael the Archangel (May 8th, old style) and is on that day a preservative against evils spirits and witchcraft: all parts of the plant were believed efficacious against spells and enchantment. It was held in such esteem that it was called [*the ‘root of the holy spirit’] .
Here is the full list of ‘spiceries’ in a 9thC antidotary analysed in detail by Riddle. (St. Gall MS 44, ff. 228-2557):
In our analysis we eliminated honey, wine, wax, and rose water, substances used as emollients, flavoring agents, and solvents. From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8). An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. … Though it is impossible always to identify each according to the exact plant species, one can be fairly certain of the family or, at least, genus.(pp186-7) The remaining substances, apium semen (parsley seeds), colofonia (a resin product), ciminum*, fenogrecum (or fenum Grecum, a plant), Unum (flax), petroselinum (rock-parsley), picea (various forms of pitch), and terebentina (terebinth) are all found in western Europe. (ibid., p.189)