Theriac – our ‘rosetta stone’?

I’m not writing this post to amuse or entertain. It’s packed with information that I hope will be directly useful to those hunting a key to the Voynich script and language. Do feel free to print it off if that will help.

From 1368 – a time when the Papal court was still in Avignon – until some years after Barsch wrote to Kircher about the curious manuscript that had been lying uselessly on his shelf, the Ming dynasty ruled in China.

In its early years, it continued work previously undertaken with energy by the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, by which the medical knowledge of the “hui hui” – the resident Jewish, Nestorian and Muslim communities – was gathered and written up. References from other sources, which refer to new Persian as the lingua franca of the Eastern trade, here finds some confirmation because in the resulting compilation  [1] “hui hui” certainly refers to Persian script and language.

[1] Hui Hui yaofang.

Kong and Chen [2] date the Hui Hui Yaofang to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, asserting that it was “probably the official formulary of the Mongolian administration during the Yuan dynasty (13th-14th century) in China”.

[2] Kong Y.C., Chen D.S., ‘Elucidation of Islamic drugs in Hui Hui Yao Fang: a linguistic and pharmaceutical approach’, J Ethnopharmacol. 1996 Nov; 54(2-3): 85-102.

Nappi [3] dates any extant text to the following (native Ming) dynasty, writing:

“Most of the text was lost, but the three extant chapters and one extant table of contents contain not only Persian and Chinese scripts, but also Chinese transliterations of Greek, Aramaic, classical Persian, Arabic, and Turkish names of drugs, places, and other medical terms.”[4] The text was written in at least three hands, at least one of which belonged to an expert in Persian language and medicine who added the names of several drugs in Persian script with his own hand, and one Chinese speaker from Beijing who added to the text with notes that reflected his local Beijing dialect.’ These men worked together for some time (perhaps co-located, perhaps not) on a project meant to translate selections from the Islamic medical canon into Chinese. ‘The authors not only translated Arabic and Persian medical recipes for mummy: they also included several variations of a medicine commonly known as “theriac”.” (p.745)

[3] Carla Nappi, ‘Bolatu’s Pharmacy Theriac in Early Modern China’, Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 14, No. 6, Indigenous vs. Foreign: Early-Modern Materia Medica in Comparative Perspective (2009), pp. 737-764.

[4]  The reference is given in the article in a note n.18. See Song, Huihuiyaofang kaoshi, 6, and Buell, “How Did Persian,” 284. No full description is given of the first, but the second is given in an earlier note as: Paul D. Buell, “How Did Persian and Other Western Medical Knowledge Move East, and Chinese West? A Look at the Role of Rashid al-Din and Others,” Asian Medicine 3 (2007), 279-295, 289.

Buell’s article is online, as a downloadable pdf. He is another who has tried to reduce the determination of writers to project on the medieval centuries the idea of closed  ‘national’ borders and as cultural determinatives:

[This paper] calls into question, looking at the types of texts present in China in comparative terms, any claims of isolation between east and west, west and east, with the individual worlds turned in on themselves, but sees instead an on-going medical and other globalisation of the cultures of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. [5]

[5] Buell, op.cit., p.280

Nappi does not seem to be aware that by the earlier Ming, the time he posits for the Hui Hui yaofang,  the term ‘Hui Hui’ was not being applied exclusively to Muslims or writings in Arabic or Persian. The point is worth a digression:

Although the ancient Uyghurs were neither Muslims nor directly related to today’s Uyghur people, the name Huihui [originally a reference to them] came to refer to foreigners, regardless of language or origin, by the time of the Yuan (1271–1368) and Ming Dynasties (1368–1644). During the Yuan Dynasty, large numbers of Muslims came from the west, and since the Uyghur land was in the west, this led the Chinese to call foreigners of all religions, including Muslims, Nestorian Christians and Jews, as “HuiHui”.

Genghis Khan called both foreign Jews and Muslims in China “Hui Hui” when he forced them to stop halal and kosher methods of preparing food:

Among all the [subject] alien peoples only the Hui-hui say “we do not eat Mongol food”. [Cinggis Qa’an replied:] “By the aid of heaven we have pacified you; you are our slaves. Yet you do not eat our food or drink. How can this be right?” He thereupon made them eat. “If you slaughter sheep, you will be considered guilty of a crime.” He issued a regulation to that effect … [In 1279/1280 under Qubilai] all the Muslims say: “if someone else slaughters [the animal] we do not eat”. Because the poor people are upset by this, from now on, Musuluman [Muslim] Huihui and Zhuhu [Jewish] Huihui, no matter who kills [the animal] will eat [it] and must cease slaughtering sheep themselves, and cease the rite of circumcision.

… Christians were called “Hui who abstain from animals without the cloven foot”, Muslims were called “Hui who abstain from pork”, Jews were called “Hui who extract the sinews”. Hui zi or Hui Hui is presently (21stC) used almost exclusively for Muslims, but Jews were still called Lan mao Hui zi which means “Blue cap Hui zi”.

Jews and Muslims in China shared the same name for synagogue and mosque, which were both called Qingzhen si “Temple of Purity and Truth” from the thirteenth century. Synagogues and mosques were also known as Libai Si (temple of worship). The Kaifeng Jews were nicknamed “Teaou kin jiao” (挑筋教, extract sinew religion). A tablet indicated that Judaism was once known as “Yih-tsze-lo-nee-keaou” (一赐乐业教, Israelitish religion) and synagogues known as Yih-tsze lo née leen (Israelitish Temple), but this fell from use. [6]

[6] preceding paragraphs from wiki article “Hui People”. See also: History of the Jews in China.

Returning to Nappi’s paper, we find that these Chinese works provide pharmaceutical information in template formula:

Theriac [Chinese characters omitted]: Flavor: pungent, bitter, level, without poison. Treats the hundred illnesses, sudden diseases that would otherwise be fatal [c.c.o], the negative qi i, of kewu [c.c.o] sickness [in children], and abdominal obstructions. It comes from the Western tribes (c.c.o). New addendum: It is said that [diyeia] is made of gall. Its appearance is like long spoilt pills, red-black in color. Foreigners ~ huren [c.c.o] occasionally bring it here, and it is extremely valuable. Experiments have shown it to be effective. (Nappi, op.cit. p.746)

Many of the earliest references to theriac were in the works of Galen … Nero’s physician Andromachus [had] created a drug named “Galene” by taking Mithridatium and adding snake flesh, and thereafter theriacs made to counteract snakebites often contained bits of viper in them. Pliny the Elder (23/4-79) included an account of such a version in his Natural History. [7]

[7] Nappi, op.cit., 747-8.  He goes on to quote the passage from Pliny,(N.H. XXIX.24-25) which I omit.

The simpler link to serpents is clear from the story told by Galen:

In De Theriaca ad Pisonem, [Galen] gives an illuminating account of using his theriac to treat jaundice caused by snake bite.
One of the slaves of the Emperor whose duty it was to drive away snakes, having been bitten, took for some time draughts of ordinary medicines, but as his skin changed so as to assume the colour of a leek, he came to me and narrated his accident; after having drunk theriac he recovered quickly his natural colour. …Galen called his preparation Theriac of Andromachus. [8]

[8] the above taken from an online article (pdf) from The Lancet.

(There is a poem by Nicander of Colophon, who lived in the second century BC, a thousand hexameters in Greek expounding the various treatments for poisons.  Readers who have Latin may be happy to know that Schneider’s Latin version of it is available online  here through the Open Library. Otto Schneider, Nicandrea: Theriaca et Alexipharmaca).

Al-Biruni (he who was sent to India, who there learned Sanskrit and composed a book for the Caliph explaining Indian religious philosophy, astronomy and mathematics) also wrote a Pharmacopoeia, “Kitab al-saydala”[9]  which includes information about various forms of ‘tiriaq’ or theriac.

[9] ‘saydala’ is the term equivalent to ‘sandalani’.

According to Nappi, Genoa did produce ‘theriaka’ at some stage:

The rising popularity of theriacs in the medieval world (often using opium as a primary component) accompanied a flourishing of translations of Arabic and Persian pharmacopoeia into European languages.  By the middle of the fourteenth century, an outbreak of Plague prompted the Medical Faculty of Paris to recommend that “a little theriac should be taken with meals,” and France became a center of theriac production and export.[*] From the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Beaucaire boasted a festival where locally produced wares from various French localities (including the famous “Theriaque de Montpellier”) were brought together and sold in open-air markets, attracting a wide diversity of buyers from across the globe. Several local “theriacs” were developed and marketed by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Paris, Montpellier, Madrid, Holland, Cairo, Germany, Rome, Constantinople, Genoa, Bologna, and Venice all produced the substance, often prepared ritualistically in the presence of prominent guildsmen, magistrates, and professors.[10]

[*] my emphasis.

[10] Nappi, op.cit., p.750

Certainly, “by the sixteenth century, at least”. (as Nappi writes)

..  theriac had become an extremely important commodity throughout Europe…. Commercially and pharmacologically, this was a type of remedy (or, more properly, a name used for a variety of remedies) widely produced and sought after, whatever its actual efficacy in counteracting poisons might have been. At roughly the same time that theriac was enjoying pan-European popularity it was also making its way across East Asia, and accounts of theriac were recorded in Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan texts. Though descriptions of diyejia in medieval and early modern Chinese texts were sparse, the initial account of diyejia from the Xinxiu bencao recurred with commentary through the Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. [11]

[11] Nappi, op.cit., p.752

… and some such text may be part (at least) of the content in MS Beinecke 408, but I would insist that its content includes the practical information which would be of most use to those who travelled the ways of the eastern trade – D.O’Donovan

By the time of Elizabeth Tudor (1533 – 1603) the Genoese variety of theriac was not well regarded in England.

On the day of a visitation of apothecaries 20 July 1586, The Master and Wardens were concerned at the sale of a treacle called ‘Jeane Triacle’ (Genoa treacle) which they found to be unwholesome for adults and children, being indeed compounded by certain rude and unskilful men. Moved by Christian charity to all good people, they besought the College to set down a ‘receipt’ for the true composition of this treacle, which should be registered at Grocers Hall. Anyone who was admitted to make it should take such an oath as the College might direct. The letter was delivered by one apothecary, William Besse, and the College beadle was sent to deliver the College’s recipe put down upon ‘mature deliberation and consent’ to Besse, the only apothecary approved to make Mithridatium. [12]

[12] quoted from, J.P. Griffin,  ‘Venetian treacle and the foundation of medicines regulation’, Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2004 Sep; 58(3): 317–325. Online here.

This, of course, recalls Bacon’s “Errors of the Physicians”[13] in which he worries about the purity of snake meat in medicines – snake meat and opium being apparently the two invariables of theriac. The same tract by Bacon (considered here in an earlier post) urges ‘alchemy’ or simpler chemical processes be employed to purify pharmaceutical ingredients.

[13] Mary Catherine Welborn, ‘The Errors of the Doctors according to Friar Roger Bacon of the Minor Order’, Isis, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jul., 1932), pp. 26-62

So once again, and this time somewhat unexpectedly, there is no conflict with Barsch’s “hypothetical” description of the manuscript, and specifics of the historical context and what is known of eastern and western “theriacs”.  We even have a late (late sixteenth century) illustration of the production of theriac as ‘alchemical’ in this image from a German book on distillation. (Note the dimensions of that container which the right-hand figure holds).

Theriac public preparation from Das NeuweDistillier Buch, Strasbourg 1531

Public preparation of a Theriac~ from Das Neuwe Distillier Buch, Strasbourg 1531.

Meanwhile,  the Chinese had for some centuries confused the appearance of theriac pills with a simpler animal product.  Nappi notes [13] that:

Su Song ‘(c.c.o) (1020-1 101) said: In the Song period the Southern Seas also were known to have this drug.” Li grouped diyejia with beasts like previous authors had done, but his account differed from the previous oft-cited description in one important respect that brings into relief how deeply the history of medical knowledge is rooted in the language used to transmit it. The initial description of diyejia had it looking simply like “varied” gall bladder (c.c.o). Thanks to a misreading or mis-rendering of the first character in Su Jing’s description, Li Shi zhen instead recorded the phrase as “pig” gall bladder (c.c.o) and this porcine quality held up in subsequent descriptions. Theriac in its diyejia form was [n]ever the product of a creature, but it became pig viscera thanks to scribal error.

[13] Nappi, op.cit., p.753

In contemporary [21st C] China, the diyejia that was once hailed for curing one hundred illnesses has become a poison, toxic to both body and nation: pharmacological reference books and occasional government documents on drug policy now equate diyejia with opium (yapian), another explicitly “foreign” source of pleasure, danger, and harm.[14]

[14] ibid., p.748.

In short: there is no historical objection to a work such as the Vms containing one or more recipes for theriaca, it being known and traded from an early period in regions under European, Persian, Mongol, Uyghur and Chinese control, as well as within South-east Asia.

For people interested in the Chinese side, I’d recommend Nappi’s article, where the Chinese terms are provided.


1. … and Pliny didn’t like fancy medicines:

There is an elaborate mixture called theriac, which is compounded of countless ingredients, although Nature has given as many remedies, anyone of which would be enough by itself.  The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, and some are prescribed at one sixtieth part of one denarius.  Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions?  No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science. And not even the physicians know their facts.  I have discovered that instead of Indian cinnabar there is commonly added to medicines, through a confusion of names, red lead, which, as I shall point out when I discuss pigments, is a poison.

I’ve quoted that passage from this blogpost at ‘purple motes’; in another the same blogger shows very  clearly how routinely we see that theriac as the rich man’s cure-all was routinely contrasted, for good or ill, with the genre of ‘simple medicines for the poor’  … just as Barsch does, when writing to Kircher in 1639.

Interesting, huh?

2. next post, a genuine Syriac recipe for theriac – thanks to Wallis Budge.

from BNF  Book of Antidotes

Medicine of the Greeks


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