Friday, February 17, 2023

The Medieval Drugstore

The Ancient Greek ἀποθήκη (apothḗkē, "storehouse") became Latin apotheca and gave us the English word apothecary, used for both the place one would go to find pharmaceutical preparations and for the pharmacist himself who made the medicines to sell to doctors or directly to people requesting them. Apothecaries were also sources of medical advice for the common people. (Kings and wealthy folk had personal physicians.)

The apothecary was a source of many, many substances used either alone or in combination. Typical medical materials were herbs familiar to the modern seeker of comfort, such as chamomile, garlic, mint, or witch hazel. Less familiar as medicinal sources were dung, urine, animal fats, and even saliva. All these might be used in the production of materia medica, medicine.

The apothecary, as an expert in chemistry, was also a source of non-medicinal products: cosmetics, perfumes, dyes, and soaps.

Apothecary shops existed thousands of years before Chaucer, who wrote in The Canterbury Tales:

    Though in this toun is noon apothecarie,
    I shal myself to herbes techen yow,
    That shul been for youre hele and for youre prow.

    [Though in this town there is no apothecary,
    I myself shall teach you herbs
    That shall be for your health and for your pride.]

Apothecaries became more and more respected over time, and finally gained their own livery company, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, in 1617. That was not their first time in a guild, however: in 1617, they broke away from their original guild, the 12th century Guild of Pepperers. I'll tell you about them tomorrow.

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