I recently came across an article on herbal medicine of the early Middle Ages in Europe that showed the importance of Middle Eastern and South Asian natural remedies to the Western pharmaceutical tradition.
The article, “￼The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages” by John M. Riddle, appeared in a German journal in 1965. The paper was something of a challenge to the Pirenne thesis, advanced in Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), which argued that “Arab expansion” throughout the Mediterranean from the 8th century onward resulted in an isolation of Europe from traditional commerce with the East.
As Riddle shows from a study of medieval recipe literature, almost all of the drug mixtures used in the Middle Ages relied on herbs and other substances found only in Asia. Clearly the trade continued, despite or perhaps because of the “Arab expansion.”
For example, one of the works Riddle studied was a 9th-century European antidotary or medicinal recipe book containing a total of 123 recipes with some 361 different ingredients used a total of 944 times. Without natural remedies from the Middle East and Asia, the antidotary would have had precious few recipes.
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), linum (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. Eastern drugs seemed to have been the “miracle drugs” of the Age.
Here is a breakdown of specific Middle Eastern natural remedies used in Europe during the Middle Ages, as cited in Riddle’s study:
Aloes – The juice or liquid exuded from a cut in the leaves of the succulent plant aloe. There are more than 500 species of aloe but only a few were used as traditional remedies, primarily Aloe vera but also a few others, including A. perryi and A. ferox. The medicinal use of A. vera is cited in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
Ammonicum – This is a salt, ammonium chloride. It was associated in antiquity with the oracular Egyptian deity Amun or Hammon, famously based at the oasis of Siwa in Egypt’s Western Desert, where ammonicum is found. Both Pliny and Galen note the use of this salt in early medicine. It is known to have been manufactured in the late Middle Ages, distilled from the horns and hooves of oxen.
Amomum – This is the spice known as black cardamom, which is different in flavor from the more common green cardamom. It usually has a smoky flavor derived from drying of the pods over open flame. According to Riddle, amomum is an aromatic scrub said by Pliny to come from India, Persia and the Aral Sea region and currently attributed to the latter two areas. In Chinese medicine today, black cardamom is used to treat stomach upsets and malaria.
Cassia – This is Chinese cassia or Chinese cinnamon, less subtle in flavor than Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon. Cassia is the dried bark of a plant in the Laurel family. Riddle believes this type of cassia is “probably a product of Cinnamomum pauciflorum Nees, is said by Pliny to be the ‘skin’ of a scrub, and it is known to be found only in the far east.” Most types of cinnamon are known to reduce blood sugar.
Ciminum – Ajwain or Ajowan seeds or Ethiopian cumin (Trachyspermum ammi). It has a flavor reminiscent of thyme. Though the plant is found in modern, southern Europe as well as in Egypt and Asia, Pliny spoke only of a species from Ethiopia. In the Middle Ages, it was grown in Swiss herbal gardens, but was also imported from Islamic countries. It is used as a digestive aid or for relief of stomach problems in South Asia and parts of the Middle East.
Crocus – This is the Latin term for saffron, a well-known product from the East. Saffron is a spice made of the dried red stigmas of the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). It originated in Greece or Asia Minor, and is believed to have first been cultivated in Greece. Iran today produces about 90% of the world’s saffron. The spice has long been used for various medicinal purposes. Recent research has found it has anticancer properties.
Fenogrecum or Fenum Grecum – Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) was first cultivated in the Near East. Fenugreek seeds have been shown to have antidiabetic effects, among other medicinal benefits. Fenugreek seeds were found in the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Libanus – This is frankincense (Boswellia sacra and related species), a well-known product of the Arabian Peninsula and the nearby African coast. The best frankincense is produced in Yemen and on the northern coast of Somalia. A tree resin, it is burned for incense and is chewed for medicinal purposes. Recent research has shown frankincense is able to suppress cancer cells and provide relief from osteoarthritis.
Mastice – Mastic, a resin from the tree of the same name (Pistacia lentiscus), originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in the Middle Ages it was imported from this region. The best mastic comes from the Greek island of Chios. Mastic is antibacterial and antifungal, and has antioxidant properties. It has been used since ancient times to treat colds, indigestion and other ailments.
Murra – Myrrh is the aromatic gum resin of Commiphora myrrha, a tree found in southern Arabia and eastern Africa. Myrrh has antiseptic and other medicinal properties. Its gum is used to treat numerous ailments, including colds, asthma, skin problems and even cancer.
Piper – This term refers to the Old World spices black pepper (Piper nigrum), its unripe form white pepper and its hotter cousin long pepper. These forms of pepper, native to south India, are unrelated to the chili pepper, which originated in the New World. Dried ground black pepper, white pepper and long pepper have been used since ancient times both for flavoring foods and as medicine. Pepper had many medicinal uses in medieval times and earlier, but few of these uses have survived the scrutiny of modern medicine.
Scamonia – Scammony (Convolvulus scammonia) is a weed native to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. The juice of its root or a resin made from the root acts as a powerful purgative. Scammony also kills roundworms and tapeworms in the process of passing through the digestive tract.
Storace – Storax is a resin exuded by the Oriental or Turkish sweetgum tree (Liquidambar orientalis). The resin is often used in incense or as a fixative in perfumes. The biblical “Balm of Gilead” cited in Jeremiah is storax.
Zinzibar – This is ginger, or ginger root, from the rhizome of the south Asian plant Zingiber officinale. As a kitchen spice, ginger is hot and fragrant. It has traditionally had various medicinal uses in the Middle East, among them ginger tea for colds and flu. Recent studies have been undertaken to determine if ginger has the ability to shrink cancerous tumors, but so far the results have not been conclusive.
Other natural remedies cited by Riddle traditionally make their home in Western Europe but are also known in the Middle East – including Apium Semen (parsley seeds), Colofonia (rosin), Linum (flax), Petroselinum (rock-parsley), Picea (pitch) and Terebentina (terebinth or turpentine).