Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Christopher Booth. Chris is an Midlands3Cities funded PhD Candidate at The University of Nottingham, researching the material culture and visual experience of apothecary shops in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Find him on twitter @archaeobooth.
The image of the early modern apothecary shop, with its shelves of labelled jars and bottles behind a counter and the apothecary moving between customers and their stock, is a neat encapsulation of the way that new, global products were incorporated into English medicine between the late-sixteenth century and the late-eighteenth century.
It was the inclusion of these new medicinal botanicals, imported from the Americas and across the world, into existing systems of organisation based upon early modern herbals that made these products familiar and thus acceptable for consumption. Later they would also be incorporated into European (meaning Diderotian or Linnaean) systems of classification, further familiarizing them in the ‘old world’. The skilful navigation of these organisational systems, represented by the labels on medical containers, and the knowledgeability and trustworthiness of the apothecary within their shops were key to the acceptance and increasing consumption of these materia medica.
Apothecaries sought to materially represent this organisation and encyclopaedic knowledge through the tin-glazed earthenware drug jars which lined shelves behind the counter where prescriptions were made up. Doing so allowed them to visually and materially communicate their knowledge of, and mastery over, ‘newly discovered’ botanical products, and through that knowledge ensure the confidence of their patient when consuming the medicines which they compounded.
Initially the names of the materia medica which the apothecary stocked were not visible to the customer. Earlier drug jars, and those in more rural shops, would have been unlabelled albarelli with a small paper label affixed to the string keeping parchment or bladder lids in place. Later jars, however, had abbreviated Latin names of their contents painted within cartouches on their surfaces which would have been prominently displayed to the apothecaries’ patients. Whether or not individual customers read or understood Latin, the fact that all the simples (individual medicinal ingredients) in their medicine were labelled in this same way demonstrated that they were categorised and understood, at least by the apothecary, within the same system of medical and botanical knowledge as the more familiar simples from Britain and Europe whose names were on display in the same way. Examples of drug jars labelled with ‘new world’ simples are extant in museum collections. The below example from the collection of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was used to hold an electuary of sassafras which was derived from a North American tree.Continue reading