Satires of American Drugs in Early Modern Spain

We are pleased to introduce the final post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Ivana Bicak. Ivana’s latest research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted at the University of Exeter, explored early modern satires of experimental medicine in Spain.

In the sixteenth century, new medicinal plants from America entered Spain. Apart from transforming the medical practice of the time, these novel products had an immediate impact on the literary landscape, particularly satiric poetry. The witty verses of Spanish satirists offer us a unique view into how these experimental medicines were perceived by the contemporaries. The satires of exotic drugs such as guaiac and sarsaparilla underline the acceptance and familiarity of the newly discovered materia medica, as described by Christopher Booth in his recent post ‘The World in a Jar.’

After Christopher Columbus returned from his famous voyage in 1493, a terrible disease struck Europe, transforming human bodies into decomposing masses of pustules, broken bones, bald heads, and missing noses. The epidemic of highly contagious syphilis spared no one, sowing destruction from seedy brothels to shiny courts, from Spain to England.

In a desperate search for a remedy, many different treatments were tried. One of the more ingenious prescriptions included applying a freshly cut chicken or pigeon to the ulcerated penis, as per advice of the papal physician Gaspar Torella. Most physicians and patients, however, turned to mercury, a long-standing cure for skin diseases. This heavy metal was not exactly the happiest solution as the severity of its side effects frequently surpassed that of the disease’s symptoms. Thanks to its potent corrosive properties, mercury acted much more as a poison than as a cure. If the patient did not lose their nose due to syphilis, mercury made sure their teeth fell out.

Illustration of guaiac. Francisco Hernández, Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (Rome: V. Mascardi, 1651). Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The arrival of the new American medicines in Spain was therefore eagerly welcomed in the hopes of relieving the suffering of syphilitic patients across European borders. American anti-syphilitic plants flooded European medical markets. Among them, guaiac wood and sarsaparilla achieved immense popularity. As a result, they were exported from Spain to other European countries.

Guaiac wood (Guaiacum officinale), an evergreen with blue flowers, was imported into Europe in the shape of logs or billets. These were then broken into smaller pieces or reduced to powder, from which a decoction was prepared. In 1519, Ulrich von Hutten wrote the most famous treatise on guaiac, a patient narrative that includes the detailed recipe for the medical treatment with this exotic plant.

Ships from the New World also brought back great quantities of sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis). The roots of this woody vine were brewed into a tea, which was then administered to syphilitic patients. A Southern European variant of this plant (Smilax aspera) had been known from antiquity, but it had been used as an antidote to poisons. As a diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) agent, the New World sarsaparilla was considered a powerful antisyphilitic and was sometimes used in combination with guaiac.

These new Amerindian drugs led to a craze that resulted in a rich poetic production in Spain and other European countries. Rising to the occasion, poets praised and mocked the new pharmacopoeia in a variety of genres and styles. Their poems are a mirror of the contemporary reception and assimilation of these novel remedies into existing European medical systems. Poems in Latin and the vernacular reflect the wonder and fascination, but also disappointment and repulsion, roused by the imported medical products.

The close association of guaiac and sarsaparilla with lustful activities that resulted in syphilis provided ample opportunity for laughter. In his macaronic verses, consisting of a humorous jumble of Latin and Spanish, the sixteenth-century poet Francisco Pacheco recounts the adventures of three friars with three prostitutes.[1] Amorous encounters increase the consumption of guaiac and sarsaparilla, ensuring profit for the apothecaries’ shops. The connection between these two medicines and lechery lasted well into the seventeenth century and extended as far away as England, as testified by Thomas Shadwell’s comedy The Humorists (1671). Here, a womanizer is jokingly asked: ‘Hast thou not rais’d the price of Sarsaperilla, and Guiacum all over the Town.’[2]

In Spain’s early modern satiric landscape, guaiac and sarsaparilla are cheekily described as miracle medicines endowed with flaws. Although they were supposed to be superior to mercury, they still included highly unpleasant auxiliary treatments, most importantly heat therapy. The witty satiric poems incorporate detailed references to contemporary procedures and the less than thrilled reactions of the patients.

Satiric treatments of guaiac and sarsaparilla transform the pleasurable flame of love into the nasty flame of the medical treatment. Patients suffer intolerable heat as they sweat in enclosed spaces for hours at a time. Sweat-inducing blankets are a frequent motif, as is the slim diet of bread and raisins. Mosquera de Figueroa thus writes of sending blankets for sweating and a bundle of sarsaparilla,[3] while Francisco de Quevedo mixes sarsaparilla with screams in his verses.[4]

Less than sincere praises are given to these remedies in longer poems such as Hernando de Guzmán’s La zarzaparrilla and Cristóbal de Castillejo’s En alabança del palo de las Indias.[5] Neither guaiac nor sarsaparilla seem to be able to keep their grandiose promises of deliverance from the terrible disease. The satiric thwarting of the high expectations raised by the two exotic plants reflects the actual state of affairs in early modern Spain: after experiencing a short but intense boom in popularity, both guaiac and sarsaparilla lost their therapeutic currency. Mercury made a comeback and remained a specific for syphilis well into the nineteenth century. Yet guaiac and sarsaparilla remain in the pages of Spanish satirists, bearing witness to their significance in early modern medicine and society.


[1] Francisco Pacheco, La Macarronea del licenciado Pacheco hecha el año de sesenta y cinco, Fernán Núñez Collection, vol. 180, fol. 363r, Bancroft Library, Berkeley.

[2] Thomas Shadwell, The Humorists (London: Henry Herringman, 1671), I. i.

[3] Mosquera de Figueroa, Paradoja en loor de las bubas, Biblioteca Capitular y Colombina, MS. 82-3-38, fol. 69r°-v°.

[4] Francisco de Quevedo, ‘Romance LXXVIII,’ in Poësias de Don Francisco de Quevedo, vol. 3 (Brussels: Francisco Foppens, 1670), p. 426.

[5] Hernando de Guzmán, La Zarzaparrilla (extant fragment), The Hispanic Society of America, MS. B 2521; Cristóbal de Castillejo, En alabança del palo de las Indias, estando en la cura del, in Las Obras de Christoval de Castillejo (Madrid: Pierres Cosin, 1573), pp. 367–71.

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