The oath of Pharmacists in 14thC France

oath blogCuriously enough, this Oath may help us eliminate one otherwise likely text from the great number that, theoretically, inform the Voynich manuscript’s.

Known as ‘Poor Man’s Medicine’ and in Europe as ‘Simple medicines’ the genre in physic is represented first in north Africa by the works of Al Jazzar. From that model, subsequent works were developed for use in mainland Europe, the best known being  arguably the ‘Simple Medicines’ ascribed (probably wrongly) to Platearius and popularly called  the Circa instans.

Between 1230 – 1300, before the expulsion of Jews from France, a ‘dynasty’ of translators in  ibn Tibbon family had made a great many works from Arabic into Hebrew. Among their translations are a many related to health and medicines, including Ibn Jazzar’s  Zad Al Mussafir, known thereafter to the Latins as the “Viaticum” or in the Hebrew as  “Ẓedat ha-Derakim”. Much of that ‘Arab’ medicine came into the west via Jewish versions and translators, chiefly in the school of Toledo.

During the thirteenth century, too, the Medical Faculty in Paris had gained additional ground in their efforts to bring all pharmacists ( ‘spicers’) under their authority.  A series of legal obligations were imposed on the pharmacists – those of 1271 being the earliest likely to inform  the Voynich text – and a formal oath was administered annually from 1322.

This oath offers another  possibility for content in Quire 20, though not highly likely I’d say.

One item of that oath is especially interesting:

all apothecaries are obliged to maintain two books:  Simon of Genoa’s glossary, termed his ‘Synonyma’, and a copy of the Circa instans

I read this action as a standardisation of existing practice among the apothecaries, not as a new idea. It is important that Nicholaus’  Antidotary is not mentioned, for secondary texts today give it a very prominent place. As example, Maro Valussi writes in a recent paper:

The Antidotarius magnus by Magister Nicolaus [was] ‘without doubt one of the most influential texts in medieval literature, and essential for both physicians and apothecaries.

  • Marco Valussi,’A translation and discussion of one recipe in a 14th century Italian antidotarium’, ( Valussi here cites  Ballester et al. (1994: 28) though the item does not appear in his own Bibliography. He may mean Ballester, Practical Medicine from Salerno to the Black Death but see also  Ballester 2001)

Perhaps physicians kept their Antidotary as that ‘Master’s book’ mentioned in the oath, but plainly the text preferred by the Faculty for apothecaries’ use was the ‘Poor man’s medicine’ book and its pictures.  That they were still in common use in the seventeenth century may be the inference when Baresch speaks in his letter of 1639 of how ineffective were   “vulgareum medendi methodum”:

… cum in partibus Europaeis vulgarem medendi methodum parum fructuosum depraehendisset …

Against such ”common man’s medicine”  stood the more complex  ‘alchemical medicine’  whose general employment was urged as early as the thirteenth century by Roger Bacon.  (for an early reception of Platearius’ work in England see e.g. Brit.Lib. MS Harley 270. Its austere and practical style may be compared with the highly decorated ‘presenter’s’ copy (Brit. LIb. MS Sloane 1977 ) in which not a single plant is pictured. The purpose of the latter is plainly to impress the surgeon-physicians’ clients with his own professional expertise and like the herbal such a book may serve as in-house advertising.  In Sloane 1977, pictures show expertise in the whole range of illnesses and injury, but not a single plant s pictured. This detail illustrates the  owner’s knowledge of how to remove and treat lance and arrow-wounds – proverbially difficult to accomplish without death from blood-loss, shock, or subsequent infection.

med arrow wounds Surgery

If I am correct in the sense for Baresch’s mention of commoner’s medicine, then on that count also the Circa instans must be low on the list of likely sources for the Vms text. Being so well-known and widely available, a copy of Platearius’ work would hardly be worth enciphering  (always assuming ..etc.).

Apothecary’s Oath.

As recorded in 1422:

On the second day of the month of October, the faculty of medicine was called together according to custom by the bedell with a schedule at St. Mathurin concerning two articles. The first was to hear the oaths of the herbalists taken before the entire faculty….

First, they swore that they will have the Synonyms in corrected form and the Circa instans of Platearius.

2. That they will have better weights just and true from the pound to the scruple.

3. That they will not put in their clysters any medicine which has lost its virtue or corrupted.

4. That they will not substitute one drug for another in any prescription except by permission of the master giving the prescription, but will adhere strictly to the prescription as given, and if they do not have any herb or drug listed in the prescription, they will refer the matter to the master who ordered it, that he may see about it.

5. That they will not give nor knowingly permit to be given any clyster or any other medicament, unless they have a special prescription for it from some master, nor will they take a recipe from his book except, by his special consent, a recipe which he has ordered beforehand.

6. That they will not receive prescriptions from any quack or from anyone else unless they know that he is a graduate of Paris or another university or is at least approved by the faculty of medicine of Paris.

7. That they will not employ a clerk unless he knows how to understand, speak and write Latin and French, and, before they engage him, he shall be required to take all the aforesaid oaths.

8. That they will cause all the aforesaid oaths to be inviolably observed to the best of their ability by their wives, messengers, clerks, and footmen.

By the time the oath was recorded here, apothecary shops were already now subject to inspection not less than twice a year by the medical faculty. We may suppose that copies of the Circa instans and Simon’s Glossary were in every one.

It is this relation to the Medical Faculty which not only monitored the apothecaries but guaranteed their importation of even the rarest substances wanted by them, which underlies the paired images seen on folios 49v-50 r of  MS Sloane 1977.

That on the left, which is so often mistaken for an image of a ‘typical’ European pharmacy (illustration below) is intended to carry precisely the opposite message.  These rare and marvellous substances are in their exotic containers, the monitoring physician himself so knowledgeable that he can distinguish true from  false, virtue-filled from ‘corrupted’ materia medica.

Less directly, some items in the oath seem to imply that it was longer the case that apothecaries’ stocks reflected their own or their importers’ stocks in trade.

The fourth item is not unambiguous, but can be read as meaning that a Parisian apothecaries’ stock were even ordered by the ‘Master’, perhaps identified by pictures in a copy of the Circa instans but o that there was no one, standard text or set of illustrations.  MS Sloane 1977, though taken from the Circa instans, does not present ‘herbal’ pictures at all. One copy may include galingale or frankincense – another may not.  Unlike the received texts of religion or philosophy, a herbal text was treated as a resource to be adapted and excerpted to suit. So too, imagery might be drawn from or adapted to suit a given context – it is certainly not all to be lumped together as ‘Dioscoridan’ and in many cases (as I’ll discuss in relation to the Tuscany Herbal in the next post) imagery certainly came to Europe along with the substances being pictured, not from a local copy of Dioscorides.

medicine monitoring the apothecary

Monitoring the apothecary’s stocks

next post – The Beastly Tuscany Herbal.


  1. Dear Diane O’Donovan, thank you for pointing out the erratum. In fact my quote referred to Garcia-Ballester L (1994) “Introduction” in L Garcia-Ballester, R French, J Arrizabalaga, A Cunningham Practical medicine from Salerno to the Black Death. Cambridge University Press, p.28. Sincerely, Marco Valussi


  2. With regard to Synonyma see also, Gerrit Bos,. Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tove Ben Isaac of Tortosa, Sefer Ha-Shimmush, Book 29 Part 1. Études sur le judaïsme médiéval. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s