Wednesday, 21 April 2010

At the Sign of the Pestle and Mortar

I do love the local history talks at the Bury St Edmunds record office. Today's was about apothecaries, of which I knew not a lot until this morning.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, apothecaries occupied the middle ground in the medical hierarchy, below the physician who would diagnose and prescribe, but well above the surgeon. The thought was that anyone could chop a leg off, but it took someone really clever to stop the pain.

A late Stuart/ early Georgian apothecary would make up all the pills and dra
ughts himself from his extensive stock of herbs, spices and opiates. His most valuable book would have been his Herbal (Pat had got out John Gerard's exquisite 1633 and 1636 Herbals for us to read and lust after), followed by his own recipe book for medicines and potions. Frequently these were a 'work-in-progress' with notes as to their efficaciousness. They would also be passed down from master to journeyman or father to son. Apprenticeship lasted seven years, after which you were free to start up on your own.

This print shows a standard apothecary shop interior with a giant pestle and mortar on the left, an alembic (or still) on the right, jars on the shelves and lovely graduated drawers for ingredients and ointments. The pestle&mortar was so useful it was the standard advertising device. The photo at the top shows where an original apothecary's shop stood in BStE - pestle&mortar still there above the door.

Apothecaries didn't only supply medicines, they were also much in demand as a source of food flavourings. Inventories show vast quantities of items such as caraway seeds that would make their potions palatable as well as having a medicinal effect. They also used plenty of sugar (various kinds) and, er, senna. One really weird ingredient was gold-leaf: to coat the pills of the better-off patients. (I can just see that catching on with the NHS)

Blood letting was a favourite remedy, and all apothecaries had a leech jar. One eminent BStE citizen apparently used to fish out a leech and clap it to his forehead whenever he had a headache!

All in all, good apothecaries with a fine client list had high social standing and were able to amass a reasonable degree of wealth. Both the apothecaries, Thomas Macro senior and junior, were members of the Corporation of Bury St Edmunds - a very prestigious position indeed.

One last photo: Pat always makes us authentic Georgian snacks to go with our tea. These are "jumballs" flavoured with cumin and caraway. Delicious. They are also quite, er, firm, so we were given permission to dunk!


Talli Roland said...


I must say, though, I am so glad I did not live back then. Leeches, blergh!

KarenG said...

But those cookies sure do look interesting! And how fortunate we are to live now with antibiotics.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I can see a novel in the offing!
Our librarian has recently published a cookbook that covers Georgian recipes. She found a family recipe book from the 18thC in some local archives, with some going back to granny's day in the 1650's. Jumbles were included among the recipes.

Jan Jones said...

Hi Talli - yes, I'm with you on the leeches!

KarenG - the jumballs (sic) tasted really nice. Only the edges were hard, the centre was was softer.

Elizabeth - hmm...novel... funny you should say that...

Cat Marsters/Kate Johnson said...

Ooh I wish I lived a bit closer to Bury! There's one on Stuart food next week that looks really interesting, but I really don't think I can get there for 10am!

Hmm, wonder if anyone does similar talks closer to home?

Kate Hardy said...

How fascinating, Jan - thanks so much for sharing! (And I agree with Elizabeth. Novel in the offing.)

And the biscuits look gorgeous.

Debs said...

What fascinating place, although I would rather live now with anaesthetics and painkillers.

Looking forward to the book...

Nicola Cornick said...

Fascinating! Thank you, Jan. I wish I lived close to a place that offered such interesting talks but in the absence of such a thing in Swindon I find your posts a treat!

Shirley Wells said...

Fascinating stuff - thanks for sharing. Leeches, though. Yuk.
Can't wait to read the novel. ;o)

Karen said...

It would be brilliant to work all this into a novel! Really interesting :o)

Jan Jones said...

Thanks, everyone. Yes, the talks are good and I am VERY conscious of how lucky I am to live within striking distance of Bury St Edmunds. Like everything these days, though, they only take place if enough people sign up for them. There was one last year on the growth of the provincial press that was cancelled because it was a few short :(

Nicola Cornick said...

That's a pity, Jan. I bet that one wuld have been fascinating. I have several books of cuttings from provincial newspapers and they are bursting with story ideas - as I'm sure you have already spotted!