Laudanum, opium, the joy of history

It’s wonderful to read all sorts of random nonfiction when I’m writing. Useful tidbits always turn up and I throw them into the story. Today I picked up two Latin tags, and Paracelsus’ “little black pills” – this is the invention of laudanum, which is to say opium medicine – which I can’t use right now, but wow:

“Take of Thebaic opium one ounce, of orange and lemon juice six ounces, of cinnamon and cariophilli each half an ounce. Pound those ingredients together, mix them well, and place them in a glass vessel with its covering. Let them be digested in the sun or in dung for a month. Then press out the mixture and place them in another vessel with the following: half a scruple of must and half a scruple each of corals and of a magistery of true pearls. Mix those, and after digesting all of a month, add a scruple and a half of the quintessence of gold.”

A later and much less expensive recipe for laudanum (from Thomas Sydenham, seventeen century England):

“The laudanum mixture to which I have referred is quite simple to be given in daily draughts and is easily prepared … one pint of sherry wine, two ounces of good quality Indian or Egyptian opium, one of saffron, a cinnamon stick and a clove, both powdered. Mix and simmer over a vapour bath for two or three days until the tincture has the proper slightly viscid but still easily poured consistence.”

Actually an ounce of saffron is pretty exorbitant, given that it now costs more than gold by weight. I picked up a few period book titles too; those are always useful.

This is how you make a spongia somnifera, or “sleep-bringing sponge” which was apparently the most important medical invention of the Dark Ages. It’s the forerunner of the anaesthetic mask. Circa thirteenth century, and called “the sleepy sponge” in common English:

“Take the juice of the unripe mulberry, of hyoscyamus, of the juice of the hemlock, of the juice of the leaves of the mandragora, of the juice of the poppy capsule, of the juice of the wood ivy, of the juice of the forest mulberry, of the seeds of lettuce, of the seeds of the dock which has large round apples – each an ounce; mix all those in a brazen vessel and then place it in a fresh sea sponge. Let the whole boil until the sun lasts on the dog days so that the sponge consumes all the fluid.

As often as there shall be need of it, place the sponge into hot water for an hour and let it be applied to the nostrils of him who is to be operated on, until he has fallen asleep. When the surgery is finished, in order to awaken him, apply another sponge, dipped in vinegar to the nose or throw the juice of the root of fenugreek into the nostrils. Shortly he will awaken.”

There’s a side note that the danger of too much sleepy sponge could lead to never waking up, apparently. So physicians who used it were abjured with great force to apply the vinegar if there was the slightest doubt of the patient going too deeply under.

The book this comes from, by the way, Is Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream,  by Thomas Dormandy.


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