Other Names

Spongia somnifera

In ancient times, herbalists and physicians

searched for anesthetic agents that could be used

during operations and in the treatment of wounds.

Numerous psychoactive plants and their products

were used in antiquity to anesthetize patients,

including Cannabis indica, Cannabis sativa,

Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus albus, Hyoscyamus

muticus, Mandragora officinarum, and

Papaver somniferum (Grover 1965; Riister 1991,

77 f.; Schmitz and Kuhlen 1989):

The use of narcotics during antiquity, for

which henbane, Indian hemp, mandragora,

opium, hemlock, and wine were the ones

most often recommended, did not always

revolve around the alleviation of pain but was

also from time to time related to ritual customs

and the attainment of states of inebriation.

(Amberger-Lahrmann 1988, 1)

As the early modern era began, the anesthetics

used in medicine and surgery continued to be

based primarily on opium (see Papaver somniferum)

and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) (Riister

1991). Atropa belladonna was also used (Grover

1965). Henbane was apparently also used to sedate

convicted criminals, for the oil that was pressed

from it was known as "delinquent oil" (Arends

1935,58*).

In the late Middle Ages and the early modern

era, the most commonly used sedative that was

also used as an anesthetic was the so-called soporific

sponge. The recipes for soporific sponges

tended to be relatively uniform (Brunn 1928;

Kuhlen 1983) and were based upon the preparations

of ninth- and tenth-century Islamic physicians

(e.g., Rhazes). They were especially popular

in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.

The primary ingredient was opium, to

which mandrake roots (Mandragora officinarum)

and henbane seeds (Hyoscyamus niger) were

added. This mixture was kneaded in rose-hip juice

(Rosa canina 1.) and mixed with wine (cf. the

fourteenth-century Roman Codex). The recipe for

this narcotic is strongly reminiscent of that of the

witches' ointments of the early modern era as well

as that of theriac. One recipe called for opium,

juice pressed from mandrake leaves, hemlock, and

henbane (Schmitz and Kuhlen 1989, 12). A twelfthcentury

recipe from Salerno used opium, henbane,

poppy, mandrake, ivy (Hedera helix), mulberries,

lettuce (Lactuca virosa) , and hemlock (Brandt

1997,41 ff.).

Soaked in wine, these mixtures were dripped

onto a bath sponge (Euspongia officinalis 1.),

which was then inserted into the nostrils of the

patient. The patient would then fall into a sleep

filled with wild fantasies.

A number of authors have speculated that such

soporific sponges were in use in ancient Jerusalem,

and that the sponge dipped in vinegar that was

offered to Jesus on the cross was actually one of

these.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there

were still a number of sedativa and anodyna specifica,

which are strongly reminiscent of the mixtures

used to make soporific sponges. The physician and chemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) left such a recipe

(cf. Schneider 1981):

2 drachmas opium thebaicum

1 half ounce cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum

Presl)

1 pinch musk and ambergris

1 half ounce poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum)

1 half drachma mandrake roots (Mandragora sp.)

3 drachmas mastic resin (from Pistacia lentiscus 1.)

1 drachma henbane juice (Hyoscyamus niger)

This mixture was later supplanted by laudanum,

in particular laudanum liquidum sydenhami,

which consisted of the following ingredients:

2 ounces opium

1 ounce saffron (Crocus sativus)

1 drachma cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

1 drachma cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)

These ingredients were digested in a pound of

Malaga wine (Schmitz and Kuhlen 1989, 15). This

agent was more of a psychoactive agent of pleasure

than an anesthetic.
Literature

See also the entries for theriac.

Amberger-Lahrmann, M. 1988. Narkotika. In Gifte:

Geschichte der Toxikologie, ed. M. AmbergerLahrmann

and D. Schmahl, 1-46. Berlin: Springer.

Brandt, Ludwig. 1997. Illustrierte Geschichte der

Aniisthesie. Stuttgart: WVG.

Brunn, Walter von. 1928. Von den

Schlafschwammen. Schmerz 1.

Grover, Norman. 1965. Man and plants against pain.

Economic Botany 19:99-111.

Kuhlen, Franz-Josef. 1983. Zur Geschichte der

Schmerz-, Schlaf- und Betiiubungsmittel in

Mittelalter und fruher Neuzeit. Stuttgart:

Deutscher Apotheker-Verlag.

Ruster, Detlef. 1991. Alte Chirurgie. 3rd ed.. Berlin:

Verlag Gesundheit.

Schmitz, Rudolf, and Franz-Josef Kuhlen. 1989.

Schmerz- und Betaubungsmittel vor 1600.

Pharmazie in unserer Zeit 18 (1): 11-19.

Schneider, Wolfgang. 1981. Mittelalterliche

Arzneidrogen und Paracelsus. In Rausch und

Realitiit, ed. G. Volger, 1:368-72. Cologne:

Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum fur Volkerkunde.

Top Contributors