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