An apothecary’s shop was full of various cures, most of which he prepared himself. He was usually a trusted member of the medieval community, but at times, apothecaries were accused of practising magic or witchcraft. In an age before people could easily access doctors and hospitals, the apothecary was an ordinary person’s best hope of a cure or relief from an illness. Because apothecaries saw different people with various illnesses each day, most had a huge knowledge of the human body and herbal remedies.
A History of Apothecaries
The first apothecaries are believed to have traded in the Middle East, with their knowledge gradually transmitting into Europe via merchants and traders. Apothecaries were primarily men and, despite their popularity, were not officially recognised in England until 1606, when the Society of Apothecaries was founded.
Early in the Middle Ages, an apothecary would cultivate all of the plants and herbs needed for his medicines himself. Later, formal supply chains developed, with individuals growing plants to order, for supply to apothecaries.
The recipes for the wines, syrups, cordials and medicines used by the medieval apothecary were passed down through the generations and were closely guarded as the most successful apothecary would have the most customers.
The Work of an Apothecary in the Middle Ages
Whilst some apothecaries worked on a casual basis from their own homes, many had their own retail premises, usually a small shop. The front part of the shop would have shelves full of medicines and herbs and in the back section, the apothecary would prepare medicines as and when they were needed. Ideally, the apothecary would also have access to a garden, where he could grow the herbs and plants he needed to prepare his cures.
Some of the most popular medicines were prepared in advance, ready for sale, just as in a modern-day pharmacy. Other cures were prepared as and when needed, and were made up precisely, with the apothecary using his knowledge of the patient and the illness to prepare what he thought would be the ideal remedy.
Early in the medieval period, apothecaries were often known as spicers or pepperers, because their work involved weighing out small amounts of herbs and spices for use in medicine, or for direct sale to customers. They were involved in importing and distributing spices from abroad, for sale in cooking and in the preparation of products such as spiced wines.
- French, Roger Medicine before Science: The Business of Medicine from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment [Cambridge University Press, 2003]