No better way to spend a snowy, cold winter Sunday then excavating my antique bookcase. My eye rested upon a full morocco book with the title ” History of Druggs”. A book written by Pierre Pomet (1658-1699) “Chief druggist to the present French king”. Referring to King Louis XIV. The book was first published in 1694 in Paris.
My copy is a first English edition, dating 1712. Material from Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) and Nicolas Lemery (1645-1715) was added to the text. Joseph Browne (1673-1721), a Lincoln College-educated physician and satirist stood for the English translation. This 419 pages materia medica covering botanical, zoological, as well as mineral sources is illustrated with 86 copper engravings. Every plate shows mostly four figures. These excellent pictures give this book a very special value. Two of these illustrations are my favourites. The first shows a variety of unicorns. The author states: “The Unicorn is an Animal which our Naturalists describe under the Figure of a Horse, having in the Middle of his Head a spiral Horn, of two or three Foot long; but as we know not the Real Truth of the Matter to this Day, I shall only say, the what we sell under the Name of the Unicorn’s Horn, is the Horn of a certain fish, by the Islanders call’d Narvual or the Sea Unicorn, as you will find when we come to the treat of Fish. This Horn was formerly in great Esteem, because of the mighty Virtues attributed to it by the Ancients, especially against Poisons, which is the Reason that so many great Personages have been very fond of it; so that it has been valued at its Weight in Gold.”
After this, the author describes very securely all known unicorns and where they can be found. Exceptional is the case of two of them seen in “the Verge of Mohamet’s Sepulchre in Mecha in Arabia” by Ludovicus Vertomanus. Here Pomet points at the Venetian traveller Luigi Barthema (ca. 1470-1517), or Ludovico di Varthema; otherwise called Ludovicus Vartomanus or Vertomanus; one of the few people who claims having seen this mythical creature with his own eyes.
The second plate shows two stranded whales, a male and female. The strange appearance of both animals shows clearly the artist had to draw from stories told to him about whales and never saw a real one. See the male whale having bear-like forelegs and a monstrous head. The female has breasts, also notice the pipes player standing on the snout.
Many other remarkable stories fill ” The History of Druggs”, an account on the making of silk or how to handle a mummy and what colour and smell the latter should have, are just some of the strange comments you may find. Most amazing about books from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century (the beginning of the Age of Enligthenment) is the mix of actual knowledge and myth combined. The coming months I will review some other great books on natural history from this era.