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; Rüster 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) (Rüster 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 L.) 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 twelfth-century 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 L.), 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 L.)
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.
With this kind of medical treatment, it is easy to understand why powerful narcotics are needed. (Woodcut from Hans von Gersdorf, Feldbuch der Wundartzney, 1517)
The history of Western surgery is directly connected to the tradition of the narcotic sleeping sponge. (Woodcut, “The Wounded Man,” from Hans von Gersdorf, Feldbuch der Wundartzney, 1517)
See also the entries for theriac.
Amberger-Lahrmann, M. 1988. Narkotika. In Gifte: Geschichte der Toxikologie, ed. M. Amberger-Lahrmann and D. Schmähl, 1–46. Berlin: Springer.
Brandt, Ludwig. 1997. Illustrierte Geschichte der Anästhesie. Stuttgart: WVG.
Brunn, Walter von. 1928. Von den Schlafschwämmen. 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 Betäubungsmittel in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Stuttgart: Deutscher Apotheker-Verlag.
Rüster, Detlef. 1991. Alte Chirurgie. 3rd ed.. Berlin: Verlag Gesundheit.
Schmitz, Rudolf, and Franz-Josef Kuhlen. 1989. Schmerz- und Betäubungsmittel vor 1600. Pharmazie in unserer Zeit 18 (1): 11–19.
Schneider, Wolfgang. 1981. Mittelalterliche Arzneidrogen und Paracelsus. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:368–72. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.