The sleep inducing medicinal plants of 17th century England

[The sleep—stupor—inducing medicinal plants of 17th century England (including opiates which were fairly new to England) were well known, as Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) refers to them in his Natural History:]

“The ointment that witches use, is reported to be made of the fat of children digged out of their graves; of the juices of smallage, wolf bane, and cinque-foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat. But I suppose, that the soporiferous medicines are likest to do it; which are henbane, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, tobacco, opium, saffron, poplar leaves, etc.”

The Works of Francis Bacon: Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord High Chancellor of England, Volume 2. Pasted from <>

[He refers to opiates at length here:]

“22. The Turks find opium, even in large quantities, innocent and cordial, so that they even take it before a battle to give them courage. But to us, except in small quantities, and with strong correctives, it is fatal.

23. Opium and opiates are clearly found to excite the sexual passion, which shows their power to strengthen the spirits.

24. Distilled water of the wild poppy being doubtless a mild opiate, is successfully given in surfeit, fevers, and various diseases; and let no one wonder at the variety of its use. For this is common to opiates, as the spirits being strengthened and condensed will fight against any disease.

25. The Turks use likewise a kind of herb, called “coffee,” which they dry, grind to powder, and drink in warm water. They affirm that it gives no small vigour both to their courage and their wit. Yet this taken in large quantities will excite and disturb the mind; which shows it to be of a similar nature to opiates.

26. There is a certain root, celebrated through all the Fast, called ” betel,” which the Indians and others use to carry in their mouths, and chew ; whereby they are wonderfully refreshed, and enabled to endure fatigues, and throw off disorders, and strengthened for sexual intercourse. It appears to be a kind of narcotic, because it blackens the teeth exceedingly.

27. The use of tobacco has immensely increased in our time. It affects men with a kind of secret pleasure, so that persons once accustomed to it can scarce leave it off: It tends no doubt to relieve the body, and remove weariness; and its virtue is commonly thought to lie in this, that it opens the passages and draws off the humours. But it may be more properly referred to the condensation of the spirits; for it is a kind of henbane, and manifestly affects the head, as all opiates do.

28. Humours are sometimes generated in the body, which are a kind of opiates themselves; as is found in some kinds of melancholy, wherewith if a man be seized, he is very long-lived.

29. Simple opiates, which are likewise called narcotics and stupefactives, are opium itself, which is the juice of the poppy, the plant and seed of the poppy, henbane, mandragora, hemlock, tobacco, and nightshade.

30. Compound opiates are, treacle, mithridate, trifera, laudanum of Paracelsus, diacodium, diascordium, philonium, and pills of houndstongue.

31. From these observations certain directions or advices may be drawn for the prolongation of life, according to this intention, namely, the condensing of the spirits by opiate.

32. From youth upwards, therefore, let there be every year a kind of opiate diet. Let it be taken at the end of May; for in summer the spirit: are most wasted and weakened, and there is less fear of cold humours. Let the opiate be of a superior kind, not so strong as those in use, either as to the quantity of opium or to the proportion of very hot ingredients. Let it be taken in the morning between sleeps. Let the diet at the time be more simple and sparing, without wine, spices, or things that produce vapours. Let the medicine be taken only on alternate days, and be continued for a fortnight. Such directions appear to me to answer the intention satisfactorily.

33. Opiates may not only be taken through the mouth, but likewise inhaled in the form of smoke; but it should be such as not to excite the expulsive faculty too strongly, nor draw out the humours, but only to work upon the spirits within the brain for a short time. Wherefore a suffumigation of tobacco, ligno-aloes, dried leaves of rosemary, and a little myrrh, inhaled in the morning through the mouth and nostrils, would be very beneficial.

34. In the powerful opiates, as -theriacum, mithridate, and the rest, it would not be amiss, especially in youth, to take the distilled waters rather than the bodies themselves. For in distillation the vapour rises, while the heat of the medicine generally settles; and distilled waters in the virtues conveyed by vapours are mostly good, in others weak.

35. Some medicines have a degree, weak and secret,- and therefore safe, of opiate virtue. These impart a slow and abundant vapour, but not malignant, as opiates do. And hence they do not put the spirits to flight, but yet they collect and somewhat thicken them.

36. The medicines that make opiates are, first of all saffron and its flowers; then Indian leaf, ambergris, a preparation of coriander seed, amomum and pseudamomum, lignum Rho-dium, orange-flower water, or better still, the infusion of fresh orange-flowers in oil of almonds, nutmegs pricked full of holes and soaked in rose-water.

37. Though opiates, as has been mentioned, are to be used seldom and at certain times, yet this secondary kind may be taken frequently and in daily diet, and will conduce greatly to the prolongation of life. An apothecary of Calieut, by the use of amber, is said to have lived 160 years; and the nobles of Barbary, where the common people are short-lived, are found by a use of the same means to be long-lived. Our own an-cestors, who were longer-lived than we arc, made great use of saffron, in cakes, broths, and the like. And so much for the first means of condensing the spirits; namely, by opiates and their subordinates.”

History Of Life And Death (Historia vitae et mortis). 1623. Francis Bacon. Pasted from <>

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