Origins of Renaissance medicine

Indian elephant (Elephas maximus subsp. indicus)

Ivory of Indian elephants (Elephas maximus subsp. indicus), listed as an ingredient in Mediterranean pharmacopeias until 1750. Photo by trislander licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Plants and animals have been used to make drugs for millennia. 16th century pharmacists in Western Europe preferred extremely complex herbal formulations involving dozens of ingredients, many sourced in far-away regions.

This study presents a detailed analysis of a unique set of recently discovered 16th century pharmacological manuscripts from Spain with the goal of determining ingredients, and, using GBIF-mediated data to verify species names and origin as well as influences on present medicinal knowledge.

The manuscripts describe 101 medicines of which the majority contain more than two ingredients (some as many as 35), and 85 per cent of the ingredients are of plant origin. The researchers identify more than 60 per cent of ingredients still in use today in medicine production, however, the source of these has shifted from exotic imports to cheaper, local resources.

The study confirms that despite local availability of medicine ingredients, physicians had a distinct preference for exotic and expensive resources, inevitably making drugs of the Renaissance a precious affair.

Citation information 

Rivera D, Verde A, Obón C, Alcaraz F, Moreno C, Egea T, Fajardo J, Palazón JA, Valdés A, Signorini MA and Bruschi P (2017) Is there nothing new under the sun? The influence of herbals and pharmacopoeias on ethnobotanical traditions in Albacete (Spain). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Elsevier BV 195: 96–117. Available at: