Tilting at Windmills with Don Quixote, Or, A Meditation on Spanish Herbals

Illustration by Octavio Ocampo

I’ll confess something here:  until just recently, I never read Don Quixote, except for snippets here and there.

No, thanks to the preferences of my Spanish professors, instead I spent days swooning over the lyricism of poets Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda or stumbling through conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account of Hernando Cortés’s conquest of Mexico.

That’s really too bad, because even though Díaz recounts vivid details of the markets of the prehispanic Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City, and I recall those details best because of my long-term love for food history), food and herbs play an enormous role in Don Quixote, too.

So like a child rationing a grocery sack full of Halloween candy, saving the chocolate for last, I savored each chapter of Don Quixote. But that’s one of the wonderful things about delaying gratification.

Miguel de Cervantes

I would rather have at this time a good luncheon of bread, or a cake and two pilchard heads … than all the roots and simples* in Dioscorides’s herbal and Doctor Laguna’s supplement and commentary …

In one small paragraph, Cervantes nearly sums up the range and importance of herbals found in medieval and Renaissance Spain, in as much there could be such a thing, given the stranglehold of the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church.

These herbals survived in Spain thanks to the convergence of several serendipitous trends:

1) the invention of the printing press,

2) the translation of Dioscorides’s herbal by Andrés de Laguna (Pedacio Dioscorides Anarzabeo, acerca de la material medicinal, 1555),  which influenced Spanish (and European) medical practice for centuries, and a number of tenth-century translators who worked with Greek versions of Dioscorides, according to Minta Collins in Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions (2000).

3) the writings of Nicolás de Monardes (Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales),** and others like Francisco Hernández and García de Orta, who later wrote herbals based on medieval works. (Monardes focused on plants from the New World.)

Other herbals associated with Spain include Libro de Medicina llamado Macer, which appeared in 1518, a translation from Latin. The name Macer was associated with Macer Floridus, actually considered a pseudonym for Aemilius Macer, author of a lost herbal from the 1st century B.C., but it turns out that the author was Odo of Meung, a French cleric who wrote the book in the 12th century. And Arnald of Villanova (1235 – 1311), physician to Peter III of Aragon, is said to have written De simplicibus medicinis, and a number of other works on herbs and healing. According to Rafael Chabrán, in his survey of the history of Spanish cuisine (“Medieval Spain,” in Regional Cuisines of Medieval Europe, edited by Melitta Weiss Adamson (2002)):

Arnaldo de Villanova

Villanova’s work belongs to a tradition of dietetic literature that dates back to the classical Greek and Arab periods, and especially to the writings of Hubnayn ibn Ishāq, known in the West as Johannitius. The dietetic tradition in which Villanova wrote greatly influenced such later culinary works as Rupert de Nola’s cookbook, and the book by Luis Lobera de Ávila, El Vanquete de los Nobles Cavalleros (The Banquet of the Noble Gentlemen).

As in most herbals, recipes appeared in sufficient numbers to illustrate how medicinals and food often glided together as one.

Take rosemary for example.

Laguna wrote of rosemary, mentioned frequently in Don Quixote, particularly in the famous Balsam of Fierabras:

The eating of its flower in a preserve comforts the brain, the heart and the stomach; sharpens the understanding, restores lost memory [“rosemary for remembrance”?], awakens the mind and in sum, is a healthy remedy for all kinds of cold ailments of the head and stomach … Its aromatic fumes work against coughs, colds and runny noses.

In many cases, butchers used rosemary and sage stuffed inside eviscerated animal carcasses to keep them from putrefying on long journeys to markets, the bactericidal qualities of rosemary especially assisting in preservation of the fresh meat (most of the time).

The first cookbook on Spanish cuisine that I ever bought, Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain (1982), contains a recipe for Longaniza, a rosemary-infused pork sausage that is hung up to dry for a day, testifying (one hopes) to the power of rosemary touted by the medieval herbalists, though the saltpeter probably helps, too.

The story of Spanish herbals and the evolution of Spanish cuisine cannot, of course, be completely told in one blog post, or even in a dozen. But there’s a story there, testimony to Miguel de Cervantes’s enduring (and endearing) narrative of a delusional man who wanted something more from life, so he invented his own reality and dragged along the trusting Sancho Panza, just like some people still do today.

Makes 1 30-inch sausage

¾ lb. ground loin pork, with some fat on it
1 ½ t. salt1
1 ½ t. paprika
¾ t. crushed fresh rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper
3/8 t. saltpeter
Sausage casings

Mix together all ingredients. Stuff into sausage casing in one long sausage. Tie off the end. Hang to dry for one day, then refrigerate, loosely wrapped in wax paper. [Note: You’ll need to cook the sausage as with any fresh pork sausage.]


*A “simple” was simply an element/herb administered singly and without be mixed into a compound with other elements or herbs.

**Translated into English by John Frampton in 1577, under the odd title Joyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde.

For more about Spanish herbals:

Beaujouan, G. “Manuscrits médicaux du Moyen Age conservés en Espagne.” Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez 8: 161 – 221, 1972.

Bos, Gerrit and Mensching, Guido. “Macer Floridus: A Middle Hebrew Fragment with Romance Elements.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 91 (1/2): 17-51, July – October 2000).

_____. “A 15th-Century Medico-Botanical Synonym List (Ibero-Romance-Arabic) in Hebrew Characters”

López-Muñoz, Francisco, Alamo, Cecilio, and García-García, Pilar. “The herbs that have the property of healing …,”: The Phytotherapy in Don Quixote. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106: 429 – 441, 2006.

_____. ” “Than all the herbs described by Dioscorides…”: the traces of Andrés Laguna in the works of Cervantes”. Pharmacy in history 49 (3): 87–108, 2007.

Solomon, Michael R. “Spectacles of Erudition: Physicians and Vernacular Medical Writings in Early Modern Spain” — (a huge 99-page lavishly illustrated .pdf file, so be prepared! Worth the wait (and the space).)

List of books and manuscripts on Spanish medical history, found in the online database at Indian University: Diccionario Español de Textos Médicos Antiguos (DETEMA) (The database is accessible only to those associated with the university, but the list is available to all.)

To be continued …

© 2010 C. Bertelsen


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