When Medical Literature Included Unicorns

"We know not the real truth of this matter to this day ..."
unicorn570.jpg

Pierre Pomet's A Compleat History of Druggs [sic], originally published in 1694, is a compendium of the animals, vegetables, and minerals from which all known medicines were derived. Written by Louis XIV's chief druggist, it served as one of the most comprehensive and authoritative references for doctors and healers. But at a time when tales of new traditions were arriving in Europe from all corners of the world, the book was also a portal to the exotic: Pomet wasn't above pandering to the masses by covering the basics of everything from mummies to unicorns.

In many places, it's difficult to distinguish what was taken to be scientific knowledge from the book's more fantastical elements -- the common reader, and Pomet himself, was probably equally unlikely to have seen either a unicorn or a narwhal:

compleathistoryo00pome_0470.jpg

But the unicorn's horn, be it from sea or potentially fictitious land beast, was undoubtedly thought to be potent:

Authors have ascribed almost incredible things to it, the chiefest of which are, to resist all manner of poisons, and to cure the plague, with all sorts of malignant fevers, the biting of serpents, mad dogs, etc.
goat570.jpg

The books also includes this rather vampirish goat, whose blood had healing properties:

That which they call musk is a corrupted blood, which is collected under the belly of this animal...and when it is ripe, the beast, by instinct, goes to rub himself against a tree to break it. And this corrupted blood being dried in the sun...acquire a strong smell that is very disagreeable, which it ought to retain when it is pure, and has not come into the hands of the Jews in Holland...

It fortifies the heart and brain, refreshes the decayed spirits; it resists poison...increases seed, and expels wind.

Under Pomet's treatment, even more conventional animals are rendered with awe for their supposed healing properties. In the illustrations, which are attributed to the engraver Jean Crepy, they take on a mythic quality:

compleathistoryo00pome_0417.jpg
compleathistoryo00pome_0436.jpg
compleathistoryo00pome_0467.jpg
Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Health

Just In