Pills, poisons and a cathedral cat

CHPHM’s Dr Pat Cullum, whose research interests range across medieval medicine, hospitals and clerical masculinity, offers a corrective to the poor image of the medieval and early modern apothecary.

Pat Cullum recently talked to the British Society for the History of Pharmacy at the home they currently share with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in Lambeth, London, about Apothecaries in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. From the fifth floor balcony there was a fine view down on to Lambeth Palace, whose archive was sadly closed on the day, so Pat could not efficiently combine this visit with her other interest in medieval clergy. However she did manage a visit to nearby Southwark Cathedral, where she was able to photograph the monument to ‘Dr’ Lionel Lockyer, a seventeenth century ‘quack’ who even managed to make his epitaph an advertisement: ‘His virtues and his PILLS are soe well known, That envy can’t confine them under stone’.


Lionel Lockyer d.1672, Southwark Cathedral


Pat started with Penelope Corfield’s exploration of the ways in which Georgian apothecaries established a reputation as civic worthies rather than the ‘poison peddlers’ doctors had accused them of being in the seventeenth century. Pat explored the earlier history of apothecaries to establish that this negative reputation had been of relatively short duration, and the product of conflict between doctors and apothecaries over physicians’ claims to have authority over prescribing medicines and giving medical advice.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ‘apothecary’ was an occupation that overlapped with spicers and grocers. Men such as ‘George Groser of London, Apothecary’ witness to a 1391 will, or Constantine del Damme, spicer in 1381 but apothecary in 1398, and George Essex who took the franchise of York in 1473 as a ‘Potekary’ but was described as a Grocer twenty years later when he became a City Chamberlain, demonstrate the overlap of these categories. Apothecaries were dealers in high quality, high value, dry and preserved goods such as spices, herbs, wines and perfumes, which included, but were not confined to, medicinal products. Although many spicers and grocers outside the main urban centres probably only dealt with very small quantities of spices and paid the Poll Tax at the basic rate of 4d, people like Damme paid at a rate of 3-4s, up to twelve times as much. Medieval apothecaries were respected and respectable people, members of the civic elite, so what went wrong to produce a picture of them as disreputable poison peddlers?


An early C14 Apothecary’s shop. BL Ms Sloane 1977, f.49v


Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, apothecary became an increasingly specific identity, culminating (in London at least) with the creation of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1617. While it is tempting to see this as a process of medicalisation, apothecaries continued to prepare and sell a good many products, only some of which were medicinal. In 1449 Richard Hakedy, esquire, was both apothecary to the Royal Household, and serjeant of the chandlery, and thus involved in supplying candles and wax. In 1546-7, the last year of Henry VIII’s life, Thomas Alsopp, one of Hakedy’s successors, supplied the court with fomentations and sponges for the royal surgeons, urinals, and treatments for the king’s hounds and hawks, but also perfumes, breath-fresheners, and spices for the cook.

Older explanations of conflict within medical practice that highlighted the physician’s assertion of authority over surgeons and apothecaries have largely given way to more nuanced readings of negotiation of relative status and role. However, there is a case to be made that apothecaries in London were encroaching on the territory of physicians. Numbers of seventeenth century apothecaries wrote texts to teach their fellow apothecaries and even the literate public, diagnosis of illnesses, choice of medication and even how to make up pills and potions, without reference to a doctor. The physicians’ response was a defensive attack on apothecaries’ knowledge and capacity to diagnose, prescribe, and produce medication. So Georgian apothecaries were reclaiming a social status that had only relatively recently been lost.

And the cathedral cat? While visiting Lionel Lockyer Pat met the Southwark Cathedral cat, Doorkins Magnificat, who has his own webpage here. He has no discernable interest in apothecaries or their products, but mention a cat and you will get more visits to your web page. Lionel Lockyer probably had a cat to help get attention for his pills.

Pat would like to thank Jordan Neary, her intern this year, for acting as research assistant on this project.



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