Plants, Prescriptions, and Placebos: 1535 – present

Salvia divinorum

The circulation of people, things, and ideas between the New and Old Worlds from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries is a unifying theme of the John Carter Brown Library’s collections, and some of these circuits of exchange live on in strikingly similar ways. Online exhibitions at the JCB highlighting how indigenous American plants changed early modern European medical practices resound in many ways with Brown anthropologist Paja Faudree’s research on the contemporary global trade in Salvia divinorum, known colloquially simply as salvia. History does not simply repeat itself, however—changing contexts of production, use, and exchange illuminate how indigenous and European ideas about nature and medicine have changed each other over the centuries.

Two recent exhibitions at the JCB, 2011’s “Drugs from the Colonies: The New American Medicine Chest,” and 2009’s “Atlantic Materia Medica,” explore the circulation of plants and medical knowledge in detail, while several others touch on the subject, including “Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, 1600-1860,” currently on display in the reading room, and “Voyage to the Islands: Hans Sloane, slavery, and scientific travel in the Caribbean” from 2012. These exhibitions document an explosion of European writing about medicine and natural history in the eighteenth century, as explorers, traders, and colonists began to learn about indigenous American and African treatments for disease and experiment with new uses of plants from the colonies. Their technologies of knowledge gathering and dissemination included not only ethnographic observations, but also detailed engravings, preserved plant specimens, and seed boxes that circulated between Europe and the Americas. They also engaged in lively discussions about the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine, debating how best to categorize plants that could alter people’s physical and psychological states, and promoting European contexts of use and production that were radically different from indigenous customs. These plants included popular colonial cash crops like tobacco, sugar, cocoa, and coffee, which still blur the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine.

Even today, “new” plants continue to join this circulation, one of which Paja Faudree, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown, explores in her research project “Magic Mint: A Linguistic Ethnography of the Global Salvia Trade.” Faudree recently received funding from the National Science Foundation for her investigation of how the increasing popularity of the Mexican plant, Salvia divinorum, is reshaping transnational discourses about plants and drugs. In the Mazatec region of Mexico, where she has conducted her linguistic anthropological research for many years, indigenous shamans use a tea of this hallucinogenic plant in ritual contexts. However, in other countries, recreational users smoke it for its psychotropic effects. The internet is a foundational technology for this international trade, since online middlemen link buyers and sellers, and You Tube videos celebrate salvia’s “natural” high, shaping expectations for future users. Through interviews, participant observation, media analysis, and historical research, Faudree connects the increasing impact of salvia’s status as a cash crop in the Mazatec-speaking region of Mexico with popular, media, and political discourses on salvia’s representation in and beyond the United States.

In both these historical and modern case studies, American plants with psychotropic effects have gained new meanings and uses in the Atlantic world, reshaping both trading networks and discourses. Plants that people can use to self-medicate, i.e. to change their own psychotropic states, have a widespread and successful history as cash crops, and salvia is increasingly filling this niche in Mexico today. Yet contrasts between the indigenous and non-indigenous uses of “drugs” show that despite cross-cultural interest in plants that influence physical and psychological states, cultural frameworks of medicine, recreation, nourishment, and spirituality help to determine when, how, and why people use them. These frameworks, which Faudree calls “placebo texts” or “cultural narratives,” play a vital role in shaping people’s experience of plants as drugs, foods, or medicine.

Of course, some things have changed since the 16th century. On a surface level, technologies of information exchange and transportation of indigenous plants have shifted from physical books to the Internet, and from ships to private shipping carriers. More significantly, the exchange that began with colonial exploration shaped the dichotomies that structure the debate over salvia today. The “Drugs from the Colonies” exhibition illustrates how eighteenth century experiments began to sanitize and professionalize medicine, as Europeans sought predictable and regular treatments for diseases. In the twenty first century, laboratory-produced pharmaceuticals dominate American biomedicine. Salvia’s popularity has this historical trend to thank, since its users and proponents in the United States contrast its “natural,” and supposedly safe, effects with those of highly processed illegal drugs in powdered, pill, or solution form. Yet Faudree points out that salvia, too, is processed by the time it reaches most end consumers. She directs our attention to production and processing as well as the labor both entail, noting that representations and discourses about plants that treat them as purely natural products, rather than products with social histories, can influence their reception in distant markets.

These dichotomies between natural and social—and between gentle plant and harmful processed drug—are as applicable to engravings from seventeenth-century sugar plantations as to arguments today that “cane sugar” is more natural and healthful than “high fructose corn syrup.” The connections between Faudree’s ethnographic research and the John Carter Brown Library’s exhibitions testify that while contemporary developments in botanical medicine may appear new, they often draw their sustenance from debates rooted in history.

Jeremiads Are More Fun Than You Might Expect

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If you tap ‘Author: Cotton Mather’ into the JCB catalog, the effect is rather like opening the door of an over-stuffed cupboard and having the contents drop on your head — out falls a total of 235 works. Surely no other JCB author can compete with this — indeed, it’s been claimed that Cotton Mather published more titles than any other writer in history, though most of them are just single sermons or lectures.

One of these is a book misleadingly titled The Short History of New-England, which was published in Boston in 1694. It makes no attempt to provide any sort of coherent history but is in fact a sermon delivered to the General Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and its running title is Memorable Passages, relating to New-England (which is more accurate by dint of being more vague). As the date suggests, the work is primarily preoccupied with trying to draw a moral from the witchcraft crisis of two years before, with some reflections on the Massachusetts ‘revolution’ of 1689 and the new charter which came into effect just as the Salem tragedy began to unfold.

The book takes its text from Ezekiel 22:30: ‘I sought for a MAN among them, that should make up the HEDGE, and stand in the GAP, before me, for the Land, that I should not Destroy it. . . ‘. Mather melodramatically stops here, explaining that ‘The Rest I will not Now Read unto you, as Wishing and Hoping, that it may Never be fulfilled in our Eyes!’ (If you can’t take the suspense, the verse concludes: ‘but I found none.’)

The sermon is an example of the jeremiad, where New Englanders are taken to task for their backsliding by their ministers, but the form can be more exuberant and virtuosic than that glum agenda suggests. Mather plays all sorts of riffs on his controlling metaphor of a damaged hedge. Indians can sneak through that gap, he tells us, devils too, and worst of all, vices. Serpents come in and crawl and coil about us; wasting fevers find their way through, not to mention sexual defilements, and death itself. And sorceries. The word for hedge can mean ‘wall’ in Hebrew, he explains, and he visualizes it as a breakwater that has been breached, allowing the sea to cast up mire and mud. It is also a city wall, over which the heads and hearts of malefactors should be thrown to purify the community within.

I was researching a novel set at the time of the Salem witchcraft, and Mather’s little book provided me with the exact title I needed: The Gap in the Hedge. Without vulgarizing the issue, it evokes something of the ominousness of an M.R. James ghost story; more importantly it catches the sense shared by all those concerned, whether judges, accusers, or victims, that the cultural and spiritual boundaries established for the Christian plantation of New England had in some way broken down, and that a profound change was beginning to overtake their society. Mather’s elaborate explication of the Biblical metaphor also provided my book with a perfect epigraph, particularly as it concludes: ‘So then, there is a most Solemn and Weighty CASE; indeed, the more Solemn and Weighty, because it is OUR OWN, Case: where-with I am now to Entertain you.’ I remember wanting to shatter the scholarly quiet of the JCB reading room by waving my fists above my head and shouting out, ‘Yes!
–Richard Francis, Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow, Fall 2013

Keep On Minding Your Business

The JCB’s exhibits and research constantly refract old material through new lenses, and recent work with the library’s collections of business papers casts light on historical questions ranging from commerce to education, maritime history, and medicine. The 2012 exhibition “Mind Your Business: Records of Early American Commerce at the John Carter Brown Library” highlights multiple layers of history in the library’s manuscript collections, Providence’s past, and the growth of American business practices in the context of global trade. The online version of the exhibition is a contribution to local history and a promising teaching tool, and current fellows at the JCB continue to explore its source manuscripts from new angles of scholarship. Read more…

They Found It at the JCB

An occasional series in which JCB Fellows, staff, and friends write about a particularly memorable reading or research experience in the Library.

Let me belatedly congratulate Janice Neri and Danielle Skeehan on their identification of the anonymous author who annotated the John Carter Brown’s 1635 first English edition copy of Mercator’s Atlas, and let me also declare a very much more than passing interest in their linking of the author with Little Gidding. Read their article here. As the editor of the Ferrar Papers at Magdalene College, Cambridge, I have been aware that, though the papers survived, the family’s library did not. It is therefore good to know of the survival of another volume from it.  Read more…

Internet Archive and Music of the Spheres

An occasional series in which JCB Fellows, staff, and friends write about a particularly memorable reading or research experience in the Library.

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The Internet Archive|John Carter Brown Library collaboration continues to create excitement. Constantly uploaded books and new personnel combine to generate buzz.

In a routine gander at some of the books newly scanned by our new steward of the Internet Archive Scribe in the basement of the JCB, one book in particular caught our eye. It also gave us reason to acknowledge Internet Archive’s new employee and the new JCB’s scanner,  Donna Dorvick. Donna joined us in July 2013, and had a brief, but powerful, instruction in the secrets of Internet Archive by our departing scanner, Xephyr Inkpen. We were sorry to see Xephyr leave—but happy she happily departed to pursue her artistic dreams—and we are very happy to welcome Donna into the fold. Read more…