Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera – 9th Century Benedictine Monastery

Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera

The Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera was discovered, quite by luck, on a recent trip to northern Spain.

Unfortunately it was a dreich day (good Scottish weather word). Fortunately not cold but very wet. Still even the bad weather did not dampen the visit. A remarkably beautiful area with a fascinating 9th century Benedictine monastery.

It has proven quite difficult to find information about the monastery. Any I have found is mostly in Catalan or occasionally, Spanish. Unfortunately neither language of which I have much knowledge. However, both the Monasteries de Catalunya and the Província de Girona Art Medieval websites are worth a look for the stunning photographs alone.

Monestir de Sant Quirze de ColeraStories abound. A document apparently suggests two brothers Libenci and Assinari took possession of the Albera range of valleys and mountains from the Saracens during the time of Charlemagne. Whether or not these two brothers founded the monastery is unknown. However, this appears to be the general belief.

The protected Albera range is stunning and so tranquil. A flora and fauna lovers paradise. Interestingly it is one of the last areas in the Iberian peninsula to find the Hermann tortoise in its natural environment. I didn’t see one but being sun worshippers I’m sure they were all hiding away from the bad weather. There is always next time.

Benedictine Monks and Medicinal Plants

Many plants grow around the monastery. This led to a wonder of what medicinals the Benedictine monks utilised.

On researching I found a particularly interesting paper from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Titled, The Pharmacy of the Benedictine Monks and published in 2012. The study concentrated on old prescriptions from a monastery in Brazil. However, as a Benedictine monastery the knowledge, and plants it would seem, were largely acquired from France. Strongly influenced by Galenic/Hippocratic medicine. In fact some 84% of the medicinals were not Brazilian natives.

The root of Gentiana lutea, recorded in several prescriptions as an aperitif and tonic, is still in use medicinally. A bitter digestive remedy. It seems plant roots were more frequently utilised. The authors surmised this may be due to preservation issues.

Other herbs included elderflower, lavender, dandelion, peppermint, juniper, ash, wormwood, hyssop, chamomile, sweet violet, soapwort, valerian. All herbs still in use today and plants I could imagine growing near the Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera.

If ever in the beautiful natural reserve of the Albera area, the Monestir de Sant Quirze de Colera is well worth a detour.

St Lizier Apothecary in the Ariege Department

St Lizier Apothecary in the Ariege Department

The History of the St Lizier Apothecary

St Lizier Apothecary Recently on a visit to a neighbouring department Ariege, I visited an 18th century apothecary in St Lizier. The hospital was funded by a wealthy bishop with a personal fortune. The Sisters of Nevers became the nurses.

The Sisters of Nevers were from a religious institute founded in 1680 to minister to the sick and poor. In St Lizier they took in the sick and wounded, beggars and elderly.

In addition they took in abandoned children. A special opening remains visible to the left of the hospital main entrance. The abandoned baby entrance. After baptism, every child took the surname DeDieu, meaning from God. Apparently a common surname in the area to this day.

The St Lizier Apothecary

St Lizier apothecaryThe Apothecary was a step back in time to 1764. It is quite small. The woodwork is from fruit trees, I believe it was pear and cherry trees.

Behind the glass doors are shelves for jars and vials, liquid contents. Furthermore there are 50 drawers for storing dried herbs. Each drawer numbered with a copper plate. Hence some of the drawers still had labels inside detailing the original contents. The example in the image (slideshow below) is guimauve or Althea officinalis. The English common name is marshmallow.

Behind the glass fronted doors there are a wide of array of glass vials and jars and ceramic pots. Often the contents are on the container. For example ‘H. de Chamomille’ is oil of chamomile. Those with ‘H’ is for huile whereas ‘S’ is for syrup. There are also aromatic waters for example ‘Eau de Menthe’ is peppermint aromatic water.

Other cabinets contained ceramic pots, no doubt used for storing unguents. The small ceramic dishes, like odd shaped egg cups, are eye baths.

Interestingly I assumed the ceramic canards (ducks in English) probably containers for treating the nasal cavity for infections. However, the guide described them as possibly early beakers for giving medicines to weak, infirm or children.

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Although a short tour, at around 20 minutes, it was extremely interesting. Furthermore, St Lizier itself is very beautiful. In conclusion, a wonderful way to spend a morning, particularly with a visit to the St Lizier apothecary.

Elizabeth Blackwell, Botanical Illustrator: A Curious Herbal

Elizabeth Blackwell, Botanical Illustrator: A Curious Herbal

Elizabeth Blackwell may seem a fairly ordinary sort of name. However, historically, not one but two dynamic women carried this name. Both were British born.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first physician

The most recent Elizabeth Blackwell was actually the first female physician. She was born in February 1821 in Bristol in England. The first woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States, in 1849, and the first woman on the UK medical register. Quite a feat. Several educational institutions resisted before one finally admitted her to study.

She wrote a number of books. Furthermore she was instrumental in the education of women in medicine. Incidentally her younger sister Emily was the third female to obtain a medical degree.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the botanical illustrator

Elizabeth Blackwell Botanical Illustrator A Curious HerbalAn earlier Elizabeth Blackwell born, Elizabeth Blachrie, in Scotland in 1707 was yet another strong female figure.

Her book, A Curious Herbal published in 1737, was designed to aid physicians and apothecaries in plant identification. It contains several beautiful illustrations of medicinal plants. The book is quite beautiful and of particular interest to me.

Her husband, a doctor, was a somewhat lavish spender. In addition, he had accrued a few fines. He ended up in a debtor’s prison. Consequently leaving poor Elizabeth destitute with no income and a child to feed.

Discovering a need for such an illustrated book, Elizabeth relocated to near the Chelsea Physic Garden. From there she was able to draw the plants from life.

Finally she accrued sufficient funds for her husbands release from prison. This was largely due to the income from A Curious Herbal. However, once again he accrued debts. Eventually he left his family for Sweden. He was later executed for conspiracy. Elizabeth died in 1758. She is buried in Chelsea, London.

Although Elizabeth was not a physician her book is a remarkable record of medicinal plants in use during that time period.

Hippocrates the father of medicine

Hippocrates the father of medicine

So what are the facts about Hippocrates

On completion of my BSc (Hons) in herbal medicine my colleagues, completing the same year, and I stood together and quoted the Hippocratic Oath for entry to the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. You will see references stating physicians do this. Apparently, if this was historically true, it is no longer although some medical schools do have a modern, adapted oath.

There are a few different versions of the oath attributed to Hippocrates. In actual fact there is no real evidence it was written by Hippocrates. An anonymous piece of Greek text. It could have been written by anyone!

You may also have read of a Hippocrates or Hippocratic Diet. Again this is not attributable to Hippocrates and is actually a far more modern diet. The diet consists of organic, predominately raw, vegetables. Most resources for this diet include this quote which is also ‘apparently’ attributed to Hippocrates.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

Hippocrates is largely credited with changing the mindset that disease was not caused by any external supernatural forces. Environment, standard of living and diet were more probable causes.

So what do we actually know of Hippocrates?

It is generally believed he was born around 460BC on the Greek island of Kos. He was indeed a physician. There is no actual documented evidence as to whether Hippocrates believed in the gods and supernatural causes.

In summary…

In the end it probably doesn’t matter which Greek physician, if it was a Greek physician, that came up with the quote above. It is still a very pertinent quote. Food should indeed be our medicine.

The change in medical practice, to look at the person rather than believing in supernatural causes, was a great advancement no matter when discovered. Or indeed by whom?

So is it correct to quote Hippocrates the father of medicine? We will probably never know the real answer.