Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency? Continue reading

Santa Claus, Mushroom Beer, and the Dutch

In my home country, The Netherlands, Santa Claus does not come for Christmas. By then he has already left. Santa Claus comes every year to the Netherlands to celebrate with us his birthday on 6 December. A few weeks before his birthday he sets out from his home in Spain by sea, on a steamer (he has arrived a week ago).  Santa Claus is accompanied by his assistants, the so-called Zwarte Pieten, or ‘Black Petes’. What is rather strange about Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is that his skin actually is black. To some this is offensive. To these people the fact that Santa Claus’ assistant (not himself) is a black person is a racist trait, a legacy from the age of slavery. The first appearance of the modern incarnation of Zwarte Piet in Dutch popular culture seems to date from around 1850, when slavery still existed in the Dutch colonial empire and when black slaves still worked the plantations in Dutch Suriname in the Guianas. Other interpretations seek the origins of Zwarte Piet in a more distant past. Might it already be a surprise to many children and their parents to learn that Zwarte Piet could actually be a Surinamese slave, it might be even more surprising for them to learn that he could be the descendant of a psychoactive plants or mushrooms consuming Germanic warrior.

Santa Claus and his Zwarte Pieten

Relating the Santa Claus traditions to ancient pagan beliefs and rituals is common in literature on psychoactive mushrooms – more in particular, in the literature on the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). In this perspective Santa Claus is Odin (Wodan), the Germanic god of ecstasy, warfare and poetry. Some nights he haunts the countryside on his Wild Hunt, with his warriors and his Valkyries, the immortal maiden who inspire the mortal heroes and select them for Valhalla. In ancient and medieval times Odin’s special warriors were the bear- and wolf warriors, the Berserkers and Ulfheonar who would fight naked (that is, without armor) in an uncontrollable and trance-like fury. This trance was, it is maintained, induced by the consumption of psychoactive substances. The fly agaric is routinely mentioned as the most likely candidate for the substance used. This mushroom is also commonly used as a decoration motif in Christmas trees and on Christmas cards. Continue reading

Medieval Drugs III: How Do I Drug Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

This is my third and final post about medieval drugs. A big “thanks” to Joe Gabriel for recommending Points to me and to Trysh Travis for giving me a soapbox for sharing some of my interests and original research with the Points community!

Among the favorite stock images of modern medicine are the scientifically dosed drug, measured in identical pills or graduated syringes, and the thermometer. While both are modern inventions, the hypodermic syringe and thermometer reflect a tendency, shared by later medieval Islamic and European physicians, to quantify drugs, their qualities, and medicinal actions. The tendency to quantify drugs, common by the end of the Middle Ages, is the third stage in the process I proposed in my first post, by which herbal medicines were transformed into “drugs” by physicians, pharmacists, and patients who began to look at their medicines in new ways. That transformation took a number of forms and for a variety of reasons, which I’ve grouped under the themes of individualism, exoticism, and scholasticism in these three posts.

The accurate measurement of drugs, in terms of both their strength and quantity, is central to modern medicine, and began in the High Medieval universities.

By “scholasticism” I mean the intellctual processes of subjecting pharmaceutical remedies to the philosophy and science taught in the schools and universities, especially mathematics and Aristotelian physics. Universities were an invention of the High Middle Ages, a way of organizing the already present schoolmasters and students into corporations with more effective legal, economic, academic, and even spiritual powers. By about 1225 the cities of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Padua, Salamanca, and Montpellier all had thriving universities. These universities provided the social and economic foundations for novel thinking about matter and physics in general, and about drugs in particular.

One of the most important developments in the medieval university, and one with a direct impact on modern science and medicine, was the practice of applying mathematics to non-spatial concepts, like heat or speed. Before the universities, these concepts could only be measured qualitatively (that pot is hotter, that horse is faster), and not quantitatively. Since Aristotle had considered quantity and quality different categories of definition, and not to be mixed, it took a huge mental leap for mental scholars to make the connection as step out of Aristotle’s shadow. If you want to quantify speed or heat, you need to develop the idea of velocity or temperature, respectively. This may sound downright modern and “scientific”, but medieval physicists took the idea of quantification and ran with it. Masters in Oxford, especially, tried to quantify non-spatial concepts that have no place in modern science: one tried to measure doubt on a sliding scale, another to measure the amount of charity in a man, and another even the amount of Christ in the Eucharistic host (yes, these are all real).

The “modernity” of medicine is often depicted by quantification, as in dosage, or body temperature.

These are extreme examples, but they’re indicative of a broad trend in Western society outlined by Alfred W. Crosby in his book The Measure of Reality. He identifies quantification as one of the most important changes in Europe in the period 1250-1600. He doesn’t really touch on medicine, but quantification changed that field as well. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that scholars of pharmacy would also want to measure exactly the amount of hot, cold, wet, or dry (Aristotle’s four elemental qualities) in a medicinal substance.  Continue reading

The Points Interview — Ian Tyrrell

Editor’s Note:  Australian Americanist, Ian Tyrrell, the last president of the Alcohol & Temperance History Group and the first president of the newly renamed and reconstituted Alcohol & Drugs History Society, shares a few reflections on his recent book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton University Press, 2010).

1. Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book is about late 19th century U.S. missionaries and moral reformers who wished to change the world not by turning everybody into Americans, but by Christianizing it and ridding it of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and other “sins.” But in the process, these people were changed, and the movements they led were changed. The experience of trying to change the world influenced reformers and missionary supporters back in the United States, creating a strong sense of the need for moral reform at home, and for the idea of a Christian nation achieved through exertion of state power.

Ultimately, I am showing how the world was, more than a century ago, already a very connected place with a United States that was surprisingly affected by overseas influences and engaged in exerting moral influence abroad. My American story is of a nation newly linked as part of a worldwide web of communications. Continue reading

Turning Herbs into Drugs in the Middle Ages

We here at Points are delighted to welcome a new guest blogger for the next few weeks: Winston Black, an intellectual historian of medieval England and France who has published several essays on medical and religious education, and an edition, translation, and study of Henry of Huntingdon’s Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century (Toronto and Oxford, 2012). He is currently the Haslam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of the University of Tennessee.

A recent essay in The Guardian compares modern cough medicines to the medieval cure-all theriac. The picture painted of medieval medicine is not so patronizing as usually found in the press: according to the author, neither ‘drug’ actually cures anything, there was a vigorous market for both, and both possessed some sort of placebo effect. The similarities end there. Whereas most modern cough medicines rely on sweeteners, affordability, and easy access for their appeal, the lure of theriac lay in its exotic, even repulsive content (viper’s flesh as the main ingredient), its cost (exorbitant), and the supposed difficulty in preparing it. Arnald de Villanova, a professor at the medical school of Montpellier around 1300, wrote an entire treatise on the topic, “On the dosage of theriac medicines” (De dosi tyriacalium medicinarum).

A copy of the “Tacuinum sanitatis” (‘Tables of Health’) from Vienna, ca. 1400, uses a well-stocked apothecary shop to illustrate the description of triacha, theriac.

Theriac is frequently held up as the medieval drug par excellence, and it probably was by the fourteenth century, but there were centuries of drug therapy before theriac was rediscovered. There was, in fact, an intellectual and economic gulf between the herbal pharmacy of much of the Middle Ages and the mature drug culture of the Later Middle Ages. How did this change occur? How did herbs become ‘drugs’?

Albarello vase for theriac; Italy, 1641.

There are several problems in discussing medieval drugs. The main problem is one of definition. The word ‘drug’ was not used until the very end of the Middle Ages to refer to medicine (droge meant ‘supply’ or ‘barrel’). Moreover, most of the substances we call ‘drugs’ didn’t exist or were rarely used then, such as refined or synthesized chemical compounds, legal stimulants like caffeine or nicotine, or illegal recreational drugs derived from marijuana or opium poppies. But if we use ‘drug’ in the broadest sense not as a substance that has by its nature a medicinal or intoxicating effect on an organism but rather as one that the user or provider thought would have such effects, this allows us to consider as ‘drugs’ a huge range of natural substances used in medieval medicine. For God, in a popular medieval view, provided the entire world for the benefit of mankind, and drugs could therefore be found everywhere, potentially in any animal, vegetable, or mineral. Continue reading

It’s Official! Dr. Bob’s Home and Stepping Stones are National Historic Landmarks

It’s official!  Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, has formally designated a new round of National Historic Landmarks (NHL), including Stepping Stones, the longtime home of Bill and Lois Wilson in Katonah, New York, and Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, in Akron, Ohio.  As I have written previously, I had the privilege of working with a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan on the NHL nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home.  Last May, we traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service, one step in the process.  Now, we are thrilled to learn that both nominations have cleared the final hurdle with the Secretary’s signature.

Kudos to the NHL staff for coordinating the nominations of Dr. Bob’s Home and Stepping Stones.  The two sites together illustrate the genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron with Dr. Bob, Anne, Bill, and a small circle of others; and its later explosive growth as an organization, as well as the development of Al-Anon, under the stewardship of Bill and Lois.  In this way, the designation process itself provides an interpretive framework for understanding the evolution of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship.

National Historic Landmark status is reserved for places that “possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.”  Perhaps the most important aspect of this designation is that it gets the story of Alcoholics Anonymous into the mainstream of American history, where it belongs.

The Points Interview — H. Paul Thompson, Jr.

Editor’s Note:  H. Paul Thompson’s book, A Most Stirring and Significant Episode: Religion and the Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Black Atlanta, 1865-1887 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012),  is due out this month.  Thompson positions his study as part of a recent reawakening of scholarly interest in the importance of religion as a freestanding source of 19th c. temperance and prohibition ideas and initiatives.  “This neo-religious school,” Thompson suggests, “includes, among others, James Rohrer, Robert Abzug, Douglas Carlson, and Michael P. Young.  They argue that temperance reformers’ biblical and religious discourse, worldview, and organizations must be understood on their own terms, and not as a cover for sublimated class, status, or political anxieties, or as ruses for cynical attempts at cultural dominance.”  Points warmly welcomes Paul to our forum! 

1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’m not exactly sure what bartenders understand because I am one of the few (maybe the only?) historians of temperance who actually does not drink!  That said, my work places a lot of emphasis on the religious and ideological basis for the nineteenth-century temperance movement.  Ironically, much of that foundation had changed in key ways by the time national prohibition commenced.  Here’s my best effort.   In a nutshell, my bartender should be thankful for all of the central, eastern, and southern European immigrants who flooded this nation at the turn of the twentieth-century — and their descendants — because they permanently transformed the reigning paradigms of U.S. culture.  He owes every patron whose name ends with a “ski” a great big “Thank You!” for helping to overturn America’s nineteenth-century evangelical Protestant-dominated worldview and for facilitating a decline in the influence of evangelical organizations and their leaders. America’s move away from historic republican ideology and discourse furthered this departure from past ideas too.  (But I wouldn’t bring this up unless I knew the bartender were working his way through a graduate history program.)  The split between conservative and liberal Protestantism in the early twentieth century, caused by the rise of modernism, also went a long way toward undermining the institutional, theological, and ideological forces that had undergirded the anti-alcohol movement for a century.  Of course I suppose he could also thank Al Capone, FDR, and the groups that fought to overturn the 18th Amendment as well. Continue reading

Drugs in Everyday Life: Some musings, and thoughts about research directions

‘Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’

I had to think of these sentences when reading this blog’s latest Weekend Read. The words are from the opening paragraph of The Society of the Spectacle, French Situationist Guy Debord’s fundamental critique of our society published in 1968. Why did they occur to my mind?

Living in the Spectacle

In the Weekend Reads our Contributing Editor Alex Tepperman enjoyably chronicles instances of celebrity drug scandals. This time he made a very important observation that deserves more attention. ‘The only perspective that Weekend Reads has not yet covered’, Alex wrote, ‘is that of the non-celebrity, the view that should matter most when we try to understand the broadest implications of American drug culture.’ And not only American drug culture, I would add from my Amsterdam study.

Celebrities are nice to read about, but they are a distraction as well. In fact, that is probably their most important function in our societies, American or European. They are the spectacle that we can gape at, but their lives are far removed from that of most of us. I fully agree with Alex’s remark that ‘while profiling [a celebrity] would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate”.’ He then goes on to deal with instances of non-celebrities that have received media coverage in connection to drugs.

A very worthwhile exercise, let there be no doubt about that. But it only gets us of course to a limited extent to a better understanding of the “inarticulate”. Continue reading

The Points Interview — Howard Padwa

Editor’s Note:  “For an otherwise law abiding morphine addict struggling to overcome addiction in the late 1920s, Britain was a more welcoming place than France.”  So begins Howard Padwa’s Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821-1926 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).  A graduate of the University of Delaware, Padwa continued his studies at the London School of Economics and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris before securing a doctorate in history from UCLA.  In our interview, Padwa highlights the place of  differing conceptions of proper membership in a national community as a deep source of Britain’s and France’s differential responses to illicit drugs. 

1.  Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

I started with two simple questions: First, why did opiates become so tightly controlled in the early twentieth century? Second, were the reasons the same everywhere? While a lot of scholars have looked at these questions, most have focused on studying things either globally (why did drugs become tightly controlled everywhere), or nationally (why did drugs become tightly controlled in this country or that country). In Social Poison I blended these approaches, looking at things internationally, but with a detailed focus on two countries (Great Britain and France).

As for the first question—why did opiates become so tightly controlled? I approached this question by looking at what people were afraid would happen if they didn’t control opiates. What would society look like if everyone could use them as much as they liked whenever they liked? I found that two fears were particularly common in the nineteenth century. First, people feared that opiates would take a toll on physical and mental health, eventually making users unable to care for themselves or contribute to society. Second, they feared that people who used opiates would essentially “tune out” of society, neglecting their duties to their friends, families, and countrymen when they were under the influence. In both cases, what made opiate use problematic was not just that use was considered “immoral,” but also that it seemed to compromise users’ abilities to act as good citizens. Drug use was understood as more than just a medical or psychological disorder—it was also a threat to the normal functioning of social relationships.

This led to the second question—were the reasons drugs became tightly controlled the same everywhere? The kind of social problem opiate use could become depended, to a large degree, on how “society” was defined. In Britain, where the national community was imagined as individuals functioning in a free market, fears focused on the impact drug use could have on self-sufficiency and commerce. In France, on the other hand, the nation was understood in a more collectivistic way, and engagement of citizens with society was considered most important. So, in the French context, fears that drugs would make users disengaged or disloyal were much stronger. Each country developed its own specific brand of what I call “anti-narcotic nationalism”—reasons for opposing drug use that were particular both to opiates and to specific national concerns.

Anti-narcotic nationalism went beyond the ways that the British and French talked about opiate use in the nineteenth century; it also influenced the development of drug control in the early twentieth century. In Britain, concerns about the effect the drug trade could have on commerce facilitated the landmark piece of legislation that established opiate control on the British mainland during World War I. In France, concerns about drug use, treason, military discipline, and national security were the driving forces behind drug control initiatives that took effect in 1908 and 1916. Once drug control was established, anti-narcotic nationalism also influenced how British and French authorities treated their addicted citizens. In Britain, when it became clear that opiate use was not necessarily incompatible with self-sufficiency or productivity, the government sanctioned maintenance treatment for some addicts. In France, on the other hand, associations of drug control with national security remained in place, as did strict regulations limiting the provision of drugs to confirmed addicts. Continue reading

Bringing 12 step back: David Brooks, Charles Duhigg and AA as a Social Institution

In the 1990s, membership in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other mutual-aid, disease-specific support groups may have peaked. Yet political scientist Robert Putnam’s data from that period suggested that Americans were “bowling alone,” retreating from participation in traditional forms of civic life like bowling leagues, Rotary clubs, and college alumni fundraisers. They had less social capital and weaker emotional bonds. Critics suggested that the growth of so-called self-help support groups represented a narcissistic, responsibility-shirking substitute for deeper commitments to family, community, and faith (and Putnam partly agreed).

AA Membership Stats

AA Membership Stats, circia 2011 (Source:

Both 12-step skeptics and AA purists also questioned whether corporate motives were influencing the growth of grassroots groups.  Continue reading