ON PLANTS AND BOOKS.
EPISODES FROM AN EARLY TRANSATLANTIC ENCOUNTER
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
Francisco Hernández´s “Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia”, Rome, 1651.
One of the finest pleasures in life consists in having a serendipitous encounter with a book whose perusal reignites an old intellectual flame.
My interest in the so-called Columbian Exchange dates back to my days as a postgraduate student in Washington D.C; it was there, in 1992, when the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History organized a large exhibition entitled Seeds of Change: 500 Years of Encounter and Exchange to commemorate the Quincentenary of Columbus’ fateful voyage. Far from indulging in the usual tropes of gold and blood associated with the arrival of the first Europeans to America, the exhibition was mainly focused on the environmental and cultural changes brought about by the ‘Encounter’ (‘Conquest’ or ‘Clash’, as the reader likes it) in the daily habits of Europeans and Americans; from the consumption of tomatoes and potatoes in European meals to the prevalence of the horse among Plain Indians or the cultivation of orange and apple trees in American fields where maize or cacao had previously ruled unhindered. The change in perspective that the Smithsonian initiative presented to the public regarding the contentious topic of the ‘Discovery of America’ was certainly refreshing. As I realised then, though, it posed additional questions and challenges.
Was the Columbian Exchange an accident in nature? Was it an unintended by-product of the emerging trans-Atlantic networks connecting people and goods to and fro Europe and America? What was the role, if any, of human agency as embodied in specific individuals or communities with an interest in promoting the said Exchange for purposes of profit, power, knowledge or a combination thereof?
A Maya glyph depicting a scene of the serving of frothed chocolate.
Years elapsed and life took me to distant lands away from the Atlantic board. As other intellectual queries kept me busy, those juvenile preoccupations took the back seat in my mind, waiting to be awaked. And so it happened recently while having a stroll in the traditional second-hand book fair along Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid. In a stall crowded with all kinds of fiction, non-fiction and variegated vademecums, I was instantly attracted by a cover with a 17th century depiction of some Europeans smoking tobacco and a Mayan glyph of a marrying couple drinking chocolate. The title made the rest of the trick: Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures. A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, by Marcy Norton, and a pleasurable gift for the mind the book proved to be, both for its judicious erudition and its stylish prose.
Focusing first on the sacred and profane roles that tobacco and chocolate had played in pre-Columbian societies, the author then moved to explain how both goods became known and then were appropriated by Europeans who gradually adopted and adapted their natural ingredients and cultural backgrounds into their own personal habits and social customs.
So much so that, as Marcy Norton explains, puffing or snuffing tobacco and having a hot cacao concoction alone or, preferably, among family and friends in Seville, Toledo or Madrid became sensory, social, intellectual and even spiritual experiences not very dissimilar to those undergone by Amerindians in their rituals and interactions. Tobacco and chocolate thus became natural and cultural bridge-makers between disparate and often inimical communities. As commodities, they also proved to be quite profitable for those involved in their trade as well as for the metropolis’ coffers since taxes levied on the trade of tobacco and cacao became a relevant source of income for the Hispanic Monarchy.
Still life with a bowl of chocolate, by Francisco de Zurbarán, circa 1640.
But even more interesting than the economic implications of the botanical encounter between worlds old and new were the consequences that it entailed for the advancement of knowledge, particularly in the domains of medicine and the natural sciences.
Two names appear prominently in Norton’s book in this regard. Francisco Hernández de Toledo and Nicolás Monardes were Renaissance physicians who ranked among the pioneering European naturalists devoted to studying the flora and fauna of the Americas in the aftermath of the Conquest. Their efforts at proving the medicinal effects of many American plants and their derivatives were instrumental in their successful acceptance and dissemination among the learned circles in Europe. Monardes, who never set foot on American soil and only became acquainted with American products upon their arrival in the port of Seville, where he resided and practised his trade, was particularly adept at extolling the virtues of tobacco as an effective antidote for a vast array of illnesses.
Smoking club with monkeys, by Abraham Teniers, mid-17th century.
Monardes was lucky not to live in our times since his proselytism in favour of tobacco might have brought an onerous lawsuit upon his head. Fortunately for his posthumous reputation, he was much more than a propagandist for the nascent tobacco industry. In his very popular books on American goods, published from 1565 onwards with the title On the Things Brought from our Western Indies, Which are Used as Medicine, he was the first humanist doctor trained in the best classical tradition who introduced American herbs and their healing properties, either real or imagined, into the Western medical and pharmacological canon. It helped that, in addition to his scientific calling, he was a successful merchant positioned at the very heart of the burgeoning trans-Atlantic trade; from his vantage point in Seville he entertained a network of partners and correspondents spanning across the Caribbean and Central America. It also helped that Spain had just emerged from seven centuries of intimate interaction with the Islamic world and thus the most inquisitive Spanish minds were used to dealing with diverse sources of knowledge, hence the relative ease with which indigenous American botanical and healing traditions could be adopted. Monardes himself was well aware that more empirical work should be done in order to profit from that trove of untapped wonders. In his own words:
‘if someone had the motivation to investigate and experiment with all of the kinds of the medicines such as are sold by the Indians in their markets, it would be a thing of great utility and benefit’.
Chapter devoted to the tobacco plant in Nicolás Monardes’ book on American goods imported to Spain.
His call was heard by another fellow humanist doctor, Francisco Hernández de Toledo, a man who was even closer to the centre of political power as the main physician in the court of Philip II. Passionate about discovering the secrets of nature and determined to expanding the limited knowledge received from classical Antiquity about plants and medicines, for him it was a matter of being at the right place, at the right time and in the right royal company. Contrary to the popular image of the king as a reclusive hermit whose pale countenance was due to his lack of exposure to the open air, Philip II was a lover of nature. Apart from work and family, it was his true passion as attested by his plans to surround El Escorial with forests and gardens, part of a vaster design to cultivate and conserve tracts of land that had remained barren across his possessions. In this regard, Philip II was a typical Renaissance prince.
The taming of nature was one of the most fashionable tenets of the new humanism and many royal and aristocratic courts embarked on exuberant displays of herbal and arboreal imagination.
Gardeners were all of a sudden in great demand and the search for exotic and beautiful botanical exemplars became all the rage. But, though the aesthetic delight obtained from the contemplation of pleasure gardens was valued as an end in itself, the long-lasting association of plants with edible and medicinal virtues, and therefore with profit, was also a powerful force behind the new trend. And here, there were limits that prevented those practical and artistic dimensions of botany from being fully exploited. Fortunately, that situation was about to change radically.
At the time of the major Iberian explorations, the knowledge of plants in Europe was still indebted to the Greek physician Dioscorides, whose main legacy, De Materia Medica, was rescued and enlarged by the great Arab naturalists, many of them, like Ibn al Baytar, natives of al-Andalus. Despite their efforts, no more than 600 species were registered in the existing herbariums by the mid-sixteenth century, though the Romans had known up to 1400.
De Materia Medica by Dioscorides translated into Arabic.
Francisco Hernández was well aware of the shortcomings in Western knowledge. Like Monardes, he had been trained at the University of Alcalá de Henares, one of the main centers of humanistic learning in Europe. After completing his studies he was for a time, like many in his profession, a peripatetic doctor trying to make a living for himself and his family in the cities of southern Spain. He was so successful that he soon became appointed to several of the highest-ranking medical positions in the kingdom and, finally, by 1567 he was named Physician to the King’s Chamber. However, his true vocation was, as said, the advancement of botanical medicine and it was in that capacity that
he was chosen in 1569 by Philip II to head the first scientific expedition to the New World with instructions to search out and describe the natural history of New Spain, assess the medical usefulness of new-found plants there and to obtain ethnographic information that could be useful for the ruling of those distant territories.
Hernández did so with a passion and dedication that led him during seven years to scout the farthest-flung corners of Mexico. During that time, assisted by Nahua doctors and botanists, he learned the local language and taxonomic methods. As a result of such collective efforts, he compiled sixteen folio volumes with the narrative and visual descriptions of more than 3000 plants and a smaller number of animals and minerals previously unknown in Europe.
The work of Francisco Hernández and his contemporaries would not have been possible without the collaboration of a vast network of local helpers in New Spain. Many of them had been trained at the Imperial College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, active since 1533 and formally chartered in 1536 on the initiative of the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza and the enlightened bishop Juan de Zumárraga.
The College of Tlatelolco, the first European institution of higher learning in America, was devised as a Hispanising Calmecac, as the schools for the education of the Aztec nobility had been known before the Conquest. The goal was to create a polyglot Indian elite educated in Nahuatl, Latin, Spanish and some rudiments of Greek, as well as in the Western arts and crafts.
Among his most formidable teachers was Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar who is rightly considered the founder of modern anthropology and is one of the most fascinating figures of the Renaissance. The result of his field research among the Nahua was the General History of the Things of New Spain, written in Nahuatl with Spanish commentaries. The best-preserved manuscript of the General History is known as the Florentine Codex and it contains beautiful illuminations made by Nahua artists. It was, in its purpose and scope, a truly American version of St. Isidore of Seville’s medieval Encyclopaedia since both were attempts at rescuing the remnants of vanishing worlds, the world of Late Antiquity, in the case of St Isidore, and the world of the pre-Conquest civilisations, in the case of Sahagún.
Image of an Aztec courtesan, or Ahuiani. Florentine Codex, circa 1580. The manuscript found its way into the Medicean-Laurentinian Library in Florence, hence its name.
We know that Francisco Hernández spent some time at the College of Tlatelolco and that there he became familiar with the ethnographic work of Bernardino de Sahagún, which he used in his own scientific enquiries. Besides,
before the doctor’s arrival in New Spain a first compilation of pre-Columbian botanical knowledge had been made in 1552 at the same College by two native professors, Martín de la Cruz and Juan Badiano, the latter being instrumental in translating the Nahuatl names of plants and their curative powers into Latin.
There is no doubt that, in addition to the very early adoption of American plants by the Spaniards and the emergence of the first trading networks profiting from their culinary and healing properties, there was also a deliberate policy sponsored by the Hispanic Monarchy aimed at assimilating and Westernising Amerindian knowledge about nature and nurture, particularly regarding medicinal botany.
Francisco Hernández’s expedition was the earliest and most accomplished example of those efforts. Unfortunately, when Hernández returned to Madrid after having completed the king’s instructions, he found that his position at the court had changed, and that he no longer had privileged access to the king. Probably petty politics was behind the new situation and as a result the task of making a summary of his work, under the surveillance of the royal architect Juan de Herrera, was entrusted to Nardo Antonio Recchi, a physician from Naples, then a part of the Spanish realms. Afterwards, the original manuscript and the summary were housed at the Library of El Escorial, there to be consulted by experts, but the fire that devastated part of the library in 1671 consumed them. Fortunately, some copies had been made and in 1615 an abridged edition of Hernández’s work was published in Spanish in Mexico by the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez under the title Quatro Libros: De la naturaleza y virtudes de las plantas y animales. Other heavily modified editions of Hernández’s treatise were published from 1628 onwards in Rome, the first by the Accademia dei Lincei, under the patronage of the Spanish ambassador Don Alfonso Turiano, with the cumbersome name, in Latin, of Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus seu Plantarum, Animalium Mineralium Mexicanorum Historia ex Francisci Hernandi.
Image of an orchid named Stanhopea Hernandezii, as it appeared in the Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus, published in Rome in 1651 based on the manuscripts of Francisco Hernández’s expedition to New Spain.
Interestingly, as Monardes had been partial to tobacco, Hernández had a soft spot for chocolate, a beverage prepared with the seeds of the Theobroma cacao. Cacao seeds had played an intriguing, but essential, role in the religious, social and economic fabric of many Mesoamerican societies, so much so that they were used as a currency in pre-Columbian transactions.
Hernández, though, was more interested in the dietary and medicinal properties of cacao, which he described in detail, examining not only the qualities of its different botanical specimens but also the flavours that could be added to its substance, in particular from the flowers of tlilxochitle (vanilla), mecaxochitl (a variety of pepper plants) and xochinacaztli (also known as ‘sacred earflower’, a variety of the cymbopetalum penduliflorum). Though enthusiastic about the qualities of cacao as a treatment for several afflictions, from dysentery to liver conditions, he also warned that when drunk excessively as a beverage it could induce fatness and alter the body balance between its ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ constituent parts.
Still life with ebony chest, chocolate and sweets, by Antonio de Pereda, 1652.
Prior to Hernandez’s scientific enquiries into the uses and abuses of chocolate, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier and chronicler who accompanied Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, had witnessed first-hand its symbolic importance in the highest echelons of Aztec society. On one ceremonial occasion presided over by Montezuma, the Spaniard saw how several servants ‘brought him, in cups of pure gold a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives. We did not take much notice of this at the time, though I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little. As soon as the great Montezuma had dined, all the guards and many more of his household servants ate in their turn. I think more than a thousand plates of food must have been brought in for them, and more than two thousand jugs of chocolate frothed up in the Mexican style’.
From its indigenous milieu, chocolate became very popular among Spanish settlers and their descendants as a nutritive beverage and multi-purpose medicine, but also due to its association with a high status in the new hybrid society. Soon, cacao seeds and other ingredients and utensils used for preparing chocolate among the Mesoamericans found their way to the metropolis, first as sumptuous gifts aimed at lubricating the wheels of power and influence among the Spanish secular and religious elites, and then as valuable commodities.
La Xocolatada, 1710, fragment of a decorative tile showing the social role of chocolate in 18th-century Spanish society.
Following on Francisco Hernandez’s studies, a veritable cottage industry of books written by Spanish authors about the virtues of chocolate accompanied its raise to culinary preminence in the metropolis while reinforcing its role in the emerging Hispano-American society.
In 1591, another physician based in Mexico, Juan de Cárdenas, published a volume entitled Problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias (Problems and Secret Marvels of the Indies) where he devoted considerable space to the positive attributes of chocolate. In his words, the beverage “yields good nourishment to the body and it helps to digest ill humours”. In 1631, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, an Andalusian doctor, wrote one of the first books entirely devoted to the nature and properties of chocolate, soon to be translated into English by James Wadsworth with a long and explicit title: Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke. By the wise and Moderate use whereof, Health is preserved, Sicknesse Diverted, and Cured, especially the Plague of the Guts; vulgarly called The New Disease; Fluxes, Consumptions, & Coughs of the Lungs, with sundry other desperate Diseases. By it also, Conception is Caused, the Birth Hastened and facilitated, Beauty Gain’d and continued.
Curioso Tratado de la naturaleza y calidad del chocolate, by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, Madrid, 1631.
Thus, as Marcy Norton explains, the discovery for the West of rich and completely unheard of ecological realms in America was the equivalent to the opening of a treasure trove for physicians, botanists, and food lovers alike. Also for the practically minded traders, eager to cash in any novelty brought home from exotic lands by explorers and conquistadors.
Expanding the known realms of nature can be considered the main contribution of Hispanic science in America during the age of the Renaissance and at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.
The efforts by the Nahua physicians at the College of Tlatelolco and the expeditions sent from Spain produced an unprecedented number of new botanical, animal and mineral specimens. Those being the times, their discovery led to an interest in their commercial exploitation. In this regard, tobacco and cacao were among the first American products to reach European markets and social circles. Though they both had their critics, who associated their consumption with barbarous and idolatrous practices, their acceptance was in good measure due to the stamp of respectability conferred upon them by well-established doctors and naturalists like Nicolás Monardes and Francisco Hernández. But we also must be aware of the vital role that their representation and dissemination through images and in written form played in their enormous success from early Modernity up to our post-Modern days.
As we have seen, long before the Internet Age, chocolate and tobacco became viral, so to say, thanks to those ‘old-fashioned’ vehicles of knowledge and unheralded connectors: books and paintings.
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