Benjamin Breen writing in Aeon:
When I began my graduate studies in history, I decided to focus on the period when magic and alchemy morphed into modern science. I was especially fascinated by John Dee, the wizardly court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Although Dee believed he could speak to angels, he was also one of the leading mathematicians and geographers of his era. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton followed in Dee’s footsteps, conducting empirical investigations of nature alongside studies of Biblical prophecy and alchemical secrets. John Maynard Keynes had it right when he observed in 1946 that Newton was not the first scientist – he was the last of the magicians. Newton’s generation especially loved to search for ‘occult virtues’ – hidden phenomena latent in nature – and they found them in psychoactive drugs, along with a mystery that is still with us today.
These substances had far-reaching entanglements:
Psychoactive drugs thus stood at the centre of debates about imperialism, religion, and globalisation, as well as science. They still do. It’s not a coincidence that drug cartels are among the most successful multinational enterprises of the 21st century – or that a global crusade against drugs, both prescription and illicit, is one of the core tenets of our era’s most successful new religion, the Church of Scientology.
Though this might be stretching it a bit:
It would not be a stretch to say that the wave of stimulants, intoxicants and narcotics that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus helped to create modernity as we know it. From coffee, tea and chocolate to Adderall, painkillers and cocaine, and alternative remedies such as homeopathy and ginseng, consuming drugs stands at the centre of what it is to be a modern consumer.
Note how old cookbooks have recipes all over the place, as though the preparation of mere food hadn't yet coalesced into a coherent category or procedures:
The cookbooks at Penn were a treasure trove. I found everything from ‘a Cake my Lady Oxford’s way’ that involved mixing cream with strong Spanish wine, to a salmon recipe featuring ‘water and salt and stale beer’. Most surprising, I found that recipes for medicinal drugs and foods were intermingled: a recipe for chicken pot pie circa 1700 appeared alongside ‘Snaill water, for a consumption’ that called for (you guessed it) a large amount of crushed snails, mixed with oddities such as ivory shavings and ‘red cows milk’, to be drunk every morning until the consumption, ie tuberculosis, subsided.
And now we're getting somewhere (after Breen leads us through his preparation of two old recipes the mild psychoactive brews):
Lest this all seem like ancient history, it’s worth remembering that early modern drug traditions are far from dead. To use 21st-century parlance, they’ve simply been rebranded. The cutting-edge innovations of 17th-century science are now ‘traditional’, ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’.
What replaced them? In the hands of 19th-century chemists and apothecaries, Jesuit’s powder became quinine, poppies became morphine, willow bark became aspirin, coca leaf became cocaine. What had once simply been called ‘medicine’ now became alternatives to ‘modern medicine’ grounded in these chemical transformations and syntheses of naturally occurring active principles. Yet in many ways, cures such as homeopathy are just as modern as Western pharmacy: they simply grew out of the strands of early modern learning that didn’t make it into science textbooks.
At the dawn of modern science and medicine, it was not at all clear where the boundaries ought to be drawn: foods and spices shaded into drugs, recreational intoxicants doubled as medicines, and all medicines worked by unexplainable ‘occult virtues’. The clash between alternative and Western medicine, in short, might not be a clear-cut contest between ancient, ‘traditional’ remedies and modern, scientific ones. It is a battle between two traditions that are in some ways equally modern, born out of the Enlightenment and its dark side.