The Weird World of Pierre Pomet
PP's Weird World
Parisian Pierre Pomet’s pharmacopoeia A Compleat History of Druggs(1712) was intended not only as a handbook for the medical trade but also as as a rough guide to the exotic for armchair travellers. Much of its appeal, then as now, comes from the illustrations which pepper the book: pictures of weird animals and weird people doing weird things in weird countries.
Pomet's History is laced with exotic remedies such as the use of Virginia Snake Root to treat poison arrow wounds, and scull moss (moss growing on human skulls) to treat everything else. Juicier still are Pomet’s descriptions of the harvesting and processing of the raw materials, and his descriptions of the poor unfortunates who did the work. Pomet (1658-1699) was born into a family of Parisian merchant importers of exotic medical products from the Middle East and Asia. After extensive travel in Europe he set up his own business and rapidly earned a reputation for the supply of high grade pharmaceuticals. Among his clients was sun king Louis XIV.
Pomet was not only a supplier of drugs but also a researcher and teacher who lectured at prestigious institutions on the preparation of medical products. The regularly updated printed catalogues of his own commercially available products were likely as not on sale in the foyer. The Historybegins with a catalogue of botanical products illustrated not only with standard scientific drawings of the plants from which they are derived, but also with various manufacturing processes. Readers get to see the curing of tobacco, and the processing of sugar and indigo.
The second section of the History deals with animal products, illustrated with images of unicorns, whales, a rhinoceros and an elephant, silk manufacture, bee-keeping, and the packing of tuna. It begins with a gory description of the medical uses of Egyptian Mummies. The final part of the book illustrates the medical uses of fossils and minerals, including gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper, vitriol, lead, antimony, arsenic, sulphur and precious stones.
In common with standard pharmacopoeias of the period, Pomet includes an examination of the medical virtues of ivory, but he spices up his account with information about two sorts of miniature dragons that wind themselves about the legs of elephants, thrust their heads up their the victims’ nostrils, put out their eyes, sting them, and suck their blood till they are dead.
Animal or Vegetable?
Pomet discusses whether cochineal is derived from an insect or a plant, and in so doing reveals current uncertainty about unfamiliar forms of life. The discussion is accompanied by a picture of a bizarre kind of tree. We are informed that cochineal is so commercially valuable that the Spaniards wou’d undergo any Punishment, rather than yield that it shou’d be propagated in France.
Imagining the Desert
A description of the trade in a humble seed is used by Pomet to encourage his readers to imagine a desert scene and the dangers of travel.[Wormseed]It is a small Seed, which the Persians trade in by their Caravans from Aleppo, Alexandria, and Smirna. The Caravan is properly a Number of Men, in the nature of a Convoy, to guard the Camels and other Cattle, which are loaded with all sorts of Merchandize, that are brought from Persia once or twice a Year for the Levant-Trade.
The Good Life (For Men)
Pomet conjures a vision of indolence and menace on tropical Banda (Indonesia) where the living is so easy that the Men live to one hundred and twenty years of age and have nothing to do but eat, drink, sleep, and go for an occasional stroll, while the women harvest and process the valuable nutmeg crop that brings the island its wealth. The trade in Nutmeg is controlled by the Dutch, whom Pomet accuses of sharp business practises and of supporting the indolent lifestyle of the island men. According to Pomet, the islanders themselves despise and cheat the Dutch.
Cane Juice and Blood
The jobs Pomet describes are disgusting and dangerous: If by accident the Indians, or whoever feeds the Mill with Canes, shou’d happen to have his Fingers catch’d in the Mill, they must immediately cut off his Arm least the whole Body shou’d be drawn in and ground to Pieces: Therefore, as soon as they see any one have his Finger or Hand catch’d, the person standing by cuts off his Arm with a Hanger.
The Juice falling into a Vessel which is below the Mill, and being drawn off, runs by a little Channel into the first Boiler.The abrupt change of subject from bloody accidents to sweet sugar cane juice, is confusing and shocking.Perhaps it was the result of faulty translation or faulty typsetting.
Noting that ‘butterflies’ arise from silkworms when cocoons are not stripped of silk, the History indulges in butterfly pornography: if you leave after this Manner a Number of them, you will have a diverting Sight, to see the Male and Female Butterflies caressing, and making Love; from whence afterwards you have Eggs when the Animal is dead.
Sex and death inevitably stir the imagination. Indeed, because one can never have too much of a good thing, we learn only pages later that tortoises are caught ‘in Coupling’: They slip a Noose a-round the Neck, or one of their Feet and sometimes they take both of ‘em together, but most commonly the Female escapes’.
On the Asian island of Icarus, young Men are not allow’d to marry ‘till they can gather a sufficient Quantity of Spunges from the Bottom of the Sea; and for this Reason, when any one wou’d marry his Daughter, a Number of young Fellows are strip’d and jump into the Sea; and he that can stay longest in the Water, and give the best Account of, or gathers the most Spunges, marries the Maid, so that he pay a Tribute, out of his Spunges, to the Grand Seigneur.
In the second part of the work Pomet shows a Dissector, who, with a Knife made of an Ethiopian Stone, cuts the Flesh as much as was necessary and immediately after fled away with all the Expedition imaginable; because it was the Custom of the Relations and the Domesticks to pursue the Dessector with Stones, and do him all the Injuries they cou’d.