18th century apothecary still completely intact.


This article is based on a visit of an apothecary in the ‘Hotel-Dieu’ at Bourg-en-Bresse in south-eastern France. The impressive building still holds a hospital and the apothecary is tucked away in the basement, no longer in use it is open to visitors on reservation.

The first question that comes to mind is why the name ‘Hotel-Dieu’/’God’s Hotel’ and what exactly does it signify. According to the French encyclopaedia “Universalis”, Hotel-Dieu entered into current use in the middle ages and was the name given to the principal hospital of many large towns. Its name linked it to the church and the charitable role that the former had in the organisation of these ‘hospitals’ that originally housed the poor who when ill and needy had nowhere else to turn to and were in most cases situated near the cathedral. Overtime specialized structures developed for the needs ofthe poor and weary and the Hotel-Dieu became a hospital for the ill. However due
to the link with God and the church, healing did not only involve physical care but a healing of the soul and importance was put on confession, prayer and communion. It wasn’t until the 14th century that doctors and surgeons appeared in these establishments, patients, except the most diseased were often three or four to a bed meaning that infection spread at a great rate. In the 12th century Bourg-en Bresse’s original hospital, ‘Saint Mairie’ was built next to the church of Notre Dame, run by a local rector and his wife it housed ‘Gods poor’ in a communal room containing 15 beds and was more a hospitable house than a hospital.


It became a ‘Hotel-Dieu’ in the middle of the 16th Century. It was moved to another placement in 1652 and shortly after three nuns were posted from Beziers to run the hospital , it was indeed these three nuns that little by little developed the apothecary, they obtained the right to create a laboratory in 1708. The buildings however were not big enough for the demands put on them and by the end of the 18th century it was decided that the ‘Hotel-Dieu’ would be moved to a purposefully built building next to the cathedral, which is its present day situation. The architect ‘Pierre-Adrien Paris’ was chosen to design the building and as he had travelled in Italy, this influence rubbed off and he deigned a huge edifice regrouping a closed convent and a hospital in the form of a cross. To cut a long and ‘not really interesting to us’ story short, the first stones were laid in 1783 and the hospital was opened in 1790, in the middle of France’s famous revolution period. What really interests us is the apothecary, as I said above it is housed in the building’s basement and consists of three rooms. What is most interesting is the fact that everything has remained intact since its closure in 1963, in order to retain this feeling of ‘a still working’ apothecary rather than a museum, there are no information panels and no touristy blurb. Visits are by reservation and a specialist guide takes you around, we felt especially privileged coming from the herbal school and we were allowed to touch, take photos, poke our noses into containers and participate fully in the discovery of this amazing historic place.


The first room known as the laboratory doesn’t look anything like a modern day laboratory, it is exceptionally conserved in its original state and houses in the middle a huge wood burning stove, similar to the ones that were used in the kitchens of Medieval castles except this one has been specially built for housing two copper stills and various other copper instruments used for heating herbal, teas, decoctions, syrups, macerations, elixirs etc. None of the water pipes are visible, as they have been designed to be evacuated under the floor. The red copper stills have had their middle section removed by official orders so that they could no longer be used for distilling, this is due to governmental rules and paranoia about people making their own alcohol, the fact that these stills were used for distilling plants and would be great used for demonstrations is beyond our narrow minded authorities. In this same room the walls are decked with recipients used in the daily life of an apothecary, boiling pots, copper bowls, brass syrup pourers with pouring beaks, brass bowls for ears, measuring jugs. As much of what existed in the original hospital was moved to the new building, the oldest object dates back to the 17th century.



The collection of pestle and mortars was very impressive, a size for every need, they were used to crush into powders not only the plant material that was used but the animal and mineral material as well, such as deer horns, precious stones, resins etc. This large apothecary did use a large amount of plants that grew locally and there was even a medicinal plant garden in the grounds where the nuns cultivated some of these, however they also used and mixed plants both local and exotic with other materials to make what they called ‘composed’ or ‘magisterial’ remedies. Getting back to the pestle and mortars, they had ceramic, glass and bronze ones to choose from, the bronze ones told an interesting story, being the oldest they were embellished with various medallions. The one on the photo that seems to be damaged was in fact made before the French revolution and embellished with ‘Fleur de Lis’, and someone had tried to get rid of them obviously after the revolution. This large brass pestle and mortar was used for making powders, it’s wooden lid prevented losing bits of what was the pestle itself weighs 4 kilograms.


Also in the laboratory is housed a lovely, big wooden press for pressing the last drops of alcohol or oil from macerated plant material, a great tool and a wonderful object in its own right. It wasn’t until 1901 that Laboratory/dispensaries had to by law have a qualified chemist on site to oversee the fabrication and dispensing.


The second room, situated in between the laboratory and dispensing room is what in French they call the ‘arrière boutique’, which literally translated means behind the scenes or back room. It was used to organize and stock the raw materials as well as housing the library with its numerous reference books, medical and pharmaceutical dictionaries were an important support for the making and dispensing of remedies.


As this apothecary is large compared to most, it has over 1,000 ceramic and glass jars and some of them which were stored in specially designed wooden shelving systems in this room too. The care and attention given to the choice of materials and their details is astounding,


the group of ceramic jars in this room were used uniquely for external preparations such salves, lotions and electuaries (a mix of honey and powers) the jars themselves were called canons and very slightly thinner in the middle in order to make them easier to hold, with a foot called a ‘piédouch’ meaning shower foot as it looks a bit like a shower head and its wide base is designed with the intention of catching any straying drops so that they do not damage the wood work.


It was wonderful opening some of the rectangular, wooden boxes and discovering the packets of different plant material still in tact after all these years. There were both red and green boxes, the red ones were destined to contain exotic plants from far away places such as cinchona and spices such as nutmeg, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, the green ones local plants such as borage, comfrey, angelica, …

The final room was of course the largest and most impressive, once again beautifully, made to measure wooden shelving lined the room, with nooks and crannies of different sizes depending on the containers needing housing. Here the bulk of the containers containing plant material were held and each type of container held a specific type of remedy. The vessels were in wood, pewter, pottery or glass, in this final room are to be found a great number of each variety of vessel, the ‘chevrettes’ seen in the photo were the containers that symbolised the apothecary and only an official herbalist/chemist could use them, there were incidences here in France where grocers had been condemned for having them in their stores. These pots were used specifically for syrups, honeys and oils and had a handle and a spout for pouring these liquids.


The names of plants on the pots or boxes were often inconsistent, in the same room one plant name could be written in several different ways, the Latin names were rarely in evidence so sometimes it is not obvious exactly which plant is being referred to. Some of the names on the boxes containing dry material are things I had never heard of before, for example ‘Sang de Bouc de Dragon’ , which literally translated means ‘blood of billy goat and of dragon’, it is apparently neither goat, blood or dragon but a resin usedmedicinally and originally described by Dioscorides, it is probable that it would have come from the Dracaena cinnabari, a tree from the Ruscaseae family, a monocotyledon endemic to the Island of Socotra, this all sounds very exotic and somewhat unrealistic. Later the resin was harvested from a Moroccan tree, the Dracaena draco, same family and very similar visually and then even later yet another source has been noted and that is a Dragon blood palm called Daemonorops draco from the Arecaceae family and this time the only resemblance seems to be in the name. Obviously complicated to be sure of exactly the origin and usage of this substance and no time for this type of research at the moment. In a second box was kept ‘Burnt and powdered stags horns’, wow what a remedy, apparently used for giving new life energy and living a long time as the stag was seen as a symbol of rebirth and long life.

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These small pewter pill boxes were obviously used for keeping handmade pills, the one we opened had the original angelica pills in, over fifty years old, the dose for purging was apparently a drachm (an old form of measure, equivalent now to about 3, 40gms) The bottles in glass on the highest shelves were empty, which is logical as they were home to the distilled waters or hydrosols and a fifty year old or so hydrosol is not really possible. Interesting though as the labels on the bottles were all local plants and were obviously made on site, angelica water, lettuce water, violet water, hyssop water etc. At a period when distilled waters were still very much in use medicinally, something that is slowly starting to come back now. In the wonderful woodwork, special niches had been carved to hold the huge ceramic pots containing highly honored panaceas, which were complicated herbal recipes made by famous herbal chemists of the time residing and working in France’s large cities; Paris, Montpellier, Lyon etc.


Among these panaceas, some of the pots were still full of blackish syrupy liquids, included ‘La Thériaque’ (sorry can not find English translation), which was used against all diseases, apparently the main ingredients were snake flesh and opium, although I believe the recipes changed greatly from one apothecary to another and were often kept secret as well. The history of the “Théraique” according to our guide ; was that it was formulated by Andromaque’s father, who was the emperor Neron’s doctor around about 60 years AD and it got as far as Europe thanks to monks who handed it down and eventually made copies of the formula. Certain French towns were known for making it and the first traces of it in Bourg-en-Bresse date back to 1681. It was used up to the French Revolution in 1789. Another wonderful concoction and well known at this period was the “Confection d’ Hyacinth”, which contained several minerals, hyacinth is apparently another name for zircon, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, pearls, ivory, gold and silver, coral, musk and grey amber- and that is just the mineral part, added to which there were stony formations found on the underside of crayfish, cinnamon, sandalwood, myrrh and all this was supposed to be ‘stomachic” .


The 80 or so books that accompanied the apothecary in must be a hive of information, the oldest of these is ‘The Pharmacopeia of Moyse Charas” and dates back to 1619. I would love to spend a week alone exploring and discovering this wonderful time capsule and learning from all this history packed into these three tucked away rooms.