Folio 186r

Here begins the book of medicinal simples according to Platearius, called Circa Instans.

Credit: Serapio, Senior: Practica Io. Serapionis dicta breuiarium, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Circa instans

Our intent is to consider simple medicines. A simple, moreover, is a medicine of the sort which is produced by nature — like cloves, nutmeg and the like – or which has been modified a bit by artifice, but not mixed with other medicines — like tamarind, which is crushed to bits by artifice with its shell removed, and aloe, which is made by artifice from the cooked juice of the plant.

A not-pointless question might be asked, however, why composite medicines will be invented, when every virtue which is in composites can be found in simples. Medicine is said to have been invented on account of the underlying causes of sickness, for every cause of illness arises from an abundance of humor or a lack of it, from a flux, or from a weakness of abilities, or some alteration of qualities or the loosening of continuities. A simple medicine is found that dissolves an overabundance of a humor, restores a lack, restricts a flux, strengthens a weakness, stabilizes alteration, releases consolidations.

The multiplex cause of sickness is the answer to composited medicines, that is the violence of the sickness, the contrariety of illnesses, the contrary dispositions of body parts, the nobility of a body part, the violence of medicines. For the violence of a disease like leprosy, stroke, epilepsy, is scarcely ever or never cured by simples alone. It is necessary, then, that there are composites, so that their strength, augmented by simples, can more readily cure severe disease. With contrary diseases running in the same body, like dropsy with fever,[1] a medicine compounded from both the warm and the cold is necessary, so that one may counter contrary symptoms with these contrary properties, for one and the same simple medicine cannot be found effective for contrary qualities. Indeed, for parts of the body afflicted by contrary qualities, like a cold stomach and a warm liver, composite medicines are necessary, so that with their opposing qualities it is also possible to alter the contrary qualities of the body parts. And for a noble body part, like a liver affected by sclerosis, composite medicines are necessary, since dissolution of the excess humor comes about through heat, and strenghening of the vital organ occurs through contraction. For by relaxing the noble part, a warm <medicine> only weakens it, if it is not strengthened by a styptic. Also, a violent medicine like scammony, hellebore and the like should not be given by itself, unless something else, tempering its violence, be mixed in.

In a treatment of each simple medicine, its temperament[2] must first be considered, then whether it is a tree or a shrub, a plant, root, flower, or seed or leaf, if it is a rock, or a juice or something other. After that, how many kinds of it there are, and how they come to be, and in what place they are found, which sort is the better, how they are counterfeited, and how counterfeits are recognized, and how things are able to be preserved, and what effect they have, and how they ought to be offered. And the treatment of each sort will be completed in alphabetical order.

[1] Dropsy was believed to stem from cold phlegmatic humors, while fever was from a hot cause.

[2] I.e., whether it is warm or cool, dry or moist, and to what degree.

A (f. 186r)
  1. De aloe Aloe
  2. De ligno aloes Lignum aloe
  3. De auro Gold
  4. De assa fetida Asafetida
  5. De argento vivo Quick silver
  6. De agno casto Agnus castus
  7. De alumine Alum
  8. De apio Celery
  9. De amido Starch
  10. De antimonio Antimony
  11. De acacia Acacia
  12. De agarico Agaric
  13. De aneto Dill
  14. De affodillo Asphodel
  15. De allio Garlic
  16. De acoro Yellow flag
  17. De amoniaco Gum ammoniac
  18. De aniso Anise
  19. De absintio Absinthe
  20. De anacardo Cashew
  21. De amigdalis amaris Bitter almond
  22. De aristologia Aristolochia
  23. De ambra Ambergris
  24. De artemisia Mugwort
  25. De aceto Vinegar
  26. De alcanna Alkanet
  27. De auropigmento Orpiment
  28. De aspalto Bitumen/pitch
  29. De arnoglossa Plaintain
  30. De avena Oat
  31. De abrotana Southernwood
  32. De assaro Hazelwort
  33. De ameos Bishop’s weed
  34. De aaron Arum
  35. De anagalidos Seed of myrtle
  36. De apio cerfo Chervil

Chap 1 (f. 186r): Concerning Aloe

Socotrine Aloe (Aloe perryi)

Aloe is of hot and dry constitution in the second degree.[1] Aloe comes from the juice of an herb which is called aloe. This herb does not only grow in India, Persia, and Greece, but it can also be found in Apulia. There are three sorts of aloe: Socotrine[2], hepatic aloe, and horse aloe.[3] Aloe is prepared in this way: the plant is crushed, juice is produced. It is placed on a fire until it boils, and after it has boiled it is exposed to the sun and dried. And as some say—whose opinion is false — that which is collected from the upmost is purer, and is called Socotrine, that which is in the middle is less pure and is called hepatic, and that which is at the bottom and full of dregs is horse aloe. We say, however, that they are different plants, not in type but in efficacy, from which those three kinds of aloe come; just like there are three grapes differing not in plant but in goodness. For which reason there are different wines.

The best aloe is the Socotrine aloe. It is discerned from its yellow or reddish hue and, especially when it is crushed, its powder looks like the powder of a saffron crocus,[4] and of a bright substance. When crushed into the tiniest fragments, it has a substance both pure and subtle and also as if dried out. And when lightly crushed what exudes from it is not fetid or very bitter, and sometimes gummy and sometimes brittle.

The hepatic variety is likened to the color of liver or it has the color of liver, but almost black, and here and there it has foramina like the mouths of veins. It has an opaque substance, not clear, and other characteristics similar to the aforesaid which it has are more moderate, especially color.

Horse aloe is, however, black and opaque, and has a murky substance, not clear. It offers up an extremely bitter and dreadful odor, since it is especially malodorous. Horse aloe is counterfeited so that it may seem like the Socotrine or hepatic sort. We have written about the counterfeit of this and other sorts at the request of colleagues; we did this for the sake of avoiding counterfeits and the deceptions of those making and selling them, not so that it may be committed by anyone, but so that fraudulent deception may be avoided. For virtue cherishes itself and spurns the opposite, and vice cannot be avoided unless it is recognized.

Aloe, moreover, is counterfeited in his way: let vinegar boil with ground saffron added, and a pinch of ground nutmeg or of another fragrant sort. Let horse aloe divided into small fragments be bound with string and lowered into the vinegar, and lifted at once, dried a little, dipped again and this be done ten times or more so that color and odor be changed, so that it may seem to be the hepatic or the Socotrine sort. And let it be allowed to dry a little and it will scarcely be discerned that it is not. Nevertheless, it is discernible, since when it is crushed and rubbed between the fingers, at once the most malodorous stench is perceived, which is not in the hepatic or the Socotrine.

Aloe vera, cross section From Wikimedia commons

And note that everything which is aromatic by nature is the more efficacious the more aromatic it is, and everything that is bitter in its own nature, the bitterer the better, except aloe; and everything which is stinky by nature is more efficacious when smellier, except aloe. And everything which ought to have flavor is better when its flavor is more intense, except aloe, since although it is naturally bitter, the less bitter, the more praiseworthy.

But aloe has the power to purge choler and phlegm and it cleanses out melancholy. It also has the power of soothing cramped limbs. It avails against a superabundance of cold humors contained in the stomach. And it comforts the stomach itself. It relieves the head from the pain which arises from belching, that is from flatulence of the stomach. It clarifies the sight and opens an obstruction of the spleen and of the liver. It provokes menstruation and cleanses superfluities (discharges) about the genitals if they are from a cold cause. It even cures itches. It restores color to a discolored body if it has been discolored from a preceding illness. It avails against alopecia, that is hair loss.

If phlegmatic and melancholic humors have abounded in the stomach, and are owed to indigestion, 3 drams of aloe with 1 dram of mastic cleanses the stomach and soothes it when weakened and cold. Note that the aloe and the mastic should be ground and cooked in white wine. For the same purpose, a grain of aloe avails when offered with honey, if because of revulsion (nausea) it cannot be accepted another way; it cleanses the stomach and aids digestion. And note that the aloe and mastic should be ground and cooked and given with white wine. For the same purpose, let the tongue be extracted from the mouth and then 2 grains of aloe injected into the esophagus, for although aloe may be bitter to the mouth it is yet sweet to the stomach, whence it is called “glicostoma,” that is bitter to the mouth[5], “pitoglostomaticon”, that is sweet to the stomach.

If taken often, aloe may excoriate the internal organs. Whence it is right that either tragacanth or bdellium gum be mixed in with it.

Aloe has the property of mending recent wounds, and of drying and cleaning them.

Aloe when tempered with honey takes away the blackness which is under the eyes.

Ground aloe cleans the injury to the foreskin which occurs from bathing.[6]

Aloe soothes itching of the eyes if it has been tempered with wine.

Note that aloe is kept for nine years. It is also known as gligostoma, as bitter to the mouth,  phitogloco mastic, that is sweet to the stomach. Whence it is called dragiale stophigdo stonco.[7]

Note that the powder of the best aloe, dispensed with white wine and rose water, avails much against itching of the eyes.

Hiera pigra[8] also works for pain of the stomach and of the head and for clarifying vision.

The hiera pigra which is called “Constantine’s” into which this is put best avails for clarifying vision; also for clarifying vision aloe alone may simply be given, or with pitted and crushed mirobalanum[9] added in, 2 scruples, and 1 scruple of mastic or tragacanth, and with syrup and rose water added it is well proven for clarifying vision.

Against obstruction of the liver and spleen, let aloe be taken with the warm juice of apium or fennel or thus: let aloe be placed in a decoction of radish, fennel, apium, parsley, butcher’s broom, and asparagus, 2 scruples of aloe and 4 of honey, 1 and a half scruples of mastic, and let it be administered 2 or 3 times a week.

And such a decoction promotes menstruation. A suppository made from trifera magna[10], the powder of aloe, and mastic promotes menstruation, but with the suppository formed from trifera magna, a powder ay be sprinkled on.

Against discolorations of the body which arise from a cold stomach, either stemming from a long illness or from an obstruction of the liver, let 1 scruple of aloe and 5 of mastic with 5 ounces of absinthe juice be given in the morning and twice in a week.

This also protects the body from dropsy. In the beginning it cures it, as we have already proven.

Its powder when given with honey kills worms. When instilled into the ears with the juice of peachwort it kills worms.

Against alopecia, that is hair loss, let the root of an old olive tree be boiled in the strongest vinegar, and afterward strained, and placed in the strainer two parts of bitter lupine and three of aloe and likewise let it be prepared and let powdered wild raisins be added to this and the head anointed among the discriminalia.[11]

Against gout let it be given with the juice of burdock.

Against fetid discharge or putrefaction of the genitals and itching of the fingers from [itch mites?] aloe prepared with vinegar and rubbed on avails.

Against an irritation from salty phlegm an unguent is made from quicklime and powdered aloe and common oil has been proven.

Against discharges of the gums or the ears, let this herb be cut up and cumin be placed within and after let it be roasted a little under a fire and taken out hot and applied. It is of marvelous benefit.

Note that the best aloe prepared with white wine and rose water and used to cover the eyes takes away itching of the eyes entirely.


[1] Lynn Thorndike, p. 533, says that degrees are defined “as the measure of distemperance of each quality, and the number of degrees is stated as four.” See Thorndike under Resources tab.

[2] There are many species of Aloe, Aloe vera being the best known today. There is also a species of aloe known as Socotrine aloe (aloe socotrina, today Aloe perryi = cicotrinum =Socotrine), which was imported into Europe beginning in the 1st c. A.D.: see Nicholas Everett ed., The Alphabet of Galen, (Toronto 2012) p. 73.

[3] Motherby lists these three aloes in his Medical Dictionary (see under the Resources tab). He calls the hepatic aloe “Aloe perfoliatum,” and goes on to say that the uses of the three varieties are similar but vary in the quality of the product and intensity of curative properties. But since A. perfoliata is a South African species, he must mean something other than the medieval hepatic aloe. Tony Hunt (p. 17) provides the further information that “aloes epatyk is for medicines; aloes caballinum for plaistres only.”

[4] The outer layer of an aloe leaf exudes a bitter yellow latex containing anthraquinone barbaloin, a strong laxative. The core of the leaf has the colorless gum used for lotions and salves.