Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
November 6, 2018 Early Science & Alchemy

Snakes and Letters

An ancient work on toxicology gets a 16th-century makeover from a master of fonts.


One of the pleasures of my job is the unpredictability, the chain of events that might any day ensue. Like Bilbo Baggins stepping out his front door, I never know where I might be swept off to.

Many years ago, when I first started as curator of rare books at the Science History Institute’s Othmer Library, I spent some time reviewing the holdings of one of our sister special-collections libraries at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. What I found was notable: alongside the sorts of works I expected was book after book on theriac and mithridate.

I had never heard of these substances before and had no idea why a medical library would have so many sources on them. I soon learned that both were legendary antidotes—theriac for venom and mithridate for poison. Theriac derives from the Greek word theria, referring to wild beasts or poisonous reptiles, which were the subject of several works in Greek antiquity. The first, by Apollodorus of Alexandria (beginning of the 3rd century BCE), is now lost to history. But Apollodorus was cribbed by Nicander of Colophon, whose 2nd-century BCE poem Theriaca—to use its Latin name—is the oldest complete surviving work on venoms and their antidotes and thus the oldest complete work in toxicology. Both authors addressed venomous snakes and other animals as well as antidotes to their poisons. They also gave recipes for a universal antidote for venom that eventually became associated with the word theriac.

Mithridate has a similar story. The term derives from the ruthless king of Pontus, Mithridates VI (reigned 120–63 BCE), who it was said was so paranoid about being assassinated by poison—he did become king upon the poisoning of his father, quite possibly by his mother—that he undertook a program of research into the subject. He reportedly tested poisons and their antidotes on condemned prisoners. And he is said to have practiced self-experimentation, making himself immune to poisons by ingesting gradually increasing doses, a practice known by the eponymous term mithridatism. Mithridate, as the universal antidote to poison he developed was known, supposedly contained an extraordinary number of ingredients—not surprising given the wide range of possible threats.

Even in antiquity a firm distinction between the two panaceas was hard to maintain. After all, snake venom was one of the poisons Mithridates was reportedly protecting himself against.

While the mythic status of mithridate meant recipes for making it were passed down from antiquity along with those for theriac, the latter was far simpler and thus far more common. By the 16th century enough permutations of theriac were in circulation that European writers in the early years of the Scientific Revolution began to question which, if any, were genuine and whether the materials they were using to concoct theriac were identical to the ingredients used in ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. And this is why I found all those early titles at the College of Physicians devoted to theriac and mithridate.

I was reminded of these ancient panaceas a couple of months ago when I saw in an auction catalog a listing for a 16th-century Greek and Latin edition of Nicander’s Theriaca, which also included his Alexipharmaca, his work on poisons. Since we did not have any edition of Nicander’s work in the collection, I placed a bid and was gratified when we won the book for £500. I was even more pleased when it arrived and I saw how extraordinarily beautiful the Greek typography is. The Theriaca and Alexipharmaca were printed for the first time in 1499 in Venice by the legendary printer Aldus Manutius and reissued by Aldus’s heirs in 1523. Our edition was published in Paris in 1557 by Guillaume Morel. As best I can tell, ours seems to be the fifth Greek and the sixth Latin edition.

A clue to the edition’s unusual beauty was in the imprint, “Apud Guil. Morelium, in Graecis typographum regium.” This identified the publisher Guillaume Morel as royal printer for Greek. The position of imprimeur royal pour grec (or regius in Graecis typographus) had been established in 1538 to encourage the printing of Greek works in France. Morel was the fourth to be granted the title. An experienced and erudite printer, he rapidly established himself as the indisputable leader of these early royal printers of Greek texts. The position entitled printers to issue editions based on the Greek manuscripts in the collection of King Francis I and gave them a copyright of five years. In addition, they gained the use of the royal Greek types. These were commissioned in 1540 by Francis I, designed by Francis’s expert Greek scribe Angelos Vergikios, and cut in 1543 by master punchcutter Claude Garamont.

You may recognize the name Garamond from the font-selection menu on your word-processing program; a version of Garamont’s Latin font comes preinstalled on most computers. (Garamont used t rather than d in spelling his name, but his font became associated with the variant spelling Garamond.) But not all Garamond fonts are created equal, and to see why, we must take a short excursion into how type was mass-produced.

A type font began its life as a set of steel punches created by a type designer and an expert punchcutter. These punches were the original designs for the letters. To create multiple copies of the letter, the steel punch was hammered into a softer piece of copper called the matrix; the matrix was then inserted into the bottom of the type mold; finally a large number of type pieces made of an alloy of lead, antimony, and tin were poured using the impression of the matrix. The punch could produce a large number of matrices, and each matrix could make a large number of pieces of type. In the case of the royal Greek fonts, the king retained the punches while the matrices passed from royal printer to royal printer. As a result the original punches do not show an excessive amount of wear and tear, and some of Garamont’s original 16th-century type punches still exist. Adobe’s senior type designer, Robert Slimbach, consulted original Garamond type punches at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp when designing Adobe Garamond in 1989. When updating the font in 2007, Slimbach added italics based on the punches of Garamont’s contemporary Robert Granjon to create Adobe Garamond Premier Pro. Now that’s a font.

As it turns out, the punches for Garamont’s grecs du roi fonts also survive. These fonts, which he created for Francis I, were a revelation, and like his roman font became the standard type design for the next few centuries. They have been praised for their evenness of color, precision of casting, and exactness of alignment and justification. At the same time, they have been criticized for their complexity, with too many ligatures (multiple connected letters impressed on the same piece of type) and abbreviations and too fragile kerning (parts of letters that hung over the edge and were supported during printing by the shoulder of the adjacent type). The sheer complexity of printing Greek can be appreciated by the total number of matrices passed down to Morel—1,441—meaning 1,441 different characters spread over three different font sizes.

A few weeks after the arrival of the Nicander edition, I bumped up against this subject again while attending the California Antiquarian Book Fair and going through the wares of a French dealer. He drew my attention to a 1573 volume by the French apothecary and philanthropist Nicolas Houel. A rich apothecary with connections at court, Houel in 1576 petitioned Henry III to found an institution to simultaneously help orphans and needy patients. The orphans would be taught the art of pharmacy while distributing medicine to the needy. Houel published many books, but the one I was looking at—and bought—was titled Traité de la thériaque et mithridat, contenant plusieurs questions generales & particulieres: auec vn entier examen des simples medicamens qui y entrent . . . , pour le profit & vtilité de ceux qui font profession de la pharmacie, & aussi fort propre à ceux qui sont amateurs de la medecine, & qui desirent la congnoissance des simples, or A Treatise on Theriac and Mithridate, Containing Many General and Specific Questions, Including a Comprehensive Examination of the Simple Medicines That Go into It . . . , for the Benefit and Utility of Those Who Make a Profession of Pharmacy, and also Very Useful for Those Who Are Amateurs in Medicine and Desire Knowledge of the Simple Medicines.   

My path had randomly brought me back to theriac, again.

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