Hemp and Hops, Together at Last

Looks like Andrew Sullivan is getting medieval… in a good way. He recently posted an image from the Bodleian Library’s MS Ashmole 1431, apparently a late 11th/early 12th century manual of herbal medicinal use that includes canapus silvaticus, aka “dry hempe,” aka “The Assassin of Youth.” That’s right, I’m tallking about muggles, Indiana ditchweed, snop, vipe, Alice B. Toklas,* the infamous giggle smoke.

In other words, people in the Middle Ages–not necessarily very many people, but some people in the vicinity of Canterbury literate in Latin and able to afford a fancy illustrated manuscript–were aware of the medicinal benefits of marijuana.  From the Ashmole guide, Sullivan concludes: 
Decriminalizing cannabis would not be a radical departure from the norm of human history. It would be a return to it.

This blog is officially neutral on the subject of drug decriminalization, but it is very positive on the idea of driving some High Times-originating web traffic its way.  So, I poked around the Ashmole collection a little more, and what do you know, I found this:
The image comes from a Tudor pattern book (MS Ashmole 1504).  A pattern book is exactly what it sounds like it’d be–a handy visual reference guide to things a manuscript illuminator (in this case, one living in the sixteenth century) might want to draw.  As you can see above, thanks to a happy accident of alphabetization, the vegetative sources of two of man’s great vices occupy the same page in the pattern book: hemp and hops.**  It’s a tee-shirt waiting to happen, it is.
[Update] Actually, glancing over the rest of the book, it seems it’s not arranged strictly alphabetically. Instead, the pages are grouped thematically, then alphabetized within the theme.  The image above is preceded in the manuscript by two medicinal w’s (weybrode [now called plantago] and wyld tansy) and followed by two stout arborial a’s (alder and aspen trees).  In other words, this page was probably intentionally meant to depict something we might label “two high-producing plants starting with h.”
In fact, since it seems that the use of hops was something of a scandal in England around the same time this pattern book was produced, we might even further label this picture “two illicit high-producing h’s.”  Apparently, hops were a controlled substance in England around the turn of the sixteenth century, banned for use by common ale brewers (but not beer brewers) because they were seen as a “wicked and pernicious weed.”*** 
*I really hope this slang is still in use somewhere.  Gertrude Stein’s lover’s name being casually dropped by potheads thrills me to no end.
**Or hempe and hoppis, to use the original spelling.
***Like all good quotes, the truth of the matter is more complicated, and there’s a fair amount of qualification that needs to be made.  Go elsewhere for that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • zythophile

    Of course, hemp and hops are both members of the Cannabaceae, biologically speaking, and that would be another reason for putting them on he same page, if 16th century botanists recognised that link … I believe archaeologists have great difficulty telling the difference between hemp seed and hop seed.

    And as you correctly indicate, hops were banned in England for ale brewers, but NOT for beer brewers – an important point to make …

  • jenne.heise

    I’ve spent a good deal of time looking for information about the medicinal use of hemp in pre-1650 Europe, because of course everyone giggles madly when hemp is mentioned.

    Hemp as a industrial crop is widely described, and you can even find pre-1650 accounts of how to process it for fiber.

    I’ve had extreme difficulty documenting the use of hemp-smoke as an inhalant. The closest I’ve come so far is a note from Hildegarde of Bingen that consuming too much hemp (she appears to be talking about either hempseed or hemp leaf, cooked) may or may not be bad for people who have a ‘vacant’ head or mind…

    The use of hashish in Arab countries and the controversy over it is well described in The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society by Franz Rosenthal which is the best source I’ve found on medieval period use of hemp-based intoxicants; hashish, specifically, does seem to appear from time to time in medieval medicaments, but obviously that’s not the same as mere local hemp.

  • Steve

    This is off-topic, but I’m disappointed that the carmakers’ drive to Washington isn’t being compared to Henry IV’s walk to Canossa.

  • Irène

    “canapus silvaticus”

    You mean Canabis silvaticus, surely?

  • Got Medieval

    Medieval spelling.

  • I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch

    “It’s a tee-shirt waiting to happen, it is.”

    Consider it done.

  • Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

    Can’t claim to have spent a GREAT deal of time looking at hemp-smoke as a medieval inhalant, but the little time I have spent working with Anglo-Saxon medicine backs up what Jenne Heise said.

    I suppose Andrew Sullivan would have a point if he were talking about the decriminalization of hemp for rope-making, but the idea of “medical marijuana” as the title suggests? No — and if Andrew Sullivan and his “historian reader” are examples, just more evidence that smoking pot makes you dumb.

    Now, crack, on the other hand, is whack. Whitney says so.

  • Brendan McNamara

    I am so proud.

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