Of unicorns and other oddities: an 18th century Persian medical manual
Visitors to our current exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic will doubtless be familiar with the unicorn and will have noted the exhibit, illustrated below, from the Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. (Paris, 1694), by Pierre Pomet (1658-1699), chief druggist of Louis XIV. However they might be surprised, as I was a few weeks ago, to learn that this engraving had been faithfully copied in a Persian translation commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r.1782-1799).
Above: Pomet’s engraving of five different kinds of unicorns including the camphur and the two-horned pirassoipi (more on this in our post “How many horns does a unicorn have?”).
Below: our copy followed by an explanation in Persian. The horn was apparently especially recommended as an antidote to poison.
Our manuscript, Mufradāt dar ʻilm-i ṭibb, ‘A dictionary of medicine’ (IO Islamic 1516), is a translation, or rather selective paraphrase, of the complete Histoire and contains almost exact copies of all Pomet’s engravings with the exception of two scenes. Without any details as to translator or source, it is described on the flyleaf simply as a translation ordered at the request of Tipu Sultan (farmūdah az ḥuz̤ūr) and in a damaged English label on the binding as “translated from European works - with good etchings.”
The Persian text, following Pomet, is divided into three parts, the first containing nine books (kitāb) on seeds, roots, trees, the properties of bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, gums and juices. Each book is further subdivided into illustrated chapters (ṣūrat). The second part consists of 54 chapters on creatures (ḥayvānāt) and the third part, unillustrated, contains five books on minerals, metals, bitumen (gil'hā), stones and on the use of different kinds of earth for medicinal purposes and dyes.
Each section begins with a transcription of the French and English term, followed by a paraphrase of Pomet’s description. The paraphrase is usually considerably shorter than the original, omitting technical terms and sources presumably deemed irrelevant, and the details are often slightly different. The illustrations are not unlike the plants and animals which feature in the many copies of the popular encyclopædia ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt ‘Wonders of creation’ by the 13th century al-Qazwīnī (see also our post “The London Qazwini goes live”). These would therefore have resonated well with the reader who would have been familiar with the genre and would also have appreciated the more exotic elements of Pomet's descriptions for entertainment value.
There are several drawings, however, which have no equivalent in Arabo-Persic traditions. One of these is an illustration of the techniques of mummification. The drawing is accompanied by a detailed account of different methods of embalming and a discussion of the medicinal properties and uses of parts of the body, especially the skull.
Perhaps most intriguing are the ‘action’ scenes which illustrate collection and manufacturing processes. In the drawing below, for example, we see a hive, bees swarming, and a man ‘calling’ the swarm to follow him. At the foot are the rotting corpses of a lion and an ox from which bees are spontaneously self-generating.
The theory of spontaneous generation, put forward by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, whereby some living organisms were created from non-living ones was prevalent in Europe until the 18th century. Certain insects, in particular, were thought to have originated from putrefying flesh though by Pomet’s time this theory was already becoming discredited through the work of scientists such as Francesco Redi. In his chapter on bees, Pomet makes no mention of the dead lion featured in his engraving (probably a biblical allusion), though he does refer by name to Virgil’s account (Georgics BkIV: 281-314) of the ‘autogenesis of bees’ from a dead bullock citing an apparently unsuccessful contemporary experiment in which a bullock was beaten to death, dismembered and its parts put in a box with ventilation holes to encourage the bees to develop. The Persian translation repeats all this — but without reference to Virgil!
Spontaneous generation also features in chapter 30 on silkworms:
Chapter 30: In French ‘Vers a soie’ (var ā swā) and in English ‘Silkworms’ (silk varms). Silkworms were and are in great demand in France. Someone who wants to cultivate silkworms should do the following: he should feed a female cow for a month before it is due to give birth on mulberry leaves and not give it anything else. When the calf is born the cow and calf should both feed on mulberry leaves for another month. After a month the calf is slaughtered and every bit of it from head to hoof, together with its bones and flesh, bit by bit should be put in a box. Holes should be drilled in the four corners and they should keep the box in a cold place. Then the worms will be produced…
The cultivation of silkworms was one of Tipu Sultan’s great interests, though there is some evidence to suggest that a form of sericulture existed in Seringapatam prior to his father Hyder ʻAli’s death in 1783 (S. Charsley, “Tipu Sultan and sericulture for Mysore”). In 1785 and 1786 Tipu Sultan wrote to Mir Kazim, his agent at Muscat, with instructions to procure silkworms (Kirkpatrick, Select letters, pp. 188, 283). In another letter of 1786 to the Governor of the Fort at Seringapatam, he mentions that worms are being brought from Bengal and expresses a desire “to know, in what kind of place it is recommended to keep them, and what means are to be pursued for multiplying them.” According to Kirkpatrick a set of instructions issued to the Revenue Department in 1794 mentions 21 separate silkworm breeding stations throughout his kingdom.
However, it is doubtful whether Tipu Sultan ever experimented in sericulture along the lines recommended by Pomet. While testifying to the remarkably universal appeal of Pomet's pharmacopoeia, this translation should be seen rather as one of several undertaken by Tipu Sultan in an attempt to become familiar with European medicine. Further examples of translations of this kind in his library collection (unfortunately not illustrated) are IO Islamic 1649: Qānūn dar 'ilm-i ṭibb, a translation into Persian of A Compleat English Dispensatory by John Quincy (d. 1722), and IO Islamic 1452, Tarjumah-i firang, a translation of The Nature and Cures of Fluxes by William Cockburn (1669–1739).
Pomet, Pierre. Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. Paris, 1694.
English translation: A Compleat History of Druggs, Written in French by Monsieur Pomet, Chief Druggist to the Present French King; to Which Is Added What Is Further Observable on the Same Subject, from Messrs. Lemery, and Tournefort…. 3rd edition. London, 1737.
Sherman, Sandra. “The exotic world of Pierre Pomet's A Compleat History of Druggs,” Endeavour
28/4 (December 2004): 156-160
Kirkpatrick, William. Select letters of Tippoo Sultan to various public functionaries… . London, 1811.
 Illustrating the cultivation of indigo and tobacco.