How were the English Introduced to Sassafras?

The introduction of sassafras to the English imagination took a circuitous route.  Printed knowledge of the tree probably first appeared in English through the publishing of Joyfull Newes out of the New Founde Worlde, originally written in Spanish and “Englished” by John Frampton in 1577.  The original Spanish text was written in two parts by Nicolas Monardes in 1569 and 1571. [1]  The parts were then combined into one large volume, and it is this combination that John Frampton translated into English.

Joyfull Newes Frampton and Monardes
English translation of Monardes, 1596.

John Parker described the translation as “as the most frequently issued book of overseas interest in the Elizabethan period.”[2]  The book explored the medicinal plants found across Spanish Florida, the Caribbean, New Spain (Mexico), and Peru.  There is a question about Frampton’s motivation for translating the work, but whatever his purpose, the publication contributed to the expansion of European pharmacology.[3]

Monardes claimed he learned of sassafras from “a Frenche manne whiche had been in those partes [Florida].”  The Frenchman told Monardes that his countrymen in Florida “had been sicke…of greevous and variable deseases, and that the Indians did shewe them this Tree, and the maner how thei should use it, and so thei did, and thei healed of many evilles.”  The French in this case were probably part of the failed settlement at Ft. Caroline, indicated by Monardes saying “the Frenche menne were destroied.”[4]

“A kind of wood of most pleasant and sweet smell, and of most rare virtues in physic for the cure of many diseases” -Thomas Harriot, 1583.

Monardes in Spanish
Italian translation of Monardes, 1575

Monardes described sassafras as a panacea for many illnesses and praised God for its existence: “Blessed be our Lord GOD that deliuered vs from so great euill, and gaue vs this most excellente tree called Sassafras, which hath so great vertues, and worketh such mauellous effects as we haue spoken of, and more which Time wil shewe vs, which is the discouerer of all thinges.”[5]  Furthermore, it was a general belief during the early modern period that “God often placed remedies for a disease in the areas where that disease flourished,” and since syphilis was of American origin, its cure was to be found in America.[6]  In 1535, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés discussed this idea when he wrote “such is the divine mercy that where it permits us to be afflicted for our sins, it places a remedy equal to our afflictions.”[7]  Oviedo’s sentiment was translated and published by Samuel Purchas to read “God so in judgment remembering mercy, that where our sinnes produce a punishment, he also sends a remedie.”[8]  Mondardes admitted that hearing reports out of Florida of the beneficial uses of the tree gave him the “courage to experimente it.”[9]  He used it on “a gentlewoman” suffering from “certaine indispositions of the Mother, and of greate colde,” and “was burdened in suche sorte with a verye greate Agewe.”  After following Monardes’ instructions on how and when to take sassafras water, the woman was “healed very well, of her disease.”[10]  Monardes also healed “a yong man which had an Opilation of certaine Tertians.  And thereof he was all swolne, and in such sort that he was well nere full of Dropsie” by treating him with “water of this sassafras” in conjunction with “Pilles of Ruibarbe, and by takying of Dialaca.”[11]  Monardes healed a gentleman with “with foule deseased hands…which could not write…paste five or six letters,” upon drinking sassafras water “he came to be remedied.”[12]  Reminiscent of plague doctors, Monardes used sassafras as a pomander because the sweet smell of the roots was “so acceptable it did rectifie the infected ayre.”  He carried it when treating patients, and in addition to the sassafras, Monardes believed he “was delivered by the healpe of God from the fyre, in the whiche we that were Phisitions went in.”[13]

Monardes also heard anecdotes and eyewitness reports of the miraculous plant.  Spanish soldiers under the command of Pedro Menedez (the same Menedez who destroyed Ft. Caroline) drank sassafras water to ward off disease; a priest accompanying the soldiers cured his kidney stones by drinking sassafras water; a captain in Florida who was unable to walk and had to be carried by his soldiers was cured by sassafras; and a physician in Havana used sassafras to cure his patients of constipation.  In addition to the previously mentioned diseases (pregnancy pains [indispositions of the mother], fever and malaria [ague] edema [dropsy], blockages [opilations], arthritis [foul deseased hands], kidney stones, lameness, constipation), Monardes claimed sassafras could cure dysentery (staie the flux), headaches (griefes of the head), stomachaches (griefes of the Stomacke), bad breath (stinking breath), toothaches, gout, comfort the liver, engender clean blood, restore appetite (cause lust to meate), help digestion, consume winds, cause urination, cure bareness in men and women, cause weight gain, and reduce childbirth pains (evill of the Mother).[14]  Probably not coincidentally, centuries later, The British Medical Journal reported on the toxic properties of sassafras.  Dr. John Bartlett found that sassafras resembled opium due to its action as a narcotic and sudorific.  Bartlett also found sassafras to cause tetantic and clonic spasms followed by paralysis, and had the “power of exciting the uterus.”[15]  These toxic properties probably helped in easing the “evills of the mother” by reducing birth pains via temporary paralysis. Additionally, sassafras was used to treat “the evill of the Poxe,” or syphilis.[16]  Monardes claimed that sassafras had “the same effectes that the reste of the water of the holie woodd, the China, and the Sarcaparillia dooeth.”[17]  Monardes is referring to the four sudorific woods: sassafras, guaiacum, china root, and sarsparilla,[18] all of which were found in America.[19]

Monardes’ description of sassafras laid the foundation for future authors to understand the physical and medicinal properties of the sassafras and its leaves, roots, wood, and bark. A side by side comparison of John Frampton’s translation of Monardes’s Joyfull Newes, and the Thomas Johnson’s edition of John Gerard’s The herball or Generall historie of plantes (originally published by Gerard in 1597, edited Johnson edition published in 1633) demonstrates how Monardes’ work served as the cornerstone of knowledge for the English knowledge of sassafras for at least two generations.

The sweet and powerful smell of sassafras as described by Monardes’ Joyfull Newes and echoed by Gerard also appeared in the writings of Thomas Harriot.  Harriot, while visiting southern Virginia in the 1585, encountered and described sassafras as “a kind of wood of most pleasant and sweet smell, and of most rare virtues in physic for the cure of many diseases.”[22]  Harriot advised his readers if they wanted to know about “the description, the maner of using, and the manifold vertues thereof,” they should read “the Booke of Monardus, translated and entituled in English, The joyfull newes from the West Indies.”[23] David Beers Quinn argued that Harriot brought a copy of Monardes with him to Virginia to help identify medicinal plants.[24]  In 1631, Robert Fludd claimed that sassafras could be “scented by nauigators vpon” the shores of Guaiana and Virginea “sometimes before they can discerne any land.”[25] In 1633, James Hart claimed the scent of sassafras wood in the West Indies could “be many miles carried into the aire, and by sailers smelt a farre off.”[26]

[1] Stephen Gaselee, “Introduction,” Nicholas Monardes, Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde trans John Frampton vol. 1, 1925 reprint (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925), vi.

[2] John Parker, Books to Build an Empire, 76.

[3] Donald Beecher, “The Legacy of John Frampton: Elizabethan trader and translator,” Renaissance Studies 20, no. 3 (May 2006): 327.  There are questions surrounding whether Frampton was trying to earn a living as a translator, or, if was promoting the formation of the Spanish Company.

[4] Monardes, 99.  For more on the two failed French settlements in the American southeast during the sixteenth century, see John T. McGrath, The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000).

[5] Nicolas Monardes and John Frampton, Ioyfull newes out of the newfound world (London, 1580), 55.

[6] John Parascandola, Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America (Wesport CT: Praeger, 2008), 16.

[7] Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés, Relacion sumaria de la natural historia de las Indias, quoted in Max H. Fisch and Nicolaus Pol, Nicolaus Poll Doctor 1494, ed. and trans. Dorothy M. Schullian (New York: Herbert Reichner for the Clevelad Medical Library Association, 1947) 44-45.

[8] Gonzalo de Oviedo, “Extracts of Gonzalo Ferdinando de Oveido his Summarie and Generall Historie of the Indies,” in Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimes vol. 15 (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906), 222.

[9] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 102.

[10] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 105-106.  I am assuming that “indispositions of the Mother” means pain associated with pregnancy

[11] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 107.

[12] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 114.

[13] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 117.

[14] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 99-120.

[15] “United States, from a correspondent,” The British Medical Journal  1 no. 1312 (Feb. 20, 1886): 365.

[16] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 113.

[17] Monardes, 1925 reprint, 113.

[18] George Wood defined the fours sudorific woods as guaiacum, sarsparilla, china root, and sassafras root, George P. Wood, A Treatise on the Practice of Medicine (Philadelphia: Lippincoot, Grambo, and Co., 1855), 633.

[19] Generally, sassafras was found in North America, sarsaparilla in Central America, Guaiacum in the Caribbean.   China root was found in both Asia and the Americas.

[20] Monares, 1925 reprint, 103.

[21] John Gerard, The herball of Generall historie of plantes (London, 1633), 1525..  The 1633 edition was edited by Thomas Johnson and is considered more well received and scholarly version of Gerard’s work.

[22] Thomas Hariot, “Thomas Hariot’s Report on Virginia” in Quinn, Quinn, and Hillier, New American World vol. 3, 142.

[23] Thomas Harriot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), in Quinn and Quinn, The First Colonists, 51.

[24] David Beers Quinn, The Roanoke Voyages, fn. 5, 329.

[25] Robert Fludd, Doctor Fludds answer vnto M Foster (1631), 83.

[26] James Hart, Klinike, or the diet of the diseased (1633), 368.

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