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Honest merchants and natural history: knowing and consuming exotic drugs in Paris (1660–1700)

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By 1700, the market of drugs of Paris was a contested field of expertise and a business in the process of specialisation. Under the reign of Louis XIV , the growth of metropolitan economy and the development of the colonial machine facilitated not only a more diversified offer of simples, but also a growing interest in them. In the context of globalisation and popularisation of scientific publications, both curiosity and usefulness placed the products of exotic lands at the centre of intellectual and moral debates, whilst pushing European commerce to new and further directions. However, at a time of embryonic colonial infrastructure, transforming an outlandish plant substance into a medicine for the European marketplace was a complex and risky endeavour. Its success was variable and depended on proper execution of a succession of tasks of identification, description, classification, experimentation, distribution, preparation and prescription, which all required different sorts of expertise and skills. These activities happened across the globe, some on the move and some in local spaces, and involved an international chain of individuals. Hence, from their extraction from nature to their consumption, drugs were exposed to all kinds of environments and manipulations. The distance imposed between the consumer and the commodity (or between the place of origin of the simple and the place of consumption of the remedy) posed serious issues of trust concerning the quality and authenticity of the drugs. Inspired by the challenge that presented selling the exotic to European consumers and exerting control over the professional and social communities that structured the Parisian marketplace of drugs, the grocer-druggist Pierre Pomet composed an unusual, yet very successful manual on the art and science of drugs. Located at the crossroads of science, craftsmanship and commerce, his Histoire géneral des drogues (1694) provides a unique panoramic on the overlapping spheres of the late seventeenth century metropolitan marketplace against the backdrop of the growing abundance of drugs caused by global trade. By focusing on Pierre Pomet’s work, thus, this paper analyses the role of honesty and natural history in the strategies of commodification of exotic drugs through print, as well as the boundaries between commerce and erudition.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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