(sal) Ammoniac, its usage and description

On Monday, October 24, Fordham University had the privilege of hearing our Fordham Medieval Fellow for AY 2022-2023, Dr. Robin Reich, speak about her work on the medicinal item “(sal) ammoniac” in 12th century Sicily–specifically, in the context of Salerno, a prominent center for medical knowledge.

Dr. Robin Reich discussing Access to Medical goods in the 1100s

Dr. Reich obtained her PhD from Columbia University in History in May 2022 with a focus on medieval material culture, such as medieval medicinal items in the Mediterranean and Islamic worlds. She has received grants and awards from both the Medieval Academy of America and the Haskins Society.

Reich began her conversation around (sal) ammoniac by explaining its ambivalent definition as a pharmaceutical item variously identified as giant fennel, asafetida, and ammonium chloride. It was also labelled as a trade good and manufacturing item throughout Italy all the way until the 1400s. The name comes from the Latin “ammoniac” or “ammoniacum.” You can find a detailed medieval description of (sal) ammoniac’s supposed origins and uses in a manuscript housed in the New York Botanical Gardens: LuEsther T. Mertz Library MS 0011. The manuscript contains the text known as “Circa Instans,” which is believed to have been written in 12th-century Salerno by the physician Mattheus Platearius. He writes that ammoniaquam’s intended uses or prescribed intentions range from curing sadness, inducing sleep, and even treating scorpion stings.

The confusion over (sal) ammoniac’s origins as both a plant good and a chemical good leads medical historians into the realm of confusion. This confusion, Dr. Reich argues, provides strong evidence as to why–when researching materia medica–one should turn to other evidence, for example, textile goods. (Sal) ammoniac was indeed used in textile production throughout Sicily in the 10th and 11th centuries. Dr. Reich argues that it is in historians best interest to examine all possible fields where an item is cited, and this example of (sal) ammoniac acts as proof that–while our understanding of this item’s true bounds within the medieval world may be limited–we know that this item would have been known and would have been used in multiple contexts. Incorporating material culture into the study of medical history underscores the importance, and promise, of interdisciplinary work.