The Nun’s Hospital (l’Hopital) was selected for review due to its unique display of culturalism.  Not only is the Nun’s Hospital different from the New England and New Netherlands colonies due to its European heritage, the Nun’s Hospital is also unique due to its very strong devotion to religion and medicine.  In essence, these institutions located at the New Netherlands-New France border attempted to perform the most sanative and symbolic forms of healing found in North American colonial literature.  Their practitioners and leaders had a philosophy that was quite distinct from their neighbors, even those who were practicing regular medicine in New France.  Some of the best evidence for this traditionalism is found in the recipes and ingredients contained within the Nun’s Hospital materia medica.  These remedies were included because they demonstrated some form of physiological effect beneficial to the patient, at least in theory, but also because their effects upon the body were in compliance with the general healing faith for the time as professed by the nuns.  The nuns believed it was important to heal the soul as well as the body, and for the body to experience some sort of “suffering” symbolic of the Jesuit interpretation on diseases and recovery. 

The single most important factor to keep in mind when reviewing New France Nun’s Hospital medicine is that vis medicatrix naturae, natural theology, sanative healing, and natural philosophy go hand-in-hand within both the Church’s and Nuns’ line of reasoning.  Since much of then medicine practiced during this time, even by regular physicians, still was based upon similar although not identical beliefs, the differences in what types of medicines a regular physician or a sanative healer decided to apply are often minimal.  The most important differences between these two philosophies are found in the reasoning as to how and why these particular medicines or therapeutic regimens were used or applied.  “Sanative” can have very different meanings for two different cultural setiings.

The following letter from a Nun’s hospital in 1665 provides some important background into the underlying reasoning this hospital existed and was run by Nun’s, with limited assistance from physicians.   Now this practice was going on perhaps since these hospital settings were first raised in New France, sometime near the end of the sixteenth century.  Some of the remedies employed by the nun’s were used in these settings for several centuries, since the first institutionalization of Nun’s Hospitals during the middle ages.

The Letter

The Materia Medica

When reviewing the materia medica of a highly devoted religious group, the emphasis has to be on Sanative medicine.  In other parts of the Jesuit history we come upon the actual use of this term for employing medical care.  The term sanative comes from the Latin term Sanare for natural, which in religious context refers to the natural sense or chain of events as these exist due to the Creator or God, without the prevention of sanative activities that often ensue due to specific forms of medical practice.    This use of Sanative is also not to be equilibrated with the much more recent term Sanitative, which of course refers to cleanliness and health, and since this is pretty much a term popularized since the late 1900s due to Lister’s discovery and the like, also refers to inherent knowledge of the germ and/or virus theories for disease.  Sanitative is not at all identical to its counterpart, and the practice of Sanitative, in a religious sense, may be again the practices of Sanative cure as they are professed by the most devoted religious healers.

The types of actions a sanative healer takes (aside from those metaphysically or soul-spirit based such as laying-on-of-hands, praying, etc.) result in the body taking an expected course related to the illness, such as the production of sweat to cool a fever, the result of a vomit to cleanse the inner parts, the expulsion of phlegm or pus to clean out an infected wound, the coughing up of phlegm or black bile as a sign of cleaning the lungs of the body’s humours and debris, or the rapid cleansing of the bowels in the form of a watery expulsion in order to remove the biles and other fluids related to the illness.    A number of medicines are derived from ingredients noted in the Bible, thus their symbolic nature.  Still other ingredients seem to be used because they promote symptoms of an illness with the goal of assisting the patient through the disease’s natural course and, if so selected by God,  allowed to recover. 

The following is the list of medicines extracted from the New France documents.  The numbers that appear in brackets are the page number on which this text was found within the original manuscript or publication.  [note: livres = pounds, as a dry weight measure]

A Synopsis

The first observation to note is the presence of opium but absence of cinchona. 

The effect of opium is to reduce the severity or the impact of the disease, an outcome not preferred due to the church’s philosophy of disease and its reasons for happening, but necessary to save lives at times. 

Secondly, the use of cinchona to treat fevers was a common method of dealing with fever during this period in medical history.  It is possible that the cinchona was just not plentiful enough to go around to all physicians and practitioners.  Yet, the nuns do not request this medicine, suggesting their philosophy allows them to perform other methods of similar sanative value, such as bathing the body to induce a sweat, or making use of black pepper (Piper nigrum, “six livres of pepper”) to heat the body further, thereby sanatively spurring on this much needed change in the body’s physical state. 

The first five ingredients on the medicines portion of this list are Senna, Rhubarb, Jalap, Myrrh and Aloes.   These could possibly symbolize the four humours to some extent, or the major routes of humor flow or passage within, throughout and away from the body, channels that need to be kept open when treating illness.  For examples, Senna (green to tan pods), Rhubarb (red to green leaves, brown roots) and Jalap (brown roots) have their effects by purging the bowels. Myrrh influences the Lungs and Blood (black bile if it was dark brown to black in color), along with impacting the phlegm.  Finally, Aloes impacts the skin, mouth, throat, on down to the colon, as symbolized by its mucilaginous nature.   A related traditional plant remedy, Scammony, appears later in this listing; its uses can be likened to those of the Jalap.

The following additional comments can be made about this materia medica, and what it tells us about the Nun’s/Church’s philosophy:

  • Golden and Silver litharge are metal-based mineral remedies.
  • A number of aromatics are found next on this list, in both oil form and raw, dried herb form.
  • Several commonplace ingredients are then mentioned on this list, beginning with white vitriol and ending with sugar, fine and coarse.
  • Diapalma, Diachylon, and Divinum are theologically-based additions to the materia medica. 
  • Betonic, Balm, Rose ointment and White ointment are symbolic religious recipes or ingredients, some are even mentioned in the holy writings. 
  • Althaea and Licorice are popular medicinal plants with long-lasting European traditions, not necessarily just religious-based.
  • Senna of Montpelier is an especially strong laxative, from a special (or as some may call it ‘sacred’) place. 
  • Extra-Fracturas, Extra-Contusionum, suppuratives, mundificatives and lancets are used to assist the body through some natural process of change related to the disease. 
  • Minium is a strong-acting lead-based black powder used to dry up swollen, moist, inflamed tissues.


The following each deserve a special review (to follow this section):

    • Diapalma, Diachylon, and Divinum.
    • Extra-Fracturas, Extra-Contusionum, suppuratives, mundificatives and lancets.

Sanative Traditions

Nearly all of the above materials have some sort of Sanative application.  The following recipes require further explanation, to which the sanative value is further defined.  See especially Nicolas Culpeper’s very brief description of this process at the end of this section.


From Abraham Rees, Cyclopedia, 1728.  v. 34.


For the treatment of ulcers from wounds that form a sinus or fistula by traversing into and through other tissues.


The Oxford dictionary states:

In pharmacology, diapalma (from Lat dia, “made of” + palma, “palm” is a desiccating or drying plaster, named for the wood of the palm tree, from which the spatula is made that is used to stir the mixture while boiling. It was formerly composed of common oil, hogs-fat, and litharge of gold; or also of palm oil, litharge, and zinc sulfate. Now, it is made of white wax, emplastrum simplex, and sulfate of zinc.  [Oxford English Dictionary, 1989] [from]


Diachylon (from Lat diachȳlōn, representing Gr διὰ χυλων, “[a medicament] composed of juices”), also rendered diachylum or diaculum, was originally a kind of medicament made of the juices of several plants (thus its name), but now commonly the name for lead-plaster, emplastrum plumbi—a plaster made of lead oxide boiled together with olive oil and water. It is applied to sheets of linen, and works as an adhesive plaster when heated.

 Historically, several different types of diachylons have been described. White, or simple, diacyhlon is compounded of common oil, litharge of gold (litharge mixed with red lead), and adhesives drawn from the root of the Althaea, the seeds of flax and fenugreek. The diachylon called direatum has for its basis the common white diachylon, but with every pound of which is mixed an ounce of powder of Iris; this plaster digests, incides, and ripens with more force than the simple diachylon.

There is also the great diachylon, or diachylon magnum, composed of litharge of gold, oils of iris, chamomile, and aneth, turpentine, pine resin, yellow wax, and adhesives derived from flax, fenugreek, with new figs, raisins of Damascus, icthyocolla, juices of iris, squill, and hyssop. This diachylon was said to soften hard swellings called scirrhus, and dissipate tumors.

The diachylon gummatum is the great diachylon with the addition of gum ammoniac, galbanum, and sagapenum, dissolved with wine, and boiled to a consistency of honey. This plaster was believed the most power of all for digesting, ripening, and resolving.

Ref:  1728 Cyclopaedia, Oxford English Dictionary, 2ed. 1989.  From


A remedy with Lodestone in it.  see Nicolaus’ coverage of the “magnetick bodies” and emplastrum divinum.

From Nicolas Culpeper’s Compleat herbal, p.371.