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Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

“The herbs that have the property of healing. . .,”:
The phytotherapy in Don Quixote
Francisco L´opez-Mu˜noz ∗ , Cecilio Alamo, Pilar Garc´ıa-Garc´ıa
Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Alcal´a, C/Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena 8, 28027 Madrid, Spain
Received 20 January 2006; received in revised form 23 March 2006; accepted 24 March 2006
Available online 2 May 2006

Don Quixote, the most outstanding novel of the Spanish literature, represents a documentary source widely used among those specialists who
intend to deepen in the knowledge of the late Renaissance society. In this sense, Don Quixote has been also studied from a medical perspective,
including a general therapeutical view (oils, ointments, balms, poultices, syrups and other pharmacy preparations). We have tackled Don Quixote
from the phytotherapeutic and ethnopharmacological perspective, a barely explored field. In this work, we intend to study the medicinal plants
used during the Cervantine time for the treatment de multiples diseases (sedatives like opium, laxatives and emetics like hellebore, tonics and
irritants) and we analyze the specific herbal therapies (balms, purgatives and emetics, ointments and poultices), which Cervantes reveals to us in
his novel. Among them, the rhubarb root (Rheum spp. or Rumex spp.) should be highlighted, as well as the seeds of gopher spurge (Euphorbia
lathyris), chicory (Cichorium intybus) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), primary component of the famous Balsam of Fierabras. Also, we have
examined the possible scientific influences, which might have inspired Cervantes in this field, mainly the work of Andr´es Laguna (Dioscorides’
Materia Medica).
© 2006 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Phytotherapy; History of pharmacology; Don Quixote

“The knight-errant. . ., must be a physician, and above all a
herbalist, so as in wastes and solitudes to know the herbs that
have the property of healing wounds”
Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote
1. Introduction
In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published, at the printing-house
of Juan de la Cuesta, in Madrid, his celebrated novel El Ingenioso
Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (Cervantes, 1605/1615),
popularly referred as Don Quixote, one of the most important
works in the history of literature (Fig. 1). Before any analysis of
a book, such as Don Quixote it is essential to consider at least
briefly some biographic data of its’ author. Miguel de Cervantes
Saavedra (born Alcal´a de Henares, 1547, died Madrid, 1616),
the son of a family of physicians, moved to Rome at the age of 21

Corresponding author. Tel.: +34 91 724 82 10; fax: +34 91 724 82 05.
E-mail address: frlopez@juste.net (F. L´opez-Mu˜noz).

0378-8741/$ – see front matter © 2006 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

years to enter the service of a distant relative, Cardinal Gaspar de
Cervantes Acquaviva. He later served as a soldier in the assault
units known as the Tercios, in the service of Philip II, and fought
at the famous battle of Lepanto (1571). Having survived 5 years
in the tough Berber prisons of Algiers, he returned to Spain to
work as a civil servant in the tax ministry and other government
agencies. After several spells in prison, he eventually died in the
Spanish capital, the victim of poverty. Cervantes was, then, a
man of enormous curiosity who lived at a time of great uncertainty. Don Quixote itself was written in a historical period of
transition, in which the Renaissance worldview was giving way
to the more complex perspectives of the Baroque era.
The resources Cervantes employed in the writing of Don
Quixote make it not only a masterwork of world literature, but
also, in the opinion of many experts, the first example of the
modern novel. The first part of the book, published in 1605, was
a parody of contemporary courtly romances, while the second
part, not published until 1615, represented an attempt to neutralize an unauthorized sequel written by another author trying to
capitalize on the success of part one. Regardless of the author’s
objectives or the meaning of the work—a satirical jibe at the


F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

Fig. 1. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), from an engraving by Luis de Madrazo for the Gorchs edition of Don Quixote (Barcelona, 1859) (A) and
frontispiece of the princeps edition of Don Quixote (1605), dedicated to the Duke of B´ejar and published by the Juan de la Cuesta printing-house, situated in the
Atocha street, Madrid (B).

chivalric tales of the era, a historical portrait of the times, or a
perceptive critique of a society which, though still the hub of
the world, was beginning to fall apart at the seams what cannot
be denied is that it achieved the quality of durability across the
centuries, and was capable of converting its fictional main character, Alonso Quijano, into an almost flesh-and-blood historical
reference (Esteva de Sagrera, 2005).
Don Quixote has been the object of all types of detailed study,
and from all the fields of human knowledge, including, of course,
those of medicine and therapy. Various authors have remarked
on what this most famous work of Spanish literature has taught
us, and how it has widened our knowledge and understanding of
the numerous illnesses (and their remedies) of the early Baroque
(L´opez, 1971; Be´a and Hern´andez, 1984; Chiappo, 1994; Pe˜na,
1999; Valle, 2002; Esteva de Sagrera, 2005). The present article
aims to offer a new approach to complement the enormous body
of writings on Don Quixote, in the form of an analysis focusing
exclusively on the herbal remedies mentioned by Cervantes in
his immortal work, in the context of the herbal therapies of that
time, and in its popular use.
2. Therapy in the time of Don Quixote
The publication of the first edition of Don Quixote took place,
as already mentioned, at a time of transition from the Renaissance, which from the Spanish perspective began with the fall
of Constantinople to the Turks (1453), to the Baroque period,

whose beginning is marked roughly by the death of Philip II in
1598 (Puerto, 1997). Cervantes’ masterwork finds itself wedged
between the philosophical and cultural frameworks of the two
eras, though the majority of authors find in it a more manifest
influence of Renaissance ideas.
The principal driving force behind the Renaissance movement was Humanism, a current characterized by a profound
interest in knowledge of classical culture and a strong desire
to possess such knowledge, but first-hand, not distorted by Arab
translators or by the prejudices and limitations of medieval
scholars (G´omez Caama˜no, 1990; Puerto, 1997). Thus, the prevailing theories in the field of medicine were those based on
Galen, with some influence from the incipient iatrochemical
currents (Puerto, 1997; Montiel, 1998). By way of example,
it suffices to mention the publication, in Spain, of the only
text by Juan Huarte de San Juan (1529–1588), the Examen
de ingenios para las ciencias (Baeza, 1575), a work of some
renown in the Europe of the time, and which, according to
some authors (Salillas, 1905), greatly influenced Cervantes in
the writing of Don Quixote. Huarte de San Juan’s text, which
deals with the hypothesis of ingenuity as an individual characteristic for the exercise of certain activities (Mart´ın-Araguz and
Bustamante-Mart´ınez, 2004), includes a short treatise referring
to the classical Galenic theory of humours. According to this
theory, the four dimensions that make up the world, namely,
hot, dry, cold and wet, are combined in man’s body to produce
the different humours, so that the mixture of hot and wet forms

F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

blood, warm and dry forms bile, cold and wet forms phlegm,
and cold and dry forms melancholy. In line with this theory,
the proportion in which these humours are combined in the
organism will determine the different temperaments (S´anchez
Granjel, 1980; Mart´ın-Araguz et al., 2003; Mart´ın-Araguz and
Bustamante-Mart´ınez, 2004).
In this late-Renaissance context, even though clinical
medicine had advanced considerably and physicians were capable of diagnosing numerous illnesses, curative capacity was
quite limited, insofar as the therapeutic tools in use were practically the same as those that were available in the Middle Age,
despite the fact that their application had been systematized and
made more comprehensive with new incorporations. It should be
borne in mind that during the Renaissance, the Galenism that had
dominated previous eras continued to provide the frame of reference for therapeutic practice, and the use of classical techniques
was the norm. Medicines were meant to restore the healthy
balance, and they were graduated according to the degrees of
heat, dryness, cold and moisture (Rothschuh, 1978). Thus, there
was widespread use of evacuants, notably hellebore (Helleborus niger L. or Veratrum album L.), for diverting or eliminating excessive bile and acid humours, bleeding and leeches,
irritants, such as cauterants, moxas (mugwort sticks), sedals,
vesicants, friction, cataplasms and boiling sealing wax and ton-


ics, such as rice, semolina, cordials, the bitter wines of quinine,
wormwood or gentian, mercury and cantharis powders (Sauri,
Nevertheless, we should not overlook some important
advances that had been made in the field of pharmacotherapy
in the pre-Cervantine era. Perhaps the most important was the
transformation of medieval alchemical procedures into a discipline with scientific potential. Although by this time the concept
of the Philosopher’s Stone had lost currency, the alchemical
symbolism and forms remained intact. Without alchemy there
would have been no chemistry, and consequently, no pharmacology, either. The technology of the alchemists at this time
was employed in the service of pharmacology (alcoholic extraction, distillation, calcinations, etc.), with the aim of finding new
medicines (Fig. 2). Coming from an alchemical background,
Paracelsus (Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus von
Hohenheim) (1493–1541) would revolutionize the Renaissance
therapeutic approach, inspiring new forms of understanding illness, such as that of the iatrochemical current. According to
Paracelsus, illnesses resulted from alterations of the ‘archeus’,
a kind of organizer of the chemical processes of the organism,
“the body’s alchemist” (Montiel, 1998), which governed the balance between the three natural principles or “triad of principles”:
mercurius, sulphur and sal.

Fig. 2. Alchemy played a fundamental role in laying the foundations for the development of laboratory medicine. The illustration shows an alchemist’s laboratory,
in an engraving from the work Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae, by Heinrich Khunrath (Hamburg, 1595).


F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

Fig. 3. Interior of a pharmacy from the Renaissance era, from engravings of the time: Hieronymus Brunschwig, Medicinarius. . ., Strassburg (1505) (A), and Gualterius
Ryff, New kochbuch, f¨ur die Krancken, Frankfurt (1545) (B).

But despite the thriving state of alchemy, it would seem that
pharmacies, in Renaissance times, bore more resemblance to
spice shops than to alchemists’ laboratories. By way of example,
in the engravings by Otto Brunfels (1488–1534) and Hermann
Ryff (1500–1548) (Frankfurt, 1544–1567), we can see large
tables, a variety of balances, mortars of different shapes and
sizes, sieves, sugared breads and animals, such as caymans
(Fig. 3). In the laboratories of the great Spanish pharmacies
of the times, such as those of El Escorial or La Real, one could
also find distilling apparatus (Puerto, 1997).
The contribution of the Humanist doctors to the Renaissance was a considerable enrichment of the classical legacy,
which was also clearly reflected in the field of pharmacotherapy
(Montiel, 1998). The classical texts, in particular Dioscorides,
were notably enhanced, as can be appreciated in the famous
editions of the work by Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500–1577) or
Andr´es Laguna (1494–1560). Indeed, the latter version (Pedacio
Dioscorides Anarzabeo, acerca de la materia medicinal y de los
venenos mort´ıferos, Antwerp, 1555) (Fig. 4) is actually cited by
Cervantes in Don Quixote, as we shall see below. Likewise, it
is during the Renaissance that the first official pharmacopoeias
appear, with the aim of standardizing the composition and forms
of preparation of the formulas prescribed by the physicians of
the time. Thus, the first European pharmacopoeia was published
in 1498, in Florence (Nuovo Receptario Compositio), and the
second (the celebrated Concordie apothecariorum Barchinone
medicines Compositis) in Barcelona, in 1511.
To summarize, therapy in Renaissance times falls into two
broad categories: popular medicine and pharmacy, based on
herbal remedies, cheaply available and therefore accessible to

all, and the therapy passed down through Dioscorides—whose
original content had been expanded which was applied in accordance with the theory of the four purgative humours, and prominent among which was still the ‘Theriaca’, consisting of up to
64 components (Fig. 5). In addition to these two approaches
was the use of metals and minerals, advocated by the disciples
of Paracelsus. The principal remedies of this type were based
on mercury, employed in the treatment of syphilis or morbus
gallicus, and antimony, used as an emetic (Norton, 2003; Esteva
de Sagrera, 2005). Finally, a series of medicaments had been
Table 1
Ointments used in the time of Cervantes
Name of ointment


Diachylon ointment
Altea ointment
Basilicon ointment
White ointment (1)a
White ointment (2)b
Egyptian ointment
Mother Tecla’s ointment
Populeon ointment

Olive oil and litharge poultice
Marshmallow, yellow wax, resin and trementine
Black tar, pine resin, yellow wax and olive oil
Lard and porphyrized lead carbonate
White lead, rose oil and beeswax
Copper acetate, vinegar and honey
Litharge, lard, tallow, wax and tar
Poplar buds, poppy leaves, belladonna and lard

According to Esteva de Sagrera (2005).
a This compound is called “unguentum album ex Rhassis” in the Pharmacopea
Hispana (1794).
b Another formula for “White Ointment”, from the Antidotario de los medicamentos compuestos (1575), by Juan Fragoso, and possibly the one to which
Cervantes refers in his novel. A modified version of this ointment appears in the
Pharmacopea Matritensis (1739) under the name “Saracen White Ointment,”
among whose ingredients are litharge, egg whites, the paste of pumpkin seeds,
mastic powder, camphor dissolved in alcohol, rose vinegar, and finally, tallow
instead of wax.

F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441


Fig. 4. Frontispiece of Dioscorides (De Materia Medica), from the annotated translation by Andr´es Laguna (Antwerp, 1555). This version is cited by Cervantes in
Don Quixote.

introduced from the Americas, notably guaiac or ‘palo santo’
(Guajacum officinale L.), a sudorific used against syphilis or
bubas disease (Esteva de Sagrera, 2005), as well as tobacco
(Nicotiana tabacum L.) and quinine (Cinchona officinalis L.).
2.1. Pharmaceutical preparations and Galenic formulas
The pharmacopoeia of Cervantes’ time was based principally on the application of oils, ointments, balms, poultices,
roots, barks and syrups (Valle, 2002). Ointments, which were for
external application, and made with fats, waxes or resins, were
widely used in the context of traumatology. Table 1 lists some of
the most commonly used ointments of the era, for their different properties; bitter, tonic, purgative, cholagogic and astringent

(Esteva de Sagrera, 2005). As regards balms, concoctions usually prepared with aromatic substances and used for healing
wounds, these were widely employed in Renaissance times. A
classic example was the renowned Balsam of Fierabras, so frequently referred to in Don Quixote. Poultices were solid preparations (firmer than ointments), which softened when heated,
sticking to the skin, and were produced from bases of resins,
fats or lead soaps. Some herb poultices, such as ‘p´ıctimas’ or
‘socrocios’, made with saffron (Crocus sativus L.), were applied
to the precordial region, so as to “comfort” the heart. Among the
roots, rhubarb (the root of Rheum officinale B. or Rheum palmatum L. – Chinese rhubarb – or Rumex alpinus L. – monk’s
rhubarb –) was one of the most commonly used purgative agents
in the Renaissance era. For their part, syrups were sweet mixtures


F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

Fig. 5. Preparation of the Theriaca: Venetian vendors of the Theriaca in Renaissance times.

whose purpose was often to disguise the unpleasant flavour of
some of the plants used in remedies administered orally (Puerto,
1997; Valle, 2002; Esteva de Sagrera, 2005).
In the decades prior to the publication of Don Quixote, various treatises appeared in Spain describing the properties and
explaining the preparation of the principal pharmaceutical remedies employed in the 16th century and frequently mentioned in
Cervantes’ novel (Puerto, 2005). Thus, Alonso de Jubera wrote
his Dechado y reformaci´on de todas las medicinas compuestas usuales . . . (Valladolid, 1578), in which he describes how
to make syrups, cookings, laxatives, spiced salts, pills, electuaries, troches, unctions, ointments, poultices and distilled waters.
Fourteen years later, Fray Antonio Castell published his Theorica y practica de boticarios . . . (Barcelona, 1592), distinguishing
between internal medicines (juices, syrups, preserves, electuaries, eclegms, hiera picra, pills and troches) and preparations for
external use (ointments, poultices and cerates).
3. Medicinal plants in the Cervantine era
Physical treatment of the different pathologies, aimed at
counteracting the production of materia infirmitatis, was based
in pre-Renaissance times on two basic pillars: an appropriate
lifestyle, especially in relation to diet, and, where necessary,
the use of diverse drugs of herbal origins, such as hellebore
or opium (Papaver somniferum L.) (Gonz´alez de Pablo, 1998).
This approach lasted throughout the Modern period.

A key figure in the therapy of the early Renaissance, as
we have mentioned, is Paracelsus. Thanks to his alchemical
background, he was able to introduce a substantial number of
remedies based on chemical and herbal products, notable among
which were the so-called “arcane” remedies, which could only
be prepared “by those versed in the art,” and which consisted
of mixtures of opium, hellebore, mandrake (Mandragora officinarum L.), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), and so on.
One of the most well-known was oleum arcani, made up of
camphor, scrapings of skull, powder of unicorn horn and other
herbs and roots. Another of the basic formulas in his pharmacopoeia were the famous “quintessences” (L´opez-Mu˜noz et al.,
Sedatives continued to be widely used in the modern period,
above all opium. Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) was a fervent advocate of this narcotic, and in the 17th century his
“laudanum”—a kind of syrup based on a mixture of opium,
saffron, cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and cloves (Syzygium
aromaticum), dissolved in “Spanish wine”—achieved certain
popularity. It is Sydenham himself who is reputed to have
remarked that the best text of the times for learning about
medicine was Don Quixote. Opiates indeed had considerable
relevance within therapy during the Baroque era, and continued to be used almost until the end of the 19th century, both
alone and in conjunction with henbane (Hyosciamus albus L.
or Hyosciamus niger L.), stramonium, datura or thorn apple
(Datura stramonium L.), belladonna (Atropa belladonna L.),

F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441


Fig. 6. Illustration from Botanicon. Plantarum Historieae. . ., by Adamum Lonicerum (Lonitzer) (Frankfurt, 1565), showing a group of physicians and pharmacists
collecting herbs and obtaining extracts from them through distillation.

asafoetida (Ferula foetida), camphor, musk, castoreum, ammoniacal copper, zinc oxide and so on (Postel and Qu´etel, 1987).
Nevertheless, none of these sedative remedies of plant origin are
mentioned in Don Quixote, which confines itself in describing
the properties of other commonly used herbal agents. This lack
of reference to such resources, however, is quite possibly not
due to ignorance in the author – who, as we remarked, was well
acquainted with medical and therapeutic materials – but rather to
a desire to avoid attracting the attention of the Inquisition (“. . .
It’s the church we have lit upon, Sancho”, Part II, Chapter IX),
which took a dim view of these types of medicine (Fraile et al.,
Thus, in the late 16th century, pharmacological remedies
for internal diseases, be they organic or mental, are scarce,
highly unspecific in nature and of vegetable origin (Fig. 6).
As an example of a hypothetical aetiological remedy we might
mention hellebore, obtained from the plants Helleborus niger
L. or Veratrum album L. The emetic properties of this substance were understood at the time as a means of bringing about
catharsis, purification or purgation. Thus, vomiting would permit the recovery of ‘eukrasia’, that is, the correct combination
of humours on which good health was based (Montiel, 1998).
However, the effects of hellebore were drastic to say the least:
vomiting, cramps, spasms, convulsions and loss of consciousness. Other substances extracted from plants that formed part of
the medicinal arsenal of the time were thorn apple or stramonium, henbane, belladonna and valerian (Valeriana officinalis
L.), agents that during the Middle Ages had been used as poisons in witchcraft and sorcery (“witches’ ointments”).
It is also important to note that the pharmaceutical resources
available in Cervantes’ time, regardless of their questionable
clinical efficacy, were complemented by new drugs and reme-

dies derived from the botanical species brought back from the
New World, such as Cinchona bark extract, used as a tonic in
patients classified as “asthenic” (L´opez-Mu˜noz et al., 2005), or
tobacco, used as a stimulant and “cerebral decongestant”. Likewise, increased trade with the Orient led to the discovery of new
substances and the resurgence of others, such as opium.
4. Phytotherapeutic remedies in Don Quixote
Of the numerous aspects studied in relation to Cervantes’
work, and which permit a detailed reconstruction of the author’s
literary and technical background, the medical question is
undoubtedly one of the most controversial, due in part to the
difficulty in assessing the extent of his knowledge of the discipline (L´opez, 1971). In spite of this limitation, though, various
commentators consider that Don Quixote reflects faithfully the
therapeutic procedures of its time, and that it can serve as a tool
for increasing our understanding of medical knowledge in the
Cervantine period (Valle, 2002; Fraile et al., 2003; Iranzo et al.,
2004), and the people’s use of medicinal plants.
A point to be considered before looking in more detail at the
field of therapy as referred to in Don Quixote is that while the
clinical manifestations of the physical problems of both Alonso
Quijano himself and other characters are frequently and extensively dealt with, especially those of a traumatological nature,
the remedies mentioned in the book are somewhat scarce. We
should not forget in this regard that Cervantes, as the son of a
surgeon-bloodletter and grandson of a Cordoban physician, had
considerable knowledge of the art of medicine, a knowledge
that pervades his masterwork. When young Don Lorenzo de
Miranda asks Don Quixote if he has “attended the schools” and
“what sciences have you studied?”, the nobleman replies that


F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441

Table 2
Herbal remedies mentioned in Don Quixote in association with their therapeutic properties


Therapeutic propertiesa

Therapeutic properties
described in Don Quixote

English common name

Spanish common name

Scientific name



Rosmarinus officinalis L.



Universal remedyb


Ruibarbo chino
Ruibarbo chino
Ruibarbo de los monjes

Rheum officinale B.
Rheum palmatum L.
Rumex alpinus L.






Rumex acetosa L.

Gopher spurge

Granos rateros
Hierba topera
Ruibarbo de los labradores

Euphorbia lathyris L.






Cichorium intybus L.





According to Bruneton (2001) and Font Quer (2003).
As ingredient of Balsam of Fierabras.

the science of knight-errantry is “a science that comprehends
in itself all or most of the sciences in the world”, stressing that
he who professes it must be a jurist, a theologian, an astrologer
and a mathematician, must be adorned with all the virtues, theological and cardinal, and “must be a physician, and above all
a herbalist, so as in wastes and solitudes to know the herbs that
have the property of healing wounds” (Part II, Chapter XVIII).
Another passage suggests that Cervantes was acquainted with
the medical and botanical manuals of the time: “For all that,
answered Don Quixote, I would rather have just now a quarter of
bread, or a loaf and a couple of pilchards’ heads, than all the herbs
described by Dioscorides, even with Doctor Laguna’s notes”
(Part I, Chapter XVIII). It may be that the extensive knowledge
of plants, some with curative properties, displayed by Cervantes
derives from the reading of technical works, such as the famous
edition of Dioscorides published by Andr´es Laguna in the mid16th century, and considered as a reference manual in the field
for centuries. In this regard, a detailed medical reading of Don
Quixote leads us to infer that Cervantes favours not the use of
agents with primary pharmacological action, but rather that of
preparations with secondary or delayed effects, such as certain
balms, purgatives or emetics. However, it is always necessary
to have in mind that Don Quixote is a literary text, and that the
references to the therapeutic aspects are included by Cervantes,
most of the times, as elements of the daily life or as expressive
elements of the language.
According to Esteva de Sagrera (2005), Cervantes must have
known the virtues of numerous plants available from the herbalists of his time for dealing simply and cheaply with different
ailments, without the need for the specialist attention of doctors and pharmacists. On the other hand, Morales (2005), in
a meticulous botanical study on the plants mentioned in complete works of Cervantes, obtains 835 different references (9 of

them of medicinal character). In particular, the plants mentioned
by Cervantes in Don Quixote by their hypothetical therapeutic
properties, in accordence with our study, are (Table 2); rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L., Lamiaceae), rhubarb (Rumex
alpinus L., Rheum officinale B. or Rheum palmatum L., Polygonaceae), gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyris L., Euphorbiaceae)
and chicory (Cichorium intybus L., Asteraceae) (Fig. 7).
4.1. The Balsam of Fierabras
The therapeutic remedies par excellence in Don Quixote are
the balms, the most notable of which, given the continual references to its successful use, is the so-called “Balsam of Fierabras,”
a kind of panacea for the knight: “All that might be well dispensed with, said Don Quixote, if I had remembered to make
a vial of the balsam of Fierabras, for time and medicine are
saved by one single drop” (Part I, Chapter X). The Balsam of
Fierabras, which falls outside the range of conventional medical therapies of the time, belongs to set of magical remedies
that crop up constantly in medieval chivalric literature (Prieto,
2005). According to this tradition, recounted in the Chivalric
Stories of Charlemagne, Fier-a-bras (“he of the ferocious arm”)
was a Saracen giant, son of the Emir Balante (‘Se˜nor de las
Espa˜nas’), who carried on his horse two barrels of balsam seized
in Jerusalem, and originally in the possession of the man who
had been employed to entomb Jesus Christ. During a battle, the
giant lost the barrels, which were found by his enemy Oliveros,
one of the Twelve Peers of France, who drank the balsam and
healed his mortal wounds.
The health-giving and extremely efficacious balm to which
Cervantes’ novel refers would consist of oil, wine, salt and rosemary, in line with a customary pharmaceutical practice at the
time, namely, the mixture of various simple medicinal elements

F. L´opez-Mu˜noz et al. / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106 (2006) 429–441


Fig. 7. Botanical laminae of different medicinal plants mentioned in Don Quixote. (A) Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.)* ; (B) Rhubarb (Rumex alpinus L.)** ;
(C) Sorrel (Rumex acetosa L.)** ; (D) Gopher spurge (Euphorbia lathyris L.); (E) Chicory (Cichorium intybus L.); (F) Privet (Ligustrum vulgare L.).

(three of vegetable and one of mineral origin) to obtain a compound formula in the style of the famous ‘Theriaca’ (L´opez,
1996; Prieto, 2005; Puerto, 2005). The preparation of the balm
is also described in Don Quixote: the four (“simple”) components should be heated over a fire and boiled for a good while,
after which, finally, the (“compound”) product is poured into a
tin jug, over which one must say “more than eighty paternosters
and as many more ‘ave-marias’, ‘salves’ and ‘credos’, accompanying each word with a cross by way of benediction” (Part
I, Chapter XVII), essential for the balsam to be effective. The
knight even provides the instructions for administration of the
remedy: when in some battle thou seest they have cut me in half
through the middle of the body – as will not to happen frequently
– but neatly and with great nicety, ere the blood congeal, to
place that portion of the body which shall have fallen to the

∗ Rosemary is the medicinal remedy of herbal origin most commonly appearing in Don Quixote.
∗∗ The commentary of Cervantes to rhubarb could talk about to anyone of these
two species.

ground upon the other half which remains in the saddle, taking
care to fit it on evenly and exactly. Then thou shalt give me to
drink but two drops of the balsam I have mentioned, and thou
shalt see me become sounder than an apple” (Part I, Chapter X).
The effects of the Balsam of Fierabras are also described by Cervantes: intense vomiting at first, followed by profuse sweating
and great fatigue, and finally a deep sleep (Fig. 8). On waking
(3 h later), the restorative effect was so marked that the nobleman
believed himself to be completely cured. However, the effects
of the potion on Sancho Panza were totally different: “gripings
and retchings, sweats and faintness” (Part I, Chapter XVII) for
2 h, after which he felt worse than he had before taking it.
Among the balsam’s ingredients, rosemary stands out as
the agent to which abundant therapeutic properties have been
attributed (“On the virtues of rosemary, one could write a whole
book”, goes a popular Spanish saying). A member of the Lamiaceae family, rosemary (Fig. 7A) is a well-known choleretic, a
characteristic partially confirmed in animal experimentation, as
well as a diuretic. Likewise, it is claimed it may have antispasmodic effects, due to one of its components, borneol, while its
stimulant and vulnerary properties are clear (Bruneton, 2001).

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