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  • Writer's pictureMac Boyle

4/20 Special: Marijuana in the Middle Ages

In this episode, we discuss ancient and medieval cannabis use with Alaina of

Cannabis use is incredibly old. Archaeological evidence for its use can be found in Neolithic sites throughout central Europe, particularly the Linear Band Culture of 5500-4500 BCE. The common practice seems to have been to burn it in a brazier and inhale the smoke. However, it may have also been smoked in pipes at some point — clay pipes over 3,000 years old have been found in present-day Bavaria, though they may have been used for opium in addition to or instead of cannabis. Evidence for the use of cannabis is also present in the ancient river-valley civilizations of Eurasia: Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt, and China all apparently knew of it.

In China, we find some very early mentions of medical cannabis use, but the plant generally falls out of favor regarding its psychoactive properties due to its association with Central Asian nomadic peoples and shamanic practices frowned on by the moral authorities of the day. A 5th-century Taoist priest commented that cannabis was used by "necromancers, in combination with ginseng to set forward time in order to reveal future events." This association with Central Asian nomadic peoples was also present in Europe — possibly the most famous quotation on cannabis from a classical authority is a passage from Herodotus describing Scythians essentially using tents to hotbox, putting cannabis in a brazier in the center and enjoying the resulting "smoke bath".

Hemp was grown in much of Europe throughout the medieval period, but its psychoactive properties appeared to be either unknown or uninteresting to the Europeans of the day, who were deeply wedded to alcohol as their intoxicant of choice. They grew it because the fibers are good for making cloth, and I have been unable to find evidence of any recreational use. This may have been due to the climate — the psychoactive resin is produced in lesser quantities when the plant is in cold environments. Interestingly, though, the elder of the two women in the Oseberg ship burial was interred with a purse containing cannabis seeds, which I think hints at something more than a practical appreciation of its textile properties.

In the medieval Islamic world, however, alcohol was condemned for religious reasons, and cannabis use was able to flourish. It is usually described as being eaten, but apparently was also smoked in hookahs or similar apparatuses. The general term for cannabis in the medieval Islamic world was “hashish” — which probably just means “herb”, though it had a variety of other names, including al-khadra, “the green one” and al-muhammasah, “the toasted one”. Though cannabis was known in medieval Islam for a long time, most evidence for recreational use is quite late — it’s possible that it was used only medicinally for a period. Despite the fact that cannabis was widely seen as a more acceptable alternative to alcohol — as, unlike alcohol, cannabis was not condemned in any holy texts — a number of moralizing figures frowned on it nonetheless, going so far as to occasionally invent holy texts condemning it.

Medical use of cannabis can be found in many sources, from ancient Chinese texts to Middle Eastern archaeological discoveries. It also makes appearances in the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius, and was recommended by our friend Hildegard of Bingen as good for the stomach and likely to diminish bad humors -- though she recommends against its use by the "empty-headed".


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