Among the famous insomniacs of the world one finds all kind of people through the ages. (Lists here and there.) Be it rulers – from a Roman Emperor (Caligula) via Catherine the Great to Lincoln or Mao Ze Dong – or historical & modern artists (among them Marlene Dietrich), writers (Kafka, Proust, Dumas senior) – insomnia can strike anyone.
Philippe ARIÈS (Ger., Eng.) quotes in his Geschichte des Todes (first 1978) from the Dernier vers of the French poet RONSARD (1524-1585) (Ger., Eng.). RONSARD wrote these poems towards the end of his live and laments about his illnesses, among them gout:
La goutte jà vieillard me bourrela les veins
And there are phases of insomnia:
Mais ne pouvais dormir, c’est bien de mes malheurs
Le plus grand, qui ma vie & chagrine & despite.
Seize heures pour le moins, je meurs, les yeux ouverts,
Me tournant, me virant de droict & de travers
Sur l’un, sur l’autre flanc, je tempête, je crie …
Miséricorde ! Ô Dieu ! ô Dieu, ne me consume
A faute de dormir …
Vielle ombre de la terre, ainçois ombre d’enfer,
Tu m’as ouvert des yeux d’une chaîne de fer,
Me consumant au lict, navré de mille pointes …
Mechantes nuits d’hiver, nuits, filles de Cocyte …
N’approchez de mon lit, ou bien tournez plus vite.
He turns to the natural remedy, but it makes him only dull:
Heureux, cent fois heureux, animaux qui dormez …
Sans manger du pavot qui tous les sens assomme !
J’en ay mangé, j’ay bu de son jus oublieux,
En salade, cuit, cru & toutefois le somme
Ne vient par sa froideur s’asseoir dessus mes yeux.
Pavot, papafer, the poppy – he tried it as salad, he cooked it, he drank the juice, but it did not work for poor RONSARD. That is sad when even the opium does not make one sleep, even the animals are better off. The medical doctors of his age would possibly have given him a Theriak (Ger., Eng.) – helps against anything -, or an early form of Laudanum (Ger., Eng.). PARACELSUS mixed that stuff together sometime between 1520 and his death 1541, so in the 1580s it could have been available for poor RONSARD.
Or they could have offered him something special – a Schlafschwamm. This comes directly from the surgical toolbox, dates back to the ninth century and even further back: Early Arabic writings know the possibility of an anaesthesia by inhalation. A 9th century Antidotarium from Bamberg mentions “the sponge”, also a contemporary codex from Monte Cassino.
The ingredients are opium, hyoscyamin (Ger., Eng.), Maulbeersaft (for sweetness), Salat, Schierling (Ger., hemlock), Mandragora (Alraune) and Efeu / ivy (Ger., Eng.). A sip of this mixture would knock anybody out.
The “sponge” is soaked with the liquid and dried afterwards. Before use it is wetted and put under the patient’s nose, who inhales the fumes and goes to dreamland. Unwanted side effects are asphyxia and death.
This tool was seemingly well-known in the medicine school of Salerno (Ger., Eng.), and for example Hugo BORGOGNONI and others (Ger., Eng.) made it known at the places where they practised.
I’d prefer a good swig from Bombastus’ laudanum bottle, and RONSARD was surely well-advised when he kept to the poppies.