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Storage jar used for Fumitory Water, Italy, 1640-1660

The inscription painted on the side of this earthenware jar translates from Latin as “Smoke Water”. In this preparation, the dried herb, fumitory, is infused with water and drunk to cleanse the humours, which were thought to cause blockages in the body if unbalanced. Such blockages were believed to trigger a range of health problems, including leprosy, fevers, itches and skin conditions. When taken with the expensive and elaborate preparation theriac, the water was considered to be useful against plague. The handle of the jar is a snake entwined around a rod, a symbol traditionally associated with Asklepios, the Greek and Roman god of healing and medicine.

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    Glossary: storage jar

    A jar used to store objects or substances.

    Glossary: humours

    The fluids of the body whose balance is essential to well-being. They are blood, choler (yellow bile), phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). The system of the humours was closely related to the theory of the elements by the Ancient Greeks (especially Hippocrates), who were the first society to widely embrace the theory and apply it to medical practice. In Ancient Roman culture, the theory of the humours was embraced by Galen. During the neo-classical revival in western culture, the theory of the humours was a dominant form of medical practice. Its legacy in the form of activities such as blood-letting continued in England into the eighteenth century.

    Glossary: leprosy

    A chronic disease that affects the skin, mucous membrane and nerves. It is now confined mainly to the tropics and is transmitted by direct contact. Previously a widely feared disease, leprosy is not highly infectious.

    Glossary: pharmacy

    The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.

    Glossary: theriac

    An ointment used as an antidote to snake venom or other poison.

    Glossary: fever

    A rise in body temperature above normal. Fever usually occurs as a natural response to infection.