Joyfull Newes?

Nicotiana sylvestris, one of the parents to the cultigen Nicotiana tabacum, in the Huntington’s Herb Garden

I’m fond of the title of John Frampton’s promotional book Joyfull Newes out of the New-founde Worlde. Far from original reporting, this was Frampton’s translation of Nicolás Monardes’ Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, a Spanish trilogy (1565-1574) touting plants and other materia medica Monardes held as exciting revelations for the Spanish empire. First published in 1577, then updated in 1580, Frampton’s Joyfull Newes (Monardes’ wonders) went through many reprintings in satisfying the increasingly-adventurous English-speaking world. This was Elizabeth’s reign, a time of profound cultural change, buoyed soon enough with the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada and ongoing exploits of Francis Drake, emotionalized through excursions and tragedies of Walter Raleigh, inspired and amused with emerging works of William Shakespeare Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe, and others… It was also a brutal time, and as victim of a decade of confinement during the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps Frampton took added pleasure in revealing Spanish trade secrets to England’s rising tide.

Frampton’s English readers discovered that Monardes reserved his most ardent enthusiasm for Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), a plant known to Europeans since descriptions in Columbus’s voyages: “Men and women were crossing to their villages, the men with half-burned wood in their hands and certain herbs in order to take their smokes, which are dry herbs put in a certain leaf, also dry, in the manner of a musket made of paper; and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck the smoke inside with the breathe by which they become benumbed and almost drunk.”

But tobacco had remained somewhat ignored until Monardes, nearly a century later. We read his fresh enthusiasm in Frampton’s translation “Of the Tabaco, and of his great vertues,” which ends with the commendation: “This is the substance which I have gathered of this hearb, so celebrated and called Tabaco for that surely it is an hearb of great estimation for the excellent vertues that it hath, as we have sayed.”

Perhaps Monardes and Frampton inspired Walter Raleigh, the bigger-than-life character who is credited with popularizing tobacco use in England at his 1586 return from Virginia. Popularity in England must have risen quickly. John Davies penned his Epigramme 36 ”Of Tobacco” in 1595:

 But this our age another world hath found,
From whence an herb of heavenly power is brought;
Moly is not so sovereign for a wound, 
Nor hath Nepenthe so great wonders wrought:
It is Tobacco, whose sweet substantiall (subtle) fume, 
The hellish torment of the teeth doth ease, 
By drawing down, and drying up the rheume, 
The mother and the nurse of each disease:
It is Tobacco which doth cold expell,
And clears the obstruction of the arteries,
And surfeits threatning death, digesteth well,
Decocting all the stomach’s crudities:
It is Tobacco, which hath the power to clarifie
The cloudy mists before dimme eyes appearing:
It is Tobacco, which hath the power to rarifie
The thick grosse humour which doth stop the hearing;

Tobacco is prominent in Ben Jonson’s 1598 play “Every Man in His Humour”, in which Captain Babodil extols the herb, claiming:  ”I could say what I know of the virtue of it, for the expulsion of rheums, raw humours, crudities, obstructions, with a thousand of this kind; but I profess myself no quacksalver. Only this much: by Hercules I do hold it and will affirm it before any prince in Europe to be the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man.”

John Beaumont published his “The Metamorphosis of Tobacco” in 1602, a lengthy poem that includes the following verse:

 Me let the sound of great Tabaccoes praise
A pitch above those love-sicke Poets raise:
Let me adore with my thrice-happie pen
The sweete and sole delight of mortall men,
The Cornucopia of all earthly pleasure,
Where bankrupt Nature hath consum'd her treasure,
A worthie plant springing from Floraes hand,
The blessed ofspring of an uncouth land.
Breath-giving herbe, none other I invoke
To helpe me paint the praise of sugred smoke:

Gerard’s Herball, England’s primary plant resource book from 1597 to 1640, gives due credit to Monardes with a litany of medical “vertues,” so many that in the a-z listing of bullet points, the author worked through the entire alphabet and was forced to start over with capital A and B to cover everything.

Raleigh, a devoted user to the end, took consolation in tobacco during his final imprisionment, at his beheading, leaving behind a tobacco pouch engraved with the Latin sentiment:  Comes meus fuit in illo miserrimo tempore  (in English, “It was my companion at that most miserable time”)

The tubular, white, moth-pollinated flowers of Nicotiana sylvestris, one of the probable parents to the complex commercial plant, Tobacco.

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