Two parallel lines never meet, but two parallel lives may intersect, in one way or another. Did Jean Nicot and André Thevet ever meet? This cannot be ruled out seeing that they were both actively working at the French Court in various periods. However, if in fact a meeting did take place, it would have been coincidental and without any mutual interest, as there were too many differences and much mistrust between the two. On the other hand, it is known that there was conflict, as an unexpected situation arose that forced them to have dealings with each other, indeed, to confront each other, on an issue that was not even foremost in their lives, to which what remains of their lives is unfairly linked to a great extent. The bone of contention was and still is which of the two was and is to be considered the father of tobacco in France. In order to try and answer this question we need to go back, starting from the first voyage undertaken by Christopher Columbus from which everything else stemmed.
The first written reports on this aromatic plant and its various uses were to be found in the great navigator’s journals, which although lost were partly copied by his son Ferdinand and Cardinal Bartolomé de Las Casas. Journals, reports and letters were also produced by other explorers, adventurers, navigators, soldiers and the clergy. News circulated in Europe to a certain extent, which was also published, to meet the growing demand for what was being discovered in the New World.
Tobacco was of only secondary interest in these pages, and neither did the books that followed make much room for this topic, with only a few paragraphs about it embedded in a large amount of other news. However, what information there was as regards the often-attributed therapeutic properties of this herb generated expectations and interest in the physicians of that time, who had long been seeking a universal panacea.
Columbus had already brought tobacco leaves and seeds to Spain, among many other wares. Others, especially the Spanish and Portuguese, did the same as the Atlantic trade routes became increasingly busy. However, too many new items left these vessels, and nobody paid particular attention to this one plant in particular, except for those who regularly plied the two sides of the Atlantic. Those who had experimented smoking in America, imitating the natives, brought their own stock of tobacco back with them. Concerning this, it is worth reading an account attributed to Pierre Crignon, poet and seafarer from Dieppe in Normandy, dated 1525 and set in a tavern in his city:
Yesterday I met an old friend, a mariner that I had not seen for years. While we were enjoying some good wine from Brittany, at a certain point he pulled something out of his bag. An object made of white clay: at first it looked like a long quill and inkwell. The mariner filled the larger end with brown leaves that he had crushed in his hand, ignited it with a flint, and immediately after inserted the stem between his lips and blew smoke out from his mouth to my great astonishment! He explained that he had learned about the strange process with the leaves and that object from the Portuguese, who in turn had learnt it from the Mexican Indians. He called it “pétuner” and according to him helped him to think clearly and have peaceful thoughts.
It was no coincidence that Dieppe was one of the ports used by French timber merchants arriving from Brazil, who seemed to have adopted the art of smoking this petun from 1508 onwards.
Meanwhile, in Europe the publication of books treating the subject of tobacco (amongst other things) gradually increased. One in particular is worthy of attention because it was written by a Frenchman and published in Paris in 1545. A work by the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier, it is an account of his voyages from 1534 to 1536, in an unsuccessful quest for the North-West Passage to the far north of the American continent. The title is rather long : BRIEF RECIT, & succincte narration, de la navigation faicte es yiles de Canada, Hochelage & Saguenay & autres, avec particulieres meurs, langaige, & cerimonies des habitans d'icelles: fort delectable à veoir. At one point in his account, in reference to his second voyage, Cartier describes particular customs that he observed along the St. Lawrence River in the following way:
There grows a certain kind of herb whereof in summer they make great provision for all the year […] They cause it to be dried in the sun, then wear it about their neck wrapped in a little beast’s skin made like a little bag, with a hollow piece of stone or wood like a pipe. Then when they please they make powder of it and then put in one of the ends of the said cornet or pipe, and laying a coal upon it, at the other end suck so long that they fill their bodies full of smoke, till that it comes out of their mouth and nostrils, even as the tunnel of a chimney. They say that it does keep them warm and in health. They never go without some of it about them. We ourselves have tried the same smoke and having put it in our mouths it seemed that they had filled it with pepper dust, it is so hot.
It is alleged that Jacques Cartier had brought tobacco leaves and seeds back to his country, but too little information confirms this. In this period, an increasing amount of information circulated on the medicinal use of the plant in America. In 1553 a botanical work published in Antwerp by the physician and botanist Dodoens contained two illustrations of a new plant species. The caption read Hyoscyamus luteus, but this was none other than tobacco.
In 1558 Les Singularitez de France Antarctique by the Franciscan Friar André Thevet was published. A composite, eclectic work full of references to antiquity and astonishing information about fauna, flora and customs of the Native Americans. However, only two brief passages were dedicated to tobacco. The most relevant is to be found in chapter thirty-two, which refers to the author’s personal experience in Brazil:
There is another secret herb which they name in their language “Petun”, which they most commonly bear about them, for that they esteem it marvellous profitable for many things, this herb is like to our Buglos. They gather this herb very carefully and dry it within their little cabanes or houses. Their manner to use it is this: they wrap a quantity of this herb being dried in a leaf of a palm tree which is very great, and so they make rolls of a length of a candle, and then they fire the one end and receive the smoke thereof by their nose and their mouth. They say it is very wholesome to cleanse and consume the superfluous humours of the brain. Moreover, being taken after this sort it keeps the parties from hunger and thirst for a time, therefore they use it ordinarily. Also when they have any secret talk or counsel among themselves, they draw this smoke, and then they speak. The which they do customably one after another in the war, whereas it is very needful. The women use it by no means. If that they take too much of this perfume, it will make them light in the head, as the smell or taste of strong wine. The Christians that do now inhabit there are become very desirous of this perfume, although the first use thereof is not without danger, before that one is accustomed thereto, for this smoke causes sweats and weakness, even to fall into a syncope, the which I have tried in myself. And it is not so strange as it seems, for there are many other fruits that offend the brain, though that the taste of them is pleasant and good to eat.
The second passage, referring to the natives along the St. Lawrence River and inserted in the seventy-seventh chapter, is simply a slightly modified transposition of Jacques Cartier’s work, with no acknowledgement of this.
Compared to the Breton explorer’s work, Thevet’s version is more detailed. It appears that the Franciscan became inordinately fond of tobacco like the Christians who had settled in Brazil. It may be for this reason that he brought tobacco seeds back with him, so as to have his own supply. He planted and grew them on his land in Angoulême, obtaining rather a good crop. He chose the name herbe Angoumoisine for ‘his’ herb in honour of his city (although it is not known when). As was his wont, he would certainly have talked about it, albeit in a restricted circle of friends. His Singularitez enabled him to tell the world about it and his work’s success no doubt helped. Thus, a fair number of readers became aware of tobacco or petun. However, the countless other singularitez spread throughout the book were equally capable of capturing their attention, drawing it away from the aromatic herb. In any case, Thevet never uses the term “herbe Angoumoisine” in his book. The question is whether Thevet wished to stress the fact from the very outset that he was the father of tobacco in France, or it was only later that he was aware of the growing importance of this plant. An importance not so much stemming from the smoke (or snuff) as from its alleged medicinal qualities. From that time onwards the herb would be a fundamental ingredient in a vast number of medicines.
During his stay in Lisbon, Nicot occasionally indulged in his humanist interests. As someone who was passionate about ancient works, it was only natural that he should visit the realm’s National Archives, even more so if the person in charge of the institution was called Damião de Góis. Portuguese historian and diplomat, he had travelled extensively around Europe coming into contact with people such as Martin Luther, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Philipp Melanchthon, and Albrecht Dürer. A charming man, delighted to meet intellectuals and ambassadors from other nations, who was extremely pleased to receive this young man who was so knowledgeable about the classics. It is likely that there was more than one meeting, which certainly bore fruit. One of Nicot’s tasks in Lisbon was to identify and convey all new things to be found in Portugal and one of these may have been the plant that Góis grew in his vegetable garden. The Portuguese man held this plant in high consideration. As Nicot was interested, he gave him a cutting, a few seeds and perhaps some plants and Nicot grew a number of plants in the French Embassy’s garden. However, he was not satisfied with this alone. Partly by chance, partly because he was curious, he began to be interested in the healing powers of tobacco, of which he had heard de Góis speak. He was not a physician, but as an attentive scholar he began to conduct general experiments, or rather observations, on a limited number of people with ailments. At that time, real experimentation was yet to be invented. Only when he found that treatment involving tobacco through the application of poultices and other practices alleviated the symptoms of various ailments did he decide to convey the news to the French Court. This fact is partially recorded in a letter sent to Cardinal Charles de Lorraine, Archbishop of Reims, brother of the most powerful Claude of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, nephew of Jean of Lorraine who had funded Thevet’s voyage to Asia. A simple service announcement, similar to the many other announcements that Nicot sent to the King, Caterina de’ Medici and other important figures. In other words, he was performing the duties of an ambassador. Here is an extract from a letter dated 26 April 1560, in which Nicot deals with a series of questions.
… but they will be sent to the said André Ruyz with the first ships; I have discovered an Indian herb, of marvellous properties that I have used on the Noli me tangere [a type of ulcer], and sores declared incurable by the physicians, and opportune and singular remedies for heart attacks. If the plant bares seeds soon, I shall send it to your gardener at Marmoutier, and several plants with seeds in a barrel with instructions on how to replant and look after it, as I have done for the orange trees. The King of Portugal has the pox …
The document in itself proves just one thing: Nicot intended to send the tobacco to the Cardinal. Another source asserts that the consignments were actually sent to the Cardinal, but also to the King, the Queen Mother Caterina de’ Medici and other illustrious figures in the realm. Sources that report the version of the facts according to Jean Nicot, as we shall see.
Shortly after, in August, Francis of Lorraine, known as the Grand Prior, younger brother of Cardinal Jean of Lorraine, arrived with his galleys for a naval exhibition. Nicot as ambassador offered him his ‘herb’ as a gift, and Francis became a connoisseur, so much so that for a short time the tobacco was called herbe du Grand Prieur.
If all these facts are true, it means that when Jean Nicot returned to France, he was considered the first inventor and importer of tobacco in France, at least in courtly circles. It is unclear whether it was before or after Nicot’s return to Paris that the Queen Mother tried to sniff the powdered tobacco that he had sent, or given, but it seems that when she did so it alleviated her bad headaches. Catherine was enthusiastic and continued to use it, and the courtiers obviously followed likewise, leading to the fashion of snuff tobacco in France. The name herbe à la Reine was at some point applied to tobacco. However, Claude of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, took a different view and suggested that the new herb should be named in honour of the person who had introduced it to the Court: hence, ‘Nicotiana’. This is when André Thevet’s troubles began. He strongly objected in any way he could to the increasing mention of Nicot’s name linked to ‘his’ herbe Angoumoisine, probably also at Court, to which he had access being the geographer and curator of the Cabinet de curiosités royal. It is likely that the King in person had to listen to his complaints, yet nothing changed.
As time went by, the name and its attribution to the herb gradually became official: Conrad Gesner, botanist, physician and scientist from Zurich, in 1565 referred to the plant as Nicotiane in French and Nicotiana in Latin in a study of the plant’s characteristics. In the same years Gesner himself used the name in a manuscript of his future work, Historia Plantarum.
In 1567 the third edition of a printed book was brought out, which had been published for the first time in 1564, a successful, interesting and important book that in the following years and centuries would have over eighty new versions that were constantly updated. Written by a physician, Charles Estienne, with the aid of the physician and agronomist, Jean Liébault, L’Agriculture et maison rustique was a hefty, practical tome on country life with advice on how to build a house and maintain it and all the activities connected to agriculture. The section devoted to the vegetable garden contained a chapter written by Liébault that dealt André Thevet a serious blow: it concerned Nicotiana.
NICOTIANA – Chapter 76
Nicotiana, though it has been but a while known in France, yet it holds the first and principal place amongst physic herbs, by reason of its singular and almost diverse virtues, such as you shall here of hereafter: whereof (because none, either of the old or new writers that have written of the nature of plants, have said anything) I am willing to lay open the whole history, as I have come by it through a dear friend of mine, the first author, inventor and bringer of this herb into France: as also of many, both Spaniards, Portuguese and others, who have travelled to Florida, a country of the Indians from whence this herb came, to put the fame in writing to quite such of grief and travel, as have heard of this herb, but neither know it, nor the properties thereof.
This herb is called Nicotiana, of the name of an Ambassador who brought the first knowledge of it into this realm in like manner as many plants do as yet retain the name of certain Greeks and Romans, who being strangers in diverse countries for their common-wealth service, have from thence endowed their own country with many sorts of plants, whereof there was no knowledge before.
Some call it the herb of the Queen Mother, because the said Ambassador, Lord Nicot, did first send the same unto the Queen Mother(as you shall understand by and by) and for being afterward by her given to diverse others to plant and make to grow in this country […] Very many have given it the name Petum, which is believed to be the proper name of the herb, used by them of the country from whence it was brought, but mistakenly so because in Portugal from whence it was brought to France, it is called the herb of the Ambassador, as you shall understand. Notwithstanding, it were better to call it Nicotiana after the name of the Lord who first sent the fame into France, to the end, that we may give him the honour which he has deserved of us, for having furnished our land with so rare and singular an herb. And thus much for the name: now listen unto the whole history.
Master Jean Nicot, one of the King’s Council, being Ambassador for his Majesty in the Realm of Portugal, in the years of our Lord God 1559, 1560 and 1561, went on a day to see the monuments and places of the said King of Portugal: at which time a gentleman, keeper of the said monuments, presented him with this herb, as a strange plant, brought from Florida. The noble man, Sir Nicot, having procured it to grow in his garden, where it had put forth and multiplied very greatly, was advertised on a day by one of his pages, that a young boy, kinsman of the said page, had laid the said herb (for trial’s sake), stamped the substance and juice and altogether, upon an ulcer which he had upon his cheek, near unto his nose, next neighbour to a “noli me tangere”, as having already seized upon the cartilages, and that by the use thereof it was become marvellous well. Upon this occasion the noble man Nicot called the boy to him and making him to continue the applying of this herb for eight or ten days, the “Noli me tangere” became thoroughly killed. Now they had sent oftentimes unto one of the King’s most famous physicians the said boy during the time of this work and operation, to mark and see the proceeding and working of the said Nicotiana: and having in charge to continue the same until the end of ten days, the said physician then beholding him assured him certainly that the Noli me tangere was dead: as indeed the boy never felt anything of it at any time afterward.
Some certain time after, one of the cooks of the said ambassador having almost all his thumb cut off from his hand with a great kitchen knife, the steward running unto the said Nicotiana, made him to use of it five or six dressings, by the end of which the wound was healed. From that time forward this herb began to become famous in Lisbon, where the King of Portugal’s Court was at that time and the virtues thereof much spoken of, and the common people began to call it the Ambassador’s herb.
Now, upon this occasion, there came certain days after a certain gentleman out of the fields being father unto one of the pages of the said Ambassador, who was troubled with an ulcer in his leg of two years continuance and craved of the said Lord Ambassador some of his herb, and using it in manner afore mentioned, he was healed by the end of ten or twelve days.
After this yet the herb grew still in greater reputation: insomuch, as that many hasted out of all corners to get some of this herb. And amongst the rest, there was one woman who had a great ringworm, covering all her face like a mask and having taken deep root, unto whom the said Lord Ambassador caused this Petum to be given, and withal the manner of using it to be told her: and at the end of eight or ten days this woman being thoroughly cured thereby, came to show herself unto the said Lord Ambassador, and how that she was cured.
There came likewise a captain, bringing with him his son, diseased with the King’s evil [tuberculosis] unto the said Lord Ambassador for to send him into France; upon whom there was some trial of the said herb: whereupon, within few days he began to show great signs and tokens of healing and in the end was thoroughly cured of his King’s evil.
The said Lord Ambassador, seeing so great proof and trial of the said herb and having heard say that the late deceased Madame de Montigny died at Saint Germain in Laye of an ulcer growth in her breasts, which was turned to a Noli me tangere, for which never anybody could find any remedy; and likewise that the Countess of Ruffé had sought for all the famous physicians of the realm to cure her of a ringworm which she had in her, and that they could not all heal it, he resolved with himself to send of it into France, and thereupon accordingly sent it unto King Francis II, and unto Queen Mother and many other Lords of the Court, together with the manner to order it and apply it to the abovenamed diseases as he had found himself by experience: as also unto the Lord of Jarnac, Governor of Rochelle, with whom the said Ambassador had intercourse of letters by reason of the King his affairs: which Lord Jarnac also told him one day sitting at the table with the Queen Mother, that he had caused of the said Nicotiana to be distilled, and had caused the water thereof to be drunk being mixed with the water of eye-bright by one that was stuffed in his lungs, and that he was cured thereby.
[…]This herb has an upright stalk, not bending any way, bearded or hairy and slimy. The leaves are broad and long, green, drawing somewhat towards a yellow, not bearded or hoary, but smooth and slimy, having as it were talons, but not either notched or cut in the edges, a great deal bigger downward towards the root than above […] it puts forth branches from half foot to half, and stores itself by that means with leaves, and still rises higher, from the height of four or five feet.
There follow instructions on how to grow the plant, its medicinal properties, how to apply it, and a brief passage on the practices of the Native Americans. Finally, it concludes:
[…] So here is the history of Nicotiana, which Lord Nicot had the pleasure of telling me and even in writing to share it with you (friendly reader) to whom [Nicot] I wish you to give thanks also for his good heart that in every moment I will render my service to his Lordship, for this goodness received by him.
It is likely that Nicot’s original version had been ‘improved’ by Liébault in an adulatory manner. The naive tone in the account reflects the mentality of the time when medicine was not yet an exact science and the idea that tobacco could be used as a panacea appeared plausible. In effect, almost all the available information on Nicot’s ‘discovery’ are to be found in these lines that seem almost dictated by Nicot to Liébault, and also in the following versions. However, it should be considered that the prestige of the figure would lend a certain credibility to what was indirectly claimed. In any case, at that point the former ambassador had become so fond of his role as ‘inventor’ of the aromatic plant that he had no intention of relinquishing it.
In 1570 -71 a botanical book was published in London entitled Stirpium adversaria nova by Mathias de l’Obel and Pierre Pena. A fine illustration of the tobacco plant bore the name Nicotiana. In 1572 a new edition of L’Agriculture et maison rustique was published, with the chapter on Nicotiana only slightly altered. In the French Latin dictionary compiled by Nicot together with several other scholars, which was published in 1573, Nicot did not fail to include the term Nicotiana with the following definition:
This is a herb of marvellous virtues healing all wounds, ulcers, Noli me tangere, herpes and other similar things, that Master Jean Nicot, being Ambassador to the King of Portugal, sent to France, and from whom has taken the name.
Thevet replied in 1575. His new work, entitled Cosmographie Universelle, was substantial and challenging: a kind of comprehensive collection that took a great deal of time to write, which also included his previous works. In two large volumes, the new book now covered all the know countries of the time: Africa and Asia (first volume); Europe and “a quarter of the world” (second volume). The cry of distress against injustice and the castigation of the usurper is to be found in the fourth part, book twenty-one, chapter eight. Around one page of text in a work that covers almost two thousand two hundred pages. The most explicit passage is central:
I can boast to be the first in France, who brought the seed of this plant, & cropped it, & named the plant Angoumoisine herb. Since a certain person, who never made the voyage, some ten years after I was back from this country, gave it his name
It precedes a paragraph that is quite similar to the one mentioned in the Singularitez de France Antarctique, and a tongue-lashing reprimand follows against others, including Jean Liébault, who had written about tobacco without mentioning Thevet’s name. He never mentions them by name but accuses them of nonsense, falsehood and inaccuracy, for the simple reason that none of them had ever travelled: only he, who had done so, could tell the truth about the facts that were verified on site. All in all, in the process compromising himself so as to be considered legitimate, and the protest remained pathetically hidden in the huge tome and had no impact whatsoever.
Thevet devoted the rest of his life to a long-desired project: a sort of illustrated catalogue of illustrious men, with descriptions and short biographies, which entailed a great deal of editorial work: Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens, recueilliz de leurs tableaux, livres, médalles antiques et modernes, published in nine volumes in 1584. Yet, the tobacco affair was hard to swallow, and he only stopped protesting as late as 1586, on his death. In the same year, the great botanist, Jacques Dalechamps in his Historia generalis plantarum, further sanctioned the name Nicotiana.
Nicot also had a great project in mind, but he died in 1606, leaving his work unpublished. In 1596 he had been rewarded by seeing his Nicotiana described in the work Phytopinax seu enumeratio plantarum by the great Swiss botanist, Caspar Bauhin. Nicot’s Thresor de la langue françoyse, tant ancienne que moderne was only printed in 1606. In order to achieve this he drew from previous works by others, as did Thevet, but also added much of his own knowledge and above all was extremely conscientious in his treatment of the material, which resulted in an original, organic work: the first true French dictionary, which included the entry “Nicotiana” for the sake of completeness.
The name remained in fashion even after the death of the two protagonists, until Carl Nilsson Linnaeus sealed the name in his Species plantarum (1753), in which Nicotiana was classified as a genus of the Monogynia order and Pentandria class. The genus comprised four distinct species: Tabacum, Rustica, Paniculata, and Glutinosa. A small tribute was also paid to Thevet with the name Thevetia given to one of the three species of the genus Cerbera, Monogynia order, Pentandria class. However, this tribute ultimately meant that his name could never be used with the other plant disputed by the two, which remained in Nicot’s name.
Hence, Nicot won, but only to a certain extent. For some time the development of the language had done justice in its own way, as by now the word ‘tobacco’ appeared in everyday speech. “Nicotiana” remained only as a specialist term used by botanists and agronomists.
Thus, returning from Brazil Thevet had brought back with him the tobacco plant. In 1558 he had described the surprising custom of smoking it in his book, a strange practice in America amongst many others. What else had Thevet done to disseminate its use and knowledge of it? It is only when it was linked to Nicot that Thevet started to lay claim to being the sole discoverer. However, was he really the first to import the plant to France, or was it the Breton seafarers and merchants? For the first time, another writer, Jacques Cartier, had focused on the ‘curiosity’ of smoking in a French book. Nicot, if events happened as he himself narrated, knew when to seize an opportunity. He had tested tobacco, driven by curiosity and professional seriousness. The first consignments to the French Court were part of his role as ambassador, but in this way he achieved much more than Thevet when disseminating the use and knowledge of the herb. It is only when he returned to France that he realised the importance of his ‘discovery’ and lay his claim. Indeed, conditions were extremely favourable, because right from the beginning he had treated tobacco as a ‘serious thing’, as medicine, and not as smoke (or snuff) which in that period was still to become fashionable. When the two protagonists were compared, the different ‘weight’ carried by them was decisive. Thevet was known as a tireless traveller, frenetic organiser and compiler. The books that he published, especially the early ones, were considered little more than curious adventures of the spirit. On the other hand, Nicot was a jurist, humanist, lexicographer, ambassador and King’s counsellor. It is evident that at Court among intellectuals, the two neither enjoyed the same consideration, nor the same support.
Who remembers Thevet or Nicot and their cultural and scholarly achievements? Only a few specialists: Bibliophiles would be interested in both; anthropologists have been reappraising some parts of Thevet’s works and lexicologists have not forgotten Nicot. The latter has earned a place in the history of smoking in France and the former is only mentioned in passing. The dispute between supporters of Nicot and Thevet has still to conclude, especially in France. However, in the end everybody should admit that if a winner exists, it is neither one nor the other: it is tobacco.