Crossing the Creek to Fetch Water

Ringerloftets tagkonstruktion

When looking downward, I gaze upward. This was how the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) described one of the allegorical sculptures that decorated his manor house Uraniborg on the island of Hven. But the words also fit Brahe himself. Uraniborg contained not only an observatory where he could follow the movements of the planets in the sky, but it was also the centre of a stringently designed garden, which among other things consisted of ingeniously landscaped flowerbeds, many of them in star-shaped patterns.

Here Tycho Brahe cultivated herbs with which he could do chemical or alchemical experiments in Uraniborg’s basements. Brahe is especially known as an astronomer, but in his world, astronomy and alchemy were inextricably linked. When he examined the plants in his garden, he was therefore also able to learn about the planets – and vice versa. Astronomy was a stellar chemistry, alchemy an earthly astronomy.

The Plague and Epilepsy
Tycho Brahe’s experiments in Uraniborg’s basements resulted in several recipes for medicines that bear his name. He thus developed several medicines against the plague and presumably he also tried to concoct a remedy for epilepsy, which included the powdered skull of a person who had been executed as one of the ingredients.

In the Round Tower’s collection, there is also a pharmacy jar, presumably from the 18th century, which bears the label “Species Tychonis Brahe” which roughly translates to “Tycho Brahe’s herbal mixture”. The mixture is a remedy for upset stomach – but whether or not it was Tycho Brahe who developed it is not known for certain.

From Generation to Generation
Of Tycho Brahe’s influence on the design of the Round Tower, however, there is little doubt. That was secured through his assistant Christen Sørensen Longomontanus (1562-1647), who was to become Denmark’s first professor of astronomy. Apparently he was most keenly interested in the heavenly variety. In any event, the herbs just had to wait outside the gate for the first many years of the Round Tower’s history.

That changed in 1809 when the royal apothecary Gottfried Becker (1767-1845) was given permission to rent part of the Bell Loft with access from the Round Tower. The ceiling was to be used for drying herbs for the production of medicines to be sold a few hundred meters away at the Elephant Pharmacy which, like the Round Tower, was located in the street of Købmagergade.

The pharmacy was founded by Becker’s great-grandfather, who was appointed royal apothecary shortly after the introduction of the absolute monarchy in 1660, and the position had since been passed down in an almost unbroken chain from generation to generation. The Elephant Pharmacy was therefore also called the Royal Court Apothecary, which stood above the entrance along with a figure of an elephant, which for a time was supplemented with a Latin inscription that read, in translation, “I summon the sick and I dispel their diseases with my trunk”.

On-site Production
In 1809, a pharmacy consisted not only of the shop in which one could purchase medicines and other necessities, but also a laboratory where the medicine itself was manufactured. This had always been a part of the pharmacy profession, and in the extensive systemization of the Danish pharmacy sector, which took place in 1672, it was emphasized that pharmacies were not to sell medicines produced at other locations, but had to produce them themselves, on location.

Fortunately, that was not difficult, since “these landscapes have been treated very generously by nature with a multitude of good plants, herbs, flowers and roots”, as was stated in the new regulations. The only thing that was required was that the herbs, when having been duly collected, “must be dried in proper locations”.

Wild Plants
Gradually, however, a certain laziness apparently crept to the surface with some apothecaries and their employees, who apparently ignored the rules and imported drugs and medicines instead of producing them on location as required by regulatory law. This was expressed by the physician J. C. W. Wendt (1778-1838).

“When you consider that a great portion of the plants used in the art of medicine grow wild in our homeland”, he wrote, ”and our apothecaries nonetheless are compelled to import many of them from abroad if they would have them to be of sound quality, then anyone would naturally pose the obvious question, why we do not gather these plants ourselves?”

Therefore, in order to help pharmacists and other good people, in 1810 Wendt published his Directions for Collecting, Drying and Conserving Medicinal Plants and Plant Parts Growing Wild and Cultivated in Denmark and Norway (Anviisning til at indsamle, tørre og conservere de i Dannemark og Norge vildvoxende og dyrkede medicinske Planter og Plantedele). Here he explained, among other things, that the collected plants generally should be dried in “an airy, clean loft thoroughly heated by the sun”.

For the Good of His Country
Just such a loft was available above the Church of the Holy Trinity, where royal apothecary Becker rented his premises in 1809. Apparently the valuable space was worth the trouble of transporting the herbs up and down the spiral ramp, but the rental of the Bell Loft can also be seen in a broader economic and ideological perspective.

During the golden age of the late 1700s, Danish trade had increased. However, after the British bombardment of Copenhagen in September 1807, which led to Denmark joining the Napoleonic war against Britain, the situation changed drastically. “The connections between our own country and foreign states either completely ceased or were made extremely difficult”, one contemporary source put it.

The problem was not only that it was difficult to get hold of foreign goods, but also that the government needed the money that was being spent abroad. Official attempts were therefore made through several regulations that would encourage loyal, patriotic citizens to become self-sufficient and purchase goods made at home. They should, in the words of an ordinance from the king, “contribute and cooperate toward their homeland’s good fortune and prosperity so these exceedingly important goals may be achieved: the use of foreign products must be limited in general to the most exceedingly indispensable of items and all of that foreign lavishness and splendour, in particular, must utterly cease”.

Baskets of Fruit and Vegetables
In Copenhagen, the poor trading conditions led to a situation where “foreign, even less effective medicines rise to an incredulous price, indeed it is and will be almost impossible to get hold of them”, as J. C. W. Wendt argues. In that light, it was logical that the royal apothecary Becker had rented space at the Bell Loft. For why cross the creek to fetch water, when it actually served a good cause not to?

The royal apothecary did more, however, than just renting space for drying his herbs. During the bombardment of Copenhagen, 400 windows in his own pharmacy were shattered and the damage at a textile dyeing factory that he owned elsewhere in the city was so great that it had to close. When after the bombardment, an association in support of the domestic arts was established, he was amongst the members, and in their magazine he contributed a proposal for a new type of basket “to assure that fruit and vegetables remain undamaged during transportation from one place to a another”.

Whether the above-mentioned basket has been used to transport the herbs up and down the spiral ramp of the Round Tower as well, is not entirely clear. However, there has certainly been a need for some kind of container to keep them in, as the transporting continued. Becker himself only rented the Bell Loft for three years, but with him, the other apothecaries had apparently become aware of the Bell Loft’s potential, and clear up until 1880, medicinal herbs were dried there. Completely in keeping with the spirit of Tycho Brahe.

Rasmus Agertoft

Translated by Trilby L. Gustafson

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