Cannabis, often associated with contemporary counterculture, has a long and complex history, deeply rooted in various societies. Recent research in Milan, Italy, sheds new light on the historical use of cannabis by examining skeletal remains from a 17th-century cemetery.
This study led by scientists at the University of Milan uncovers evidence of the recreational use of cannabis.
Historical context and papal ban
The historical use of cannabis is well documented, with the Greek historian Herodotus mentioning its psychotropic effects in 440 BC. Medieval medical records in Europe also reveal widespread medicinal applications of cannabis, treating conditions ranging from gout to labor pains.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a decree calling cannabis an “unholy sacrament,” beginning a centuries-long association with paganism and a rebellion against the Church.
Researchers, led by biologist Gaia Giordano, carried out a groundbreaking study on femurs from the Ca’ Granda crypt in Milan, discovering traces of THC and CBD. This is the first time cannabis has been detected in human bones, providing unique insight into historical cannabis use. These results challenge the prevailing idea that cannabis disappeared from the historical record after the papal ban.
The study results indicate that cannabis was likely used recreationally in Milan in the 17th century, as medical records from the Ospedale Maggiore, the city’s main hospital for the poor, did not include cannabis among medicinal plants.
Archaeotoxicologist Domenico di Candia, who led the study, suggests that harsh conditions in 17th-century Milan, characterized by famine, disease and poverty, may have contributed to the recreational use of cannabis. The plant could have been added to foods, such as cakes and herbal teas, to relieve the harsh realities of life at that time.
Historical hemp production in Italy
Italy’s historical role as a major hemp producer adds another layer to the findings. Hemp was widely used in various industries, including ropes, textiles and paper. Researchers, including Marco Perduca, a former Italian senator, say the popularity of hemp in Italian history makes it likely that cannabis was also used for its psychoactive effects.
This finding raises questions about the social shame associated with cannabis use, which still persists today.
Perduca suggests that the stigma is rooted in the perception of cannabis as a substance that defies obedience, particularly to the Catholic Church, which is historically a powerful institution in Italy. Despite the current legalization of medical cannabis in Italy, debates over its wider acceptance, including the inclusion of CBD in the narcotics schedules, continue.