Item ampulam unam in qua est nescio quod sit.
To compile inventories, the person responsible for drafting the list of objects walked through the house or shop, entering rooms and pantries, opening chests, and peering into jars to note their contents. Many of the things found in this way were everyday items, such as furniture, linens, and tools, and these were easily identified. But many households and shops contained things that had some unusual properties, such as an imported coverlet with a particular design, an article of clothing made of unusual fabric, tools used for very particular purposes, or, in this case, pharmacological substances. In these instances, the resulting description is only as accurate as the expertise of the compiler. When inventories were compiled on a regular basis by officials of a court or a tax office, one can imagine that the official in question would have acquired a degree of expertise over time. But before 1500 or thereabouts, a substantial number of inventories were compiled by members of the family or relatives of the decedent or guardians of the children, that is to say ordinary people who did not necessarily have expertise in the full range of material culture that they might be responsible for inventorying. They could simply ask household members or others with the necessary expertise, of course, and many surely did. But every now and then, a degree of uncertainty creeps into the description of an object.
A vivid instance of this is found in an item that was described, or rather not described, in this inventory from Genoa, in April of 1259. The item belonged to an apothecary named Dondinus. The inventory of his estate was compiled by another apothecary, Obertinus, who was the guardian (tutor) of Dondinus's two children. Roughly halfway through the inventory, Obertinus began the tiresome business of listing all the spices, medicaments, and electuaries in the decedent's shop: here, a small box (cassaria) containing some ginger preserved in syrup; there, an ampoule with an unguent for scabies. Many of the items needed to be carefully weighed on a scales, which would have caused the process to drag out over a considerable period of time. One can almost sense Obertinus's frustrations building up. After listing an ampoule containing "aurea alexandrina," a preparation against colic and apoplexy devised by the near-contemporary Byzantine pharmacologist, Nicholas Myrepsos, and then an ampoule that was empty, he came across an ampoule whose label had apparently fallen off and whose contents were unrecognized. Throwing his hands up impatiently, he simply wrote "Next, an ampoule containing I know not what." This was not the end of his frustrations: the inventory goes on to list two more electuaries that were unrecognizable.