Long before people snorted lines at Studio 54, a former New York City-based nightclub, the Catholic Church dealt with the unpleasant problem of churchgoers sniffing snuff in their pews during mass. Vomiting priests, assassination conspiracies, and the suspicion snuff was the Devil's work also didn't help its reputation. At first, the Church thought they might as well just ban snuff, but when people chose the powdered tobacco over paying their dues to God, things didn't work out well.
In a brilliant PR move, one pope decided to take the opposite track. Eventually, the Church opened a Vatican-run tobacco factory, effectively putting the power of Jesus Christ behind a 19th-century drug monopoly. While snuff isn't the craziest drug people experimented with, its history is a bizarre one crossing continents and religions before reaching the pinnacles of society.
In the 16th century, the practice of using snuff in church quickly moved from the New World, where tobacco was native, to the Old World - and the Catholic Church wasn't happy about it at all. In Naples, a priest reportedly inhaled a pinch of snuff just after taking communion, and the result was horrific. The priest began sneezing so hard he vomited the sacramental wafer directly onto the altar.
The scandalized Church decided the practice had to stop. Not only did snuffing during mass cause a disruption, it also dirtied the altar and hands of priests distributing communion. So, in 1642, the pope stepped in to ban snuff completely.
Tobacco was a crop native to the New World, like tomatoes and corn. The first Europeans to see the tobacco plant crossed the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus, where they witnessed natives smoking or snuffing the leaves.
To the Caribbean people, the tobacco smoke held a connection to the spirit world. This spiritual connection was a problem for the Catholic missionaries, who planned to convert everyone they met. The missionaries even wondered if the Devil sent tobacco to the New World to make it harder to convert people.
By the late 16th century, Catholicism was firmly established in Spain's colonies. Many of the newly converted Natives brought tobacco to church. Because of its New World association with spirits, smoking became banned in church by Mexican church officials.
The problem was even bigger than the churchgoers, though, because numerous priests adopted the practice. In 1583, a church council in Lima ruled:
It is forbidden under penalty of eternal damnation for priests, about to administer the sacraments, either to take the smoke of sayri, or tobacco, into the mouth, or the powder of tobacco into the nose, even under the guise of medicine, before the service of the mass.
Snuff was incredibly popular from the 16th to 18th centuries. Across Europe, people bought snuff boxes and inhaled powdered tobacco multiple times a day. During the Reformation - the cataclysmic religious break within Christianity - snuff even became part of the feud between Catholics and Protestants.
Jesuits, particularly known for indulging in snuff, experienced accusations of using powdered tobacco to assassinate their enemies. Some Protestants claimed "Jesuit snuff" was poisoned, and snuff might be a Catholic plot to kill off Protestants. Despite this conspiracy theory, snuff only continued to grow in popularity.