Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Brief History of Herbalism through the Renaissance



Rue, Roses and Mint
This is my  first contribution to my A & S 50 depth project in herbalism.  I am kind of cheating here because this doubles as background handout for the classes I am teaching my mundane apprentices (I have three) on the history of herbalism, but I am trying to perfect the art of killing two birds with one stone as a form of time management.  

The use of herbs as medicine predates written history. Archeological findings from the Paleolithic period show that plants were being used medicinally as early as 60, 000 years ago. The oldest written documentation comes from Sumerian tablets listing medicinal herbs which are over 5000 years old. Shennong pen Ts’ao ching the first Chinese herbal has been dated to about 2700 BCE. The Egyptian, Ebers Papyrus, has been dated to about 1550 BC and contains references to cannabis being used to topically treat inflammation as well as 850 other medicinal plants. The Rigveda, written around 1500 BC, is the earliest written documentation of Ayurvedic principles, but it obviously stems from a body of knowledge that had being collected for centuries previous to it being recorded on paper. The Sushruta Samhita written in the 6th Century BC details plant, mineral and animal preparations that are still used by Ayurvedic practitioners, today.

Greco-Roman Medicine

The earliest Greek herbals were written by Diocles of Carystus in the 3rd Century BC. The information in his herbals seemed to be largely based on the previously mentioned Egyptian works. His work was largely eclipsed by later Greek physicians, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen whose works were to form the basis of medical practice for centuries to come.

Hippocrates - ( 460 -370 BC) - De herbis et curis - Founder: Hippocratic School of Medicine.
Dioscorides - (40 - 90 A.D.) - De Materia Medica written sometime between 50-68 A.D.
Galen - (131-200 A.D.) - Galen was known to have employed up to 20 scribes to write his works and over 600 treatises are attributed to this group known as the Galenic Corpus. He is probably most famous for his Art of Physick as translated by Culpeper.



It is important to note that the Hippocratic Corpus ( name of the collection of writings attributed to Hippocrates) was , in fact, written by as many as 19 different authors over the course of many 100's of years, yet the information in them is attributed to Hippocrates. Most of the writings seem to have been written in last decades of the 5th century BC and the first half of the 4th century BC and are probably those of a physicians college- perhaps the Cnidian school although that is conjecture. We will probably never know. Also some people will call mistakenly call  Dioscorides and Galen, Romans. They were Greeks serving in the Roman Army. 

Dioscorides' De Materia Medica was probably the most influential herbal ever written. It contained information on over 600 plants used for medicinal purposes and those uses he described were the basis of most herbalism that was practiced up until the 17th Century. Honestly you could probably make the argument that information in it has been being used by herbalists up until the present day.

The most important principle of early medical advice was moderation in all things; however other principles put forth by these early physicians still shape herbalism today. Urinalysis was used by the Ancient Greeks, although then it was done primarily by using the senses; including taste. During this time, there also developed an energetic diagnostic system based on humors and temperaments that many herbalists still refer to today. I will discuss this more completely at another time The Doctrine of Signatures which, explained very briefly, states that the shape of an herb and how it that is similar to body parts determines how it is to be used first appeared in Greek Medicine, as well.

The Dark Ages or Early Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire things were fairly quiet in Europe. Medical “schools” started appearing in the 9th century in Eastern locales such as Persia and the Arab empire. Their practices were largely based on previous Greek and Roman medicine. Benedictine monasteries and nunneries were the primary source of Western European herbal knowledge and care during the Early Middle Ages. They were famous for their “physick” gardens in which they grew most of the herbs they used in their practices. Walafrid Strabo (808-849 CE) wrote a Latin verse Hortulus that described such a garden. But they were really only copying and passing along the Greco-Roman manuscripts. Very little new knowledge was really being accumulated by these monks and nuns, at this time. The lineage of the Physicians of Myddvai can be traced back to Wales in 800 C.E.

Bald's Leechbook was compiled under King Alfred's reign recorded by the scribe Cild in about 900–950 CE.

This was also a time that saw the flourishing of folk-herbalism. Irish peasants wise in the knowledge of plants became herb-doctors. Wise women and midwives were providing a great deal of care to the folk in their village and would pass along charms to help with healing. I've included a thesis about Medieval Women's role in Medicine on the DVD. Stories of Irish leeches carrying a bag—called a lés [lace]—full of medical preparations stem back to stories in the Ulster cycle written around this time. I am actually going to write a separate bit about Irish medicinal history because it is so wildly different than the rest of Europe and is more pertinent to my persona.

The High Middle Ages. 1000-1300 C.E.

The High Middle Ages saw an upswing in the publishing of new herbals. The Persian physician, Avicenna, wrote his herbal treatise, The Cannon of Medicine, around 1025 AD. St Thomas Hospital in England was established in 1107.

The Anglo Saxon Herbarius Apuleii ( Herbal of Apuleius) based on earlier Greek works was written sometime shortly before the Battle of Hastings detailed a much smaller number of herbs than the Greek Herbals ( only 61) but it describes their uses and where to find them which leads one to believe that some wild crafting of plants occurring at the time. Another Anglo Saxon Herbal compiled in the late tenth or early eleventh century was Lacnunga which meant Remedies. It is in the book Leechdoms, Wortcunners and Starcraft of Early England .  The eleventh century also marked the beginning of the Irish Medical “Leechdoms”; families who passed their knowledge down to each generation.


The Late Middle Age 1300- 1500

The Late Middle Ages began with the Great Famine and the Bubonic Plague. The Greek Medicinal theories began to fall out of favor with the people because they failed miserably at controlling the Plague and didn't touch the syphilis epidemic that arose at the same time.

You will read about Four Thieves Vinegar from this time period. There are as many stories as there are formulas, but it is basically understood that using some sort of combination of herbs and vinegar, medicinally,  kept these looters from succumbing to the plague.

The Red Book of Hergest written just after 1382 contains herbal knowledge attributed to the Physicians of Myddvai.   The leechbook, The Book of the O'Lees written in 1443, partly in Latin and partly in Irish detailed that family’s method of treating the common diseases of the time.


The  Early Renaissance

Paracelsus (1493-1541) Botany and medicine were one and the same until the 17th Century. Paracelsus introduction of stronger more toxic chemicals to the healing profession marked the beginning of the decline in the use of purely plant materials as medicine. . While he worked primarily with plants, he was the first to introduce chemicals as cures. For example mercury, despite its toxic side-effects, was the cure for syphilis until 1947 when penicillin took over.

John Gerard gets a lot of press for his The Herball or General Historie of Plants published in 1597, but it has been pretty much proven at this point that the herbal was basically plagiarized. The illustrations were from a German botanical guide and the herbal information pretty much came from Rembert Dodoen’s herbal Cruydeboeck published in 1554.

John Parkinson (1567–1650) an apothecary for the King of England, wrote his gardening book Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris in 1629. His giant herbal the Theatrum Botanicum published in 1640 included over 3000 herbs.

Nicholas Culpeper published The English Physician Enlarged in 1652 and included in it an English translation of Galen's Art of Physick. Culpeper's Complete Herbal published the next year was unique in that it brought astrology into the picture. I have a copy of Culpeper's  Galen translation but the English is period and difficult to follow if you aren't familiar with it. My personal  version of Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician is a facsimile of a book which was modernized and published in 1826 and a little more reasonable to get through.


Women Herbalists in European History

Some women were even able to attain renown as physicians. In the eleventh century, the medical school in Salerno, Italy, allowed women to train as physicians and to teach at the school. Trota of Salerno  was one such woman and during her time at Salerno she wrote at least part of, Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women) which you may hear referred to as Trotula Major.

In the 12th century a Benedictine nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 –1179), wrote an herbal called Causes and Cures. Hildegard is probably the more famous of historic female herbalists.  

As the witch hunts progressed, it became less-and-less safe for  women folk herbalists to practice openly, however depending on their location and status women were occasional able to practice. Lady Grace Mildmay born in 1552 was member of the landed gentry and a female practitioner.


1 comment:

  1. Very informative!
    It's not cheating; it's resourceful. ^_^

    ReplyDelete