Herbal Medicine in the Middle Ages
The Vital Role of Herbal Medicine in Medieval Healthcare
Herbal medicine was a vital aspect of medieval healthcare, relying on the healing properties of plants to cure common ailments. Monks and healers used traditional methods to prepare and administer remedies, passed down through generations. Herbs were used to treat a wide range of illnesses, from fever and pain to infection and chronic illnesses. Many of the remedies used in medieval times are still in use today, and their effectiveness has been proven by modern scientific research.
During the Middle Ages, monasteries played a crucial role in preserving and propagating knowledge of herbal medicine. Monks were responsible for cultivating and harvesting medicinal plants, as well as for creating remedies and providing medical care to the local community. They also maintained herb gardens, which were used to grow plants for medicinal purposes. These gardens were not only a source of medicine but also a source of knowledge, as monks would study the plants and their uses.
Herbal medicine was not only used in monasteries but also by lay healers and midwives, especially by women. Women were often responsible for the health of their families and therefore had to know how to use herbs to treat common illnesses. They also passed on their knowledge of herbal medicine to their daughters and granddaughters, creating a tradition of female healers. It is believed that many traditional remedies were developed and passed down by women over the centuries.
Origin of Herbalism
Herbal medicine has a long history dating back over 5,000 years in Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants. In ancient Egypt, texts such as the Papyrus Ebers provide information on over 850 plant medicines and their uses.
In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs for thousands of years and the earliest Sanskrit writings such as the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda document the medical knowledge that formed the basis of the Ayurveda system.
Ancient Greece and Rome
The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of texts associated with the “Father of Western Medicine,” Hippocrates of Kos. These texts reflect the ideals put forth by Hippocrates and his followers and include recipes and remedies that reveal popular treatments of the early ancient Greek period.
The Corpus differs from other ancient herbals in the lack of rites, prayers, or chants used in the application of remedies, reflecting Hippocrates’ preference for logic and reason in medicine. Galen of Pergamon, Diocles of Carystus, Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides were also ancient physicians who wrote extensively on herbs and their medicinal properties. In China, the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing” was written by the Chinese emperor Shennong and lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses.
In China, the mythological emperor Shennong is said to have written the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, the “Shennong Ben Cao Jing”, which lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses. Succeeding generations added to this knowledge, as in the Yaoxing Lun, a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the study of plants began to be based on critical observations. In the 16th and 17th centuries, an interest in botany was revived in Europe and spread to America through European conquest and colonization.
Philosophers began to act as herbalists and academic professors studied plants in great depth. Herbalists began to explore the use of plants for both medicinal purposes and agricultural uses. Botanists in the Middle Ages were known as herbalists, they collected, grew, dried, stored and sketch plants. Many became experts in identifying and describing plants according to their morphology, habitats and usefulness. These books, called herbals, included beautiful drawings and paintings of plants as well as their uses.
During the Middle Ages, both botany and the art of gardening stressed the utility of plants for humans. The popular herbal described the medical uses of plants. During this time, there was an expansion of book culture that spread throughout the medieval world.
The process of translation was well-documented, beginning as a scholarly endeavor in Baghdad as early as the 8th century, and expanding throughout European Mediterranean centers of scholarship by the 11th and 12th centuries. The process of translation is a collaborative effort, requiring a variety of people to translate and add to them. However, the way the Middle Ages viewed nature remains a mystery.
Translation of text and image has led to numerous versions and compilations of individual manuscripts from diverse sources, both old and new. Translation is a dynamic process and a scholarly endeavor that greatly contributed to science in the Middle Ages; the process naturally entailed continuous revisions and additions.
Benedictine monasteries were known for their in-depth knowledge of herbals. These
gardens grew herbs that were considered useful for the treatment of various human illnesses; the beginnings of modern medical education can be connected with monastic influence. Monastic academies were developed, and monks were taught how to translate Greek manuscripts into Latin.
Knowledge of medieval botanicals was closely related to medicine because the primary use of plants was for remedies. Herbals were structured by the names of plants, identifying features, medicinal parts of the plant, therapeutic properties, and some included instructions on how to prepare and use them. For the medical use of herbals to be effective, a manual was developed, one of the significant herbal designed for practical purposes is Dioscorides’ De material medica.
Theophrastus wrote over 200 papers describing the characteristics of more than 500 plants. He developed a classification system for plants based on their morphology, such as their form and structure. He described in detail plants like pepper, cinnamon, bananas, asparagus, and cotton. Two of his best-known works, Enquiry into Plants and The Causes of Plants, have survived for many centuries and were translated into Latin. He is referred to as the “grandfather of botany.”
Crateuas was the first to produce a pharmacological book for medicinal plants, and his book influenced medicine for many centuries. A Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, described over 600 different kinds of plants and describes their useful qualities for herbal medicine, and his illustrations were used for pharmacology and medicine as late as the Renaissance years.
Monasteries established themselves as centers for medical care. Information on these herbals and how to use them was passed on from monks to monks, as well as their patients. These illustrations were not intended for everyday individuals; they were complex and intended for people with prior knowledge and understanding of herbal medicine.
The usefulness of these herbals has been questioned because they appear to be unrealistic and several plants are depicted claiming to cure the same condition. However, when used by experienced healers, these plants can provide their many uses.
For these medieval healers, no direction was needed, their background allowed them to choose proper plants to use for a variety of medical conditions. The monk’s purpose was to collect and organize text to make them useful in their monasteries. Medieval monks took many remedies from classical works and adapted them to their own needs as well as local needs. This may be why none of the collections of remedies we have presently agrees fully with another.
Another way of transmitting information was through oral tradition, which was used to pass medical knowledge from generation to generation. It is a common misconception that one can understand early medieval medicine simply by identifying texts, but it is difficult to gain a clear understanding of herbals without prior knowledge. There are many factors that influenced the translation of these herbals, and the act of writing or illustrating was just a small piece of the puzzle. These remedies stem from many previous translations that incorporated knowledge from a variety of influences.
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Source: (HistoryMedieval, 2024)
De materia medica is an ancient book about medicinal plants and the medicines that can be made from them. It was written by a Greek physician in the Roman army named Pedanius Dioscorides and was published in five volumes between 50 and 70 CE. It was widely used for over 1,500 years until it was replaced by newer books in the Renaissance period. It is considered one of the most long-lasting and influential books on natural history and pharmacology.
The work, De materia medica, covers a wide range of drugs that were known to be effective during the mediaeval period, including those made from plants such as aconite, aloes, colocynth, colchicum, henbane, opium and squill. In total, around 600 plants, as well as some animals and mineral substances, are discussed, along with the 1000 medicines made from them. The text was circulated in the form of illustrated manuscripts that were copied by hand in Greek, Latin and Arabic.
From the 16th century onward, the text was translated into Italian, German, Spanish, and French, and in 1655 into English. It served as the basis for herbals in these languages written by figures such as Leonhart Fuchs, Valerius Cordus, Lobelius, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, John Gerard, and William Turner. Over time, these herbals incorporated more and more direct observations, supplementing and eventually replacing the original text.
- Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated by Lily Y. Beck. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
- “Medieval Herbalism: The Use of Plants in Medicine and Health Care in the Middle Ages” by Michael R. McVaugh. Published in The Medieval World, edited by Peter Linehan and Janet L. Nelson, Routledge, 2001. ISBN: 9780415151327
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, December 24). Pseudo-Apuleius. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudo-Apuleius
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, May 16). History of herbalism. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_herbalism
- Josh. (2016, December 12). Causae et Curae – Healthy Hildegard. Healthy Hildegard. https://www.healthyhildegard.com/causae-et-curae/
- darslan. (2019, January 30). Health and herbs in the Dark Ages. The Biomedical Scientist. https://thebiomedicalscientist.net/science/health-and-herbs-dark-ages
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