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

Ancient History

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.

 

Mandrake - Pseudo-Apuleius Manuscript Kassel
Mandrake - Pseudo-Apuleius Manuscript Kassel
Painting of Dragontea in Vienna

Painting of Dragontea in Vienna

The Middle Ages

Scholars have long debated the motivations and understanding behind the creation of medieval herbal texts. One viewpoint is that the information in these texts was simply copied from classical sources without much understanding. However, a second viewpoint, which is gaining support among modern scholars, is that these herbals were copied for practical use and were based on genuine understanding.

In the 5th century, medical writers and students relied on classical texts and practices to understand herbalism. They used Greek and Latin texts as their primary source of knowledge about plants, plant names and plant lore. As herbalism became a subtopic of modern medicine, the Greeks and Romans had to transition their knowledge of medicinal herbs to document and understand the practice of herbalism that had developed over many centuries. However, this was not without challenges as herbalists in the 5th-10th century faced difficulties due to the lack of knowledge of herbalism that had not been discovered or studied thoroughly.

Earliest Records

The earliest record of herbalism was recorded in the first century BC in Western Europe. The importance of herbalism in the Middle Ages was not only crucial for survival without modern prescription drugs, but it also formed the basis for natural remedies that are still used today. The practice of herbalism has been around since prehistoric times and has played an important role in the development of medicine throughout history.

Evidence that herbals were used with knowledgeable intent in the medieval period can be found in the addition of chapters on plants, lists of symptoms, habitat information and plant synonyms to texts such as the Herbarium.

Notable texts used during this time include Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, the peri didaxeon, Herbarium Apulei, Da Taxone, and Madicina de Quadrupedidus. The most popular texts during this period were the Ex Herbis Femininis, the Herbarius and works by Dioscorides.

Preparing Medicine from Honey", from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscorides

Preparing Medicine from Honey”, from a Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscorides

The Works of Dioscorides

Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist in 50 AD, devoted his life’s work to understanding plants and their medicinal properties. In the Middle Ages, his work was considered the primary resource on plants and their uses. Dioscorides was fortunate enough to have writing skills and is considered an important figure in herbalism because of his travels, studies and written knowledge on the subject. His texts, originally written in Greek and later transcribed in Latin as “De materia medica“, were the first physical texts on herbalism in the 5th century and served as the foundation of knowledge about herbalism in Western Europe at the time. These herbal medical documents provided sufficient information about herbs, their colors, and their uses.

A great deal of information about herbalism comes from the Middle East and Asia, as scholars traveled back and forth to conduct new studies on the topic. Dioscorides, a notable figure in this field, wrote about many foreign herbs and plants from Asia during his research. This was a significant contribution to both the growing knowledge of herbalism and the trade of herbs throughout Europe between the 5th and 10th centuries.

Dioscorides found these different herbs fascinating due to their healing properties, as he had never seen them before and this sparked new ideas in the field of natural medicine. He also learned about the use of dried herbs, known as the spice trade, during his travels to the West. His medical documents brought together herbalists during the Middle Ages. The herbs used during this time mainly grew in the southern parts of Europe such as Italy and Greece. Additionally, a unique characteristic is that these herbs were not only grown on land but also found closer to the sea.

In the early 5th century, it was challenging to have accurate information about the properties and uses of herbs without documentation. Dioscorides’ volumes provided information on the properties of herbs, including poisonous plants and their geographical distribution.

Many herbalists at the time did not realize the importance of noting that certain herbs could only grow in specific regions. This is where the spice trade played a crucial role in the development of medicine during the Middle Ages, as certain herbs with healing properties had to be traded because they could not be grown in certain regions due to socioeconomic or climatic factors. This greatly expanded the knowledge of scholars who were unfamiliar with plants from other regions. Dioscorides’ writings and knowledge helped identify each plant and described its properties, uses, and appearance.

Image of Centauris maior

Illustration of Centauris Maior

Types of Herbs

Examples of foreign herbs and plants that were not commonly found in the West include citrus, ginger, echinacea, and goldenseal. These herbs were not native to places like Britain, but were grown and native to Asia. However, through the spice trade, many herbs and plants from the East became important and expanded the knowledge of herbalists.

The most commonly used herbs in the Middle Ages were Elderberry, Wild Sage, Rosehips, Plantain, Calendula, Comfrey, Yarrow, Nettle, and many others. Each of these herbs had specific properties that herbalists used to treat their patients, similar to natural remedies used today such as healing teas and ointments to treat common colds and minor injuries. The ingredients may have changed but the origin is from herbalists in the Middle Ages.

Most of the herbs that were gathered and used in the Middle Ages were wild-grown, meaning they were not processed or cultivated and were straight from the earth. Those that were studied would be somewhat processed to see the results of their beneficial properties. Herbs that typically grew in the wild were accessible to the local population, therefore herbalism was a field not only dominated by scholars.

Herbalists not only found the use of wild-grown herbs but also found the use of natural herbs that acted as drugs for major surgeries or for psychoactive use. Cannabis was first sold in Egypt and then imported to countries such as Great Britain, France, and Italy. The use of cannabis became more widespread when its healing properties for anxiety, pain, etc. were discovered. Herbalists also used opioids for pain remedies.

Herbalists not only used herbs for minor illnesses and injuries, but also for drugs, major surgery, and psychoactive use. The late Middle Ages in the 10th century saw an increase in the use of herbs in different forms.

Interest in herbalism only increased after the 10th century, and all these examples are still in use today in forms such as essential oils and ointments. These new forms of medicine were used for both treating illnesses and for daily use.

During the Early Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries were the primary source of medical knowledge in Europe and England. However, these monastic scholars primarily focused on translating and copying ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic texts rather than creating new information and practices.

Many Greek and Roman medical texts were preserved through hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries. Monasteries became local centers of medical knowledge and their herb gardens provided raw materials for the treatment of common disorders.

Hildegrad of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine nun, is one of the most famous women in the herbal tradition. She wrote a medical text called Causae et Curae, during this time, herbalism was mainly practiced by women, particularly among Germanic tribes. Folk medicine in the home and village continued uninterrupted, supporting numerous wandering and settled herbalists. These included “wise-women” and “wise men” who prescribed herbal remedies along with spells, enchantments, divination and advice.

Sources of Information

There were three main sources of information on healing at the time, including the Arabian School, Anglo-Saxon leechcraft, and Salerno. Avicenna, a scholar of the Arabian School, wrote The canon of Medicine which became the standard medical reference work of the Arab world.

The canon includes a description of 760 medicinal plants and the medicine that could be derived from them. With Leechcraft, though bringing to mind part of their treatments, leech was the English term for medical practitioner.

Salerno was a famous school in Italy centered around health and medicine. A student of the school, Constantine the African, is credited with bringing Arab medicine to Europe.

Herbals

Illustration of Chelidonia

Illustration of Chelidonia

Herbalists

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.

Book Culture

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.

Image of Caelidonia

Image of Caelidonia

Benedictine Monasteries

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.

 

Recommended Books

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Medieval Plants and their Uses by Michael Brown
Medieval Plants and their Uses by Michael Brown
Medieval Herbals The Illustrative Traditions (British Library Studies in Medieval by Minta Collins
Medieval Herbals The Illustrative Traditions (British Library Studies in Medieval by Minta Collins
Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times Juliana Cummings
Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times Juliana Cummings
Medieval Herbal Remedies The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine by Anne Van Arsdall
Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine by Anne Van Arsdall

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Amirdovlat Amasiatsi
Physician preparing an elixir folio from a manuscript of the De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 AD).

Physician preparing an elixir folio from a manuscript of the De Materia Medica by Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 AD).

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. 

 

Sources

  • Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated by Lily Y. Beck. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
  • 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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