By: Valerie Bullock
For such a modest book, herbals have a history that can be rivaled by few other subjects. Philosophers, clergy, physicians, printers and even sorcerers have each played an instrumental part in creating the genre we would today classify as herbal. The oldest surviving written herbal manuscript is called De materia medica penned by the physician Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba. A product of first century Rome it became the fundamental authority on pharmacological knowledge for the next 1500 years including the Dark Ages where much information was lost to Western Europe.
It was not until Pliny the Elder wrote his Naturalis Historia that another herbal hotshot entered the stage. Pliny’s Natural History lists over 33,000 simples in his compilation and includes among them myths, superstitions and rituals that relate to various medical treatments (Anderson, pg. 17). A simple is any basic constituent of medical concoction or remedy (Anderson, pg. 45-46). This includes animal and mineral sources or prayers as ingredients. Along with each simple was information on identification; collection and extraction of their useful properties; and how to apply them to the patient’s ailment (Anderson, pg. 2).
Herbals themselves were written for the most part by philosophers or military physicians, such as Pliny, who had the opportunity to travel and use the various simples therein. Alternatively, herbals were compiled and translated from Arabic to Latin or any other equally difficult to read language by monks, meaning laypeople could not read them let alone use them. There was even conflict between the “respectable” clergy, herbalists and physicians and the lower “root digging” herb collectors whose superstitious methods of collecting aroused ridicule among the higher social strata (Arber, pg. 7). Take an example from a twelfth-century herbal for the proper way to extract a mandrake root: one must “tie a rope around it [the mandrake] and affixing the other end to a hungry dog, then throwing meat to the dog. The animal would pull the mandrake from the ground and would thus suffer its vengeance” (Kieckhefer, pg. 14) Most herbal authors did not lower themselves to the chore of herb collecting, even Pliny is recorded saying that taking a walk was a waste of time. However, ignoring these folk healers also ignores the very roots of herbals themselves. Botanical science and natural magic overlapped quite significantly in Medieval Europe. Contemporary medical theories called for the balance of the four elements within humans which could be done using various herbs and substances all found within an herbal.
Most herbal literature was not created until printing was available, at which point the subject was of particular interest to wealthy physicians and merchants. Until the introduction of the printing press herbals remained the books of learned men. Some of the finest examples of early printing can be found in herbals. Herbals were one of the most popular subjects to be printed and since a standard type replaced the natural variance of written manuscripts it was now possible to cite a specific page and sentence or image within the text. Printed herbals also catalog the development of the art of illustration and of various type faces. Medieval herbals can serve as an index of contemporary presses of Europe such as Aldus, Fust, and Schoeffer; printers and artists such as Hans von Weiditz and Crispin van de Passe (Anderson, pg. 3-4).
Eventually basic medical treatments could be carried out by anybody who could read. No doubt this was a huge step in the general health of the European population. Today however, it will be hard to find an herbal in the medieval sense of the word. A book listing various herbs and their uses will be easy to find, but a book of containing every item of possible medical use along with the folklore and philosophy pertaining to them will be more elusive.
Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York. iUniverse. 1997. Print.
Arber, Agnes. Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press. 1938. Print.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic and the Middle Ages. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press. 1989, 2000. Print.