If you were sick in medieval times, how would you be treated? Likely with a “physick,” tonic, or salve. These medicines would often be prepared by local apothecaries, wise women, or savvy housewives. They were based on herbs and other ingredients, some of which may seem quite strange to those used to modern medicine. To
Critical to the medical knowledge of ancient civilizations, the broad knowledge of herbs was among the antique legacies passed on to Dark Ages Europe. Inscribed in manuscript texts known as herbals, plants and their medical properties became central to the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Many of the richly illustrated texts have survived to be studied. Whether they record the floral discoveries of the new world or include entries describing mythical mandrakes, the tradition of herbals is a testament to early medicinal thinking as well as the art of the book.
What is an herbal?
At its most basic, an herbal is a
European herbals began in manuscript form and were painstakingly written by hand by professional scribes. These manuscripts could be richly
Where and when were herbals made?
Herbals are an ancient textual tradition. Medical in nature, these texts often codified knowledge that had long been orally passed on. In Han dynasty China, Shennong Ben Cao Jing (also known as Shennong’s Materia Medica) was written down for the first time. However, the 365 plants categorized within it are said to originate in the knowledge and work of the ancient (possibly mythical) ruler and herbalist Shennong. Other ancient compilations of herbal knowledge can be traced in ancient Indian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian traditions. The Greeks and Romans created some of the most influential herbal texts—although the originals do not survive. Their knowledge was preserved in the medieval manuscripts of the Byzantines, the Islamic lands, and even Dark Age Europe.
The ancients were very interested in medicine as part of natural history. For example, Pliny the Elder wrote
In the industrial age, growing herbs for medicinal uses became increasingly less critical to everyday life. Modern pharmacology—while greatly in debt to botanical knowledge—meant that medical textbooks replaced illustrated herbals. However, the herbal text has never vanished into complete disuse. Gardening as a hobby has produced useful guides to diverse flora. Modern herbalists and those who use traditional medicines still turn to the healing properties of plants. While the elaborately illustrated manuscripts of medieval days have morphed into guides filled with photographs, the fascination with the uses of plants remains fundamental.
Explore a few famous examples of herbals from different eras.
The Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius
Among the ancient texts turned medieval lore is the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius. The text is thought to be a 4th-century synthesis of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and the Greek Discorides’s De Materia Medica. The earliest manuscript dates to the 6th century and is lavishly illustrated. However, countless copies were made of the text through the 14th century and beyond. The work was even translated into Old English, proving the spread of knowledge from Latin to local vernacular. The authorship of this important work remains shrouded in mystery. While originally attributed to the Roman thinker Apuleius of Madaura, this has long been thought to be a copy-cat attribution. Explore this
The English Physitian
The 17th century was an important time for medicine and scientific advancement.
Based on Galenic humoral theories and the association between astrology and herbs, Culpeper’s advice would eventually be known as the Complete Herbal. His herbal would influence the development of medicine across the expanding British Empire. You can read his
The Ebers Papyrus
Named for its 19th-century European owner Georg Ebers, the Ebers Papyrus is one of the oldest medical treatises in the world. It is quite extensive; the scroll measures over 20 meters long. Although not fully decoded, its hundreds of useful recipes include many herbal ingredients. While the herbs are not listed as in a classic herbal, the text is an early
And many more…
The above examples of herbals are just a few of the texts to be found in museums around the world. From papyri to printed manuscripts, the herbals of yesteryear have informed the medical developments that save lives today. To explore more herbals, check out this