Well-Being: Herbals

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Well-Being: Herbals


Medicinal Plants. For the average person without easy or affordable access to doctors, many cures and preventatives were available through the tradition of the materia medica (medical matters), a survival of the late Roman world. This body of works describes hundreds of plants and their medicinal uses, as well as preventative regimens that were believed to lessen the chances of illness. In monasteries, palaces, and in most towns and villages “herbaria,” or herb gardens, were kept to grow the vegetables, plants, and herbs used for medical treatments. They were generally laid out in a grid fashion, a trend begun by the influential Benedictine monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland during the ninth century. Many of the plants in the herbaria were ornamental as well as medicinal, and all were practical. Lilies not only look and smell good, but their roots were used to treat skin maladies such as ulcers, warts, and corns. Many flowers produced pigments for dyes, inks, and paints, as well as medicines such as purgatives and soporifics. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a German mystic and prioress who organized a school for nurses, grew more than forty kinds of medicinal plants and described some more that could be gathered locally in her two books on simple (found in nature) and compound (manufactured) medicines. Combining basic Galenic medical theories with the lore of European folk medicine and remedies, she interpreted both bodies of knowledge in a theological framework but rarely let her medicine become compromised by overriding moral or religious concerns. Her popular writings, which were copied and recopied throughout the Middle Ages, became some of the earliest printed works by a female writer on science and medicine.

Household Remedies. A type of medieval manuscript created for the management of manors, called a hausbuch (house-book) in German, often contained many recipes for herbal medicines and their uses. Some of the advice—such as the suggestion to take purgatives for what is now called food poisoning;—is sound. Modern analysis of the many birth-control methods and abortifacients has shown many to be quite effective. Other recipes were of dubious use, but probably of little harm, and were nonetheless widely repeated for the inexorable logic behind them. These recipes often relied on what is known as “sympathetic magic,” the belief that the appearance of objects and substances “advertised” their use. Therefore, walnuts were given to cure migraine headaches because the walnut looks like a miniature brain, and turnips were used to treat impotence because of their resemblance to the affected part of the anatomy.

Herbals. The remedies of the materia medica were quite effective, but since they derived from the Roman tradition, as this body of work spread northward, many of the recipes became useless because the ingredients in them did not grow north of the Alps. The many new ingredients that did exist in the region, however, inspired an interest in botany, and, incidentally, mineralogy (as in the work of Albertus Magnus), as scholars attempted to understand the properties and uses of all manner of natural substances. The extended manuals they produced became known collectively as medieval herbals, and—from Spain to Scandinavia and Ireland to Austria—they were widely copied and extracted throughout the Middle Ages. As the tradition spread and grew, it also inspired a need for accurate description and illustration, two hallmarks of the

inductive scientific method. An herbal is not much use if its readers cannot reliably tell one plant from another, and by the fourteenth century, European artists had begun to strive for a more naturalistic depiction of plant life. By the mid fifteenth century, herbals were extremely common, with more and more accurate illustrations, rivaling and often surpassing their ancient exemplars.


Wilfrid Blunt and Sandra Raphael, The Illustrated Herbal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Bodley Herbal and Bestiary, Medieval manuscripts in microform, Major treasures in the Bodleian Library, no. 8 (Oxford: Oxford Microform Publications / Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Sheila Campbell, Bert Hall, and David Klausner, eds. Health, Disease, and Healing in Medieval Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions (London: British Library / Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

Margaret Beam Freeman, Herbs for the Mediaeval Household, for Cooking, Healing and Divers Uses (New York: Metropolitan Musuem of Art, 1971).

Benjamin Lee Gordon, Medieval and Renaissance Medicine (New York: Philosophical Press, 1959).

Monica Helen Green, Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West: Texts and Contexts (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000).

John Hooper Harvey, Mediaeval Gardens (Beaverton, Ore.: Timber Press, 1981).

Stanley Rubin, Medieval English Medicine (Newton Abbot, U.K.: David & Charles, 1974).