Doctrine of signatures

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Eyebright was used for eye infections, from the supposed resemblance of the flower to an eye

The doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of Dioscurides and Galen, states that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used by herbalists to treat ailments of that part of the body. A theological justification for this, as stated by botanists like William Coles, was that God would have wanted to show men what plants would be useful for.

Scientists see the doctrine of signatures as superstition.

History[edit]

Paracelsus (1491–1541) developed the concept, writing that 'Nature marks each growth..according to its curative benefit'.[1]

The writings of Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) spread the doctrine of signatures - Böhme suggested that God marked objects with a sign, or "signature", for their purpose.[2] Plants bearing parts that resembled human body-parts, animals, or other objects were thought to have useful relevance to those parts, animals or objects. The "signature" could sometimes also be identified in the environments or specific sites in which plants grew. Böhme's 1621 book The Signature of All Things gave its name to the doctrine.[1]

The botanist William Coles (1626–1662) supposed that God had made 'Herbes for the use of men, and hath given them particular Signatures, whereby a man may read..the use of them.'[1] Coles's The Art of Simpling and Adam in Eden, stated that walnuts were good for curing head ailments because in his opinion, 'they Have the perfect Signatures of the Head'. Regarding Hypericum, he wrote, 'The little holes whereof the leaves of Saint Johns wort are full, doe resemble all the pores of the skin and therefore it is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto.'[2]

A theological justification was made for this philosophy: 'It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided.'[3]

For the late medieval viewer, the natural world was vibrant with images of the Deity: 'as above, so below,' a Hermetic principle expressed as the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm; the principle is rendered sicut in terra. Michel Foucault expressed the wider usage of the doctrine of signatures, which rendered allegory more real and more cogent than it appears to a modern eye:

"Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them." (The Order of Things , p. 17)

Signatures of some plants used in herbalism[edit]

The concept of signatures is reflected in the common names of some plants whose shapes and colors reminded herbalists of the parts of the body where they were thought to do good, as for instance:


Concepts similar to the Doctrine of Signatures may be found in folk or indigenous medicines, and in modern alternative medicines.[citation needed]

In literature[edit]

The phrase "signatures of all things" appears in the beginning of episode 3 in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. The character Stephen Dedalus walking along the beach, thinking to himself "Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot."

Scientific skepticism[edit]

The signatures are described as post hoc attributions and mnemonics,[6] of value only in creating a system for remembering actions attributed to medical herbs. There is no scientific evidence that plant shapes and colors help in the discovery of medical uses of plants.[6]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "Doctrine of Signatures". Science Museum. Retrieved 8 February 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Pearce, J.M.S. (May 16, 2008). "The Doctrine of Signatures" (PDF). European Neurology (karger.com) 60 (1): 51–2. doi:10.1159/000131714. PMID 18520149. Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  3. ^ White, Andrew Dickson (1896). A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Company. p. 38. 
  4. ^ McDougal, Kevin (2013). "Hedge Woundwort". Retrieved 8 February 2014. 
  5. ^ Stern, Kingsley R. Introductory Plant Biology, 5th ed., page 338. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991) ISBN 0-697-09947-4.
  6. ^ a b Bennett, Bradley C. (2007). "Doctrine of Signatures: An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or Dissemination of Knowledge?". Economic Botany 61 (3): 246–255 doi=10.1663/0013–0001. doi:10.1663/0013-0001. ISSN 0013-0001. Retrieved 2008-08-31. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Boehme, Jakob (1651) Signatura Rerum (The Signature of All Things). Gyles Calvert.
--- Translation by J. Ellistone.
  • Buchanan, Scott Milross (1938) The doctrine of signatures: a defense of theory in medicine.
  • Cole, W. (1657) Adam in Eden or Nature's Paradise. J Streater for Nathanial Brooke.
  • Conrad, L.I.; M Neve, V Nutton and R Porter (1995). The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC – 1800 AD. Cambridge University Press.
  • Porter, Roy (1997) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. HarperCollins.