History of herbalism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The history of herbalism is closely tied with the history of medicine from prehistoric times up until the development of the germ theory of disease in the 19th century. Modern medicine from the 19th century to today has been based on evidence gathered using the scientific method. Evidence-based use of pharmaceutical drugs has largely replaced herbal treatments in modern health care. However, many people continue to employ various forms of traditional or alternative medicine. These systems often have a significant herbal component. The history of herbalism also overlaps with food history, as many of the herbs and spices historically used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds,[1][2] and use of spices with antimicrobial activity in cooking is part of an ancient response to the threat of food-borne pathogens.[3]


The use of plants as medicines predates written human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans were using medicinal plants during the Paleolithic, approximately 60,000 years ago. (Furthermore, other non-human primates are also known to ingest medicinal plants to treat illness)[4] Plant samples gathered from prehistoric burial sites support the claim that Paleolithic peoples had knowledge of herbal medicine. For instance, a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site, "Shanidar IV", in northern Iraq has yielded large amounts of pollen from 8 plant species, 7 of which are used now as herbal remedies.[5] Medicinal herbs were found in the personal effects of Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was frozen in the Ötztal Alps for more than 5,000 years. These herbs appear to have been used to treat the parasites found in his intestines.[citation needed]

Ancient history[edit]

The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE) from Ancient Egypt has a prescription for Cannabis sativa (marijuana) applied topically for inflammation.

In Mesopotamia, the written study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who created clay tablets with lists of hundreds of medicinal plants (such as myrrh and opium).[6]

In Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus around 1500 BC, which contains information on over 850 plant medicines, including garlic, juniper, cannabis, castor bean, aloe, and mandrake.[6] Herbs used by Egyptian healers were mostly indigenous in origin, although some were imported from other regions like Lebanon. Other than papyri, evidence of herbal medicine has also been found in tomb illustrations or jars containing traces of herbs.[7]

In India, Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 1900 BC.[8] Earliest Sanskrit writings such as the Rig Veda, and Atharva Veda are some of the earliest available documents detailing the medical knowledge that formed the basis of the Ayurveda system.[6] Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were later described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charaka and Sushruta during the 1st millennium BC. The Sushruta Samhita attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.[9]

In China, seeds likely used for herbalism have also been found in the archaeological sites of Bronze Age China dating from the Shang Dynasty.[10] The mythological Chinese emperor Shennong is said to have written the first Chinese pharmacopoeia, the "Shennong Ben Cao Jing". The "Shennong Ben Cao Jing" lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses - including Ephedra (the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine), hemp, and chaulmoogra (one of the first effective treatments for leprosy).[11] Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th-century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.[12]

The earliest known Greek herbals were those of Diocles of Carystus, written during the 3rd century B.C, and one by Krateuas from the 1st century B.C. Only a few fragments of these works have survived intact, but from what remains scholars have noted that there is a large amount of overlap with the Egyptian herbals.[13] Greek and Roman medicinal practices, as preserved in the writings of Hippocrates (e.g. De herbis et curis) and - especially - Galen (e.g. Therapeutics), provided the pattern for later western medicine.[14] Sometime between 50 and 68 A.D., a Greek physician known as Pedanius Dioscorides wrote Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (commonly known by its Latin title De Materia Medica), a compendium of more than 600 plants, 35 animal products, and ninety minerals. De Materia Medica remained the authoritative reference of herbalism into the 17th century.[15] Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum, written in the 4th century BC, which was the first systematization of the botanical world.[16][17]

Middle Ages[edit]

Benedictine monasteries were the primary source of medical knowledge in Europe and England during the Early Middle Ages. However, most of these monastic scholars' efforts were focused on translating and copying ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic works, rather than creating substantial new information and practices.[18][19] Many Greek and Roman writings on medicine, as on other subjects, were preserved by hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries. The monasteries thus tended to become local centers of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens provided the raw materials for simple treatment of common disorders. At the same time, folk medicine in the home and village continued uninterrupted, supporting numerous wandering and settled herbalists. Among these were the "wise-women" and "wise men", who prescribed herbal remedies often along with spells, enchantments, divination and advice. It was not until the late Middle Ages that women and men who were knowledgeable in herb lore became the targets of the witch hysteria. One of the most famous women in the herbal tradition was Hildegard of Bingen. A 12th-century Benedictine nun, she wrote a medical text called Causae et Curae.[20][21]

DioscoridesMateria Medica, c. 1334 copy in Arabic, describes medicinal features of cumin and dill.

Translation of Herbals[edit]

During the Middle Ages the study of plants began to be based on critical observations. “In the 16th and 17th century an interest in botany revived in Europe and spread to America by way of European conquest and colonization.” [22] Philosophers started to act as herbalists and academic professors studied plants with 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 sketched plants. Many became experts in identifying and describing plants according to their morphology and habitats, as well as their usefulness. These books included beautiful drawings and paintings of plants as well as their uses.

At that time both botany and the art of gardening stressed the utility of plants for man; the popular herbal, described the medical uses of plants.[22] During the Middle Ages there was an expansion of book culture that spread through the medieval world. The phenomenon of translation is well documented, from its beginnings as a scholarly endeavor in Baghdad as early as the eighth century to its expansion throughout European Mediterranean centers of scholarship by the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[23] The process of translation is collaborative effort, requiring a variety of people to translate and add to them. However how the Middle Ages viewed nature seems to be a mystery.

Translation of text and image has provided numerous versions and compilations of individual manuscripts from diverse sources, old and new. Translation is a dynamic process as well as a scholarly endeavor that contributed great to science in the Middle Ages; the process naturally entailed continuous revisions and additions.[23] The Benedictine monasteries were known for their in depth knowledge of herbals. These gardens grew the herbs which were considered to be useful for the treatment of the various human ills; the beginnings of modern medical education can be connected with monastic influence.[24] 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 plant's principle use was for remedies.[25] Herbals were structured by the names of the plants, identifying features, medicinal parts of plant, therapeutic properties, and some included instructions on how to prepare and use. For medical use of herbals to be effective a manual was developed. Dioscorides’ De material medica was a significant herbal designed for practical purposes.[25]

Theophrastus wrote more than 200 papers describing the characteristics of over 500 plants. He developed a classification system for plants based on their morphology such as their form and structure.[24] He described in detail 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 has been referred to as the “grandfather of botany."[24] Crateuas was the first to produce a pharm logical book for medicinal plants, his book influenced medicine for many centuries.[24] A Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides described over 600 different kinds of plants and describes their useful qualities for herbal medicine, his illustration 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.[26] These illustrations were of no use to everyday individuals, they were intended to be complex and for people with prior knowledge and understanding of herbal. The usefulness of these herbals have been questioned because they appear to be unrealistic and several plants are depicted claiming to cure the same condition, “the modern world does not like such impression."[26] 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 and also local needs this may be why none of the collection of remedies we have presently agrees fully with another.[26]

Another form of translation was oral transmission; this was used to pass medical knowledge from generation to generation. A common misconception is that one can know early medieval medicine simply by identifying texts, but it hard to compose a clear understanding of herbals without prior knowledge.[26] There are many factors that played in influenced in the translation of these herbals, the act of writing or illustrating was just a small piece of the puzzle, these remedies stems from many previous translations the incorporated knowledge from a variety of influences.

Early modern era[edit]

The 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries were the great age of herbals, many of them available for the first time in English and other languages rather than Latin or Greek.

The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous Grete Herball of 1526. The two best-known herbals in English were The Herball or General History of Plants (1597) by John Gerard and The English Physician Enlarged (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper. Gerard’s text was basically a pirated translation of a book by the Belgian herbalist Dodoens and his illustrations came from a German botanical work. The original edition contained many errors due to faulty matching of the two parts. Culpepper’s blend of traditional medicine with astrology, magic, and folklore was ridiculed by the physicians of his day, yet his book - like Gerard’s and other herbals - enjoyed phenomenal popularity. The Age of Exploration and the Columbian Exchange introduced new medicinal plants to Europe. The Badianus Manuscript was an illustrated Mexican herbal written in Nahuatl and Latin in the 16th century.[27]

The second millennium, however, also saw the beginning of a slow erosion of the pre-eminent position held by plants as sources of therapeutic effects. This began with the Black Death, which the then dominant Four Element medical system proved powerless to stop. A century later, Paracelsus introduced the use of active chemical drugs (like arsenic, copper sulfate, iron, mercury, and sulfur).

The formalization of pharmacology in the 19th Century lead to greater understanding of the specific actions drugs have on the body.

Traditional herbalism has been officially regarded as a method of alternative medicine in the United States since the Flexner Report of 1910 led to the closing of the eclectic medical schools where botanical medicine was exclusively practiced.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tapsell LC, Hemphill I, Cobiac L, et al. (August 2006). "Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, the present, the future". Med. J. Aust. 185 (4 Suppl): S4–24. PMID 17022438. 
  2. ^ Lai PK, Roy J (June 2004). "Antimicrobial and chemopreventive properties of herbs and spices". Curr. Med. Chem. 11 (11): 1451–60. doi:10.2174/0929867043365107. PMID 15180577. 
  3. ^ Billing, Jennifer; Sherman, PW (March 1998). "Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot". Q Rev Biol. 73 (1): 3–49. doi:10.1086/420058. PMID 9586227. 
  4. ^ Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 16. ISBN 0-88192-483-0. 
  5. ^ Solecki, Ralph S. (November 1975). "Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Flower Burial in Northern Iraq". Science 190 (4217): 880–881. doi:10.1126/science.190.4217.880. ).
  6. ^ a b c Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-88192-483-0. 
  7. ^ Nunn, John (2002). Ancient Egyptian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8061-3504-5. 
  8. ^ Aggarwal BB, Sundaram C, Malani N, Ichikawa H (2007). "Curcumin: the Indian solid gold". Adv. Exp. Med. Biol. ADVANCES IN EXPERIMENTAL MEDICINE AND BIOLOGY 595: 1–75. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-46401-5_1. ISBN 978-0-387-46400-8. PMID 17569205. 
  9. ^ Girish Dwivedi, Shridhar Dwivedi (2007). History of Medicine: Sushruta – the Clinician – Teacher par Excellence (PDF). National Informatics Centre. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  10. ^ Hong, Francis (2004). "History of Medicine in China". McGill Journal of Medicine 8 (1): 7984. 
  11. ^ Sumner, Judith (2000). The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Timber Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-88192-483-0. 
  12. ^ Wu, Jing-Nuan (2005). An Illustrated Chinese Materia Medica. Oxford University Press. p. 6. ISBN 9780195140170. 
  13. ^ Robson, Barry & Baek, O.K. (2009). The Engines of Hippocrates: From the Dawn of Medicine to Medical and Pharmaceutical Informatics. John Wiley & Sons. p. 50. ISBN 9780470289532. 
  14. ^ Loudon, Irvine (2002). Western Medicine: An Illustrated History. Oxford University Press. p. 54. ISBN 9780199248131. 
  15. ^ Collins, Minta (2000). Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions. University of Toronto Press. p. 32. ISBN 9780802083135. 
  16. ^ Public Domain One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Theophrastus". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  17. ^ Grene, Marjorie (2004). The philosophy of biology: an episodic history (1). Cambridge University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-521-64380-1. 
  18. ^ Arsdall, Anne V. (2002). Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Psychology Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 9780415938495. 
  19. ^ Mills, Frank A. (2000). "Botany". In Johnston, William M. Encyclopedia of Monasticism: M-Z. Taylor & Francis. p. 179. ISBN 9781579580902. 
  20. ^ Ramos-e-Silva, Marcia. "Saint Hildegard Von Bingen (1098–1179): “The Light Of Her People And Of Her Time”." International Journal Of Dermatology 38.4 (1999): 315-320. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
  21. ^ Truitt, Elly R. "The Virtues Of Balm In Late Medieval Literature." Early Science & Medicine 14.6 (2009): 711-736. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
  22. ^ a b Moore, R. (1998). Botany (2nd ed.). New York: WCB/McGraw-Hill
  23. ^ a b Hoffman, E. R. (2012). Translating Image and Text in the Medieval Mediterranean World between the Tenth and Thirteenth Centuries. Medieval Encounters, 18(4/5), 584-623. doi:10.1163/15700674-12342120
  24. ^ a b c d Krebs R. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, And Discoveries Of The Middle Ages And The Renaissance [e-book]. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; 2004. Available from: eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 30, 2014.
  25. ^ a b Lindberg, D. C. (2007). The beginnings of Western science: the European scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and institutional context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  26. ^ a b c d Arsdall, A. (2002). Medieval herbal remedies: the Old English herbarium and Anglo-Saxon medicine. New York: Routledge.
  27. ^ Gimmel, Millie. "Reading Medicine In The Codex De La Cruz Badiano." Journal Of The History Of Ideas 69.2 (2008): 169-192. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
  • Arsdall, A (2002). Medieval herbal remedies: the Old English herbarium and Anglo-Saxon medicine. 
  • Hoffman, E.R. (2012). "Translating Image and Text in the Medieval Mediterranean World between the Tenth and Thirteenth Centuries. Medieval Encounters". pp. 584–623. 
  • Krebbs (2004). "Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, And Discoveries Of The Middle Ages And The Renaissance". EBSCOhost. 
  • Lindberg, D.C. (2007). The beginnings of Western science: the European scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and institutional context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. University of Chicago Press. 
  • Moore, R (1998). Botany (2nd ed.). New York.