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A Quick History of Herbal Medicine
For thousands of years, herbs have been used as scents, foods, flavorings, medicines, disinfectants, even as currency. Here we give just a few highlights in the history of herbalism.
The Earliest Uses
There's no way of knowing precisely how the earliest cultures used herbs, but they had thousands of years to experiment. Early cultures probably recognized that certain herbs had curative powers, and it's likely these curative powers were attributed to supernatural causes. A 60,000-year-old burial site in Iraq contained evidence of eight different medicinal plants, probably intended to be taken along in the afterlife. Naturally, medicinal herbs remained steeped in magic and superstition for millennia.
Herbs in Ancient Civilizations
By 3500 B.C., the Ancient Egyptians began to associate less magic with the treatment of disease, and by 2700 B.C., the Chinese started to use herbs in a more scientific sense. Borrowing from the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Greek physician Hippocrates (460 - 377 B.C.), founder of the Hippocratic oath, developed a system of diagnosis and prognosis using herbs. He considered illness a natural, not supernatural, phenomenon and maintained that medicine should be given without magic. In 77 A.D., Pliny the Elder wrote 37 volumes on natural history, and devoted seven of them to the medicinal uses of plants. Unfortunately, Pliny verified little of what he wrote and much of his work is of questionable value today.
Ancient physician Galen (131 - 201 A.D.) developed the principle of humors, linking body type with health and personality. For the next 1,400 years, physicians would trust in Galen's principles for better or worse, often using them as the basis for purgatives and bloodletting. In the 16th century, however, one physician would break ranks with the Galenic school to propose his own somewhat strange idea known as the Doctrine of Signatures. Paracelsus (1493 - 1541 A.D.) would reject humors and instead argue that botanicals bear an uncanny resemblance to the body parts, or causes of the ailments, they could cure.
Herbs in Medieval Europe
The progress of science and the understanding of plants nearly collapsed with the fall of the Roman Empire. The early Middle Ages saw a return to the ritual and superstition that surrounded herbs, as the learning of the ancients was preserved mostly in monasteries and the Arabic cultures. Some herbs were positively reviled in Medieval Europe. A common Medieval belief held that scorpions bred beneath Basil pots, and inhaling the Basil's scent would drive a scorpion into the brain. Medieval herbalism had two problems. First, much of the learning of the ancients was lost to the population at large (if it had ever been available in the first place). Second, Medieval scholarship trusted ancient beliefs with no emphasis on experimentation that could lead to new discoveries. Yet many people in the Middle Ages possessed a sophisticated knowledge of medicinal herbs, as evidenced by archaeological finds. Throughout Europe, serfs and townspeople could make use of local herbs to flavor foods, but Medieval lords often purchased much more expensive spices from the East. During the Middle Ages, paradise was believed to be a physical place on Earth, and spices such as cinnamon and pepper were reputed to grow in close proximity to it, making them important status symbols on the Medieval table.
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, trade with other civilizations increased, and so did the knowledge of medicinal herbs. In fact, the "discovery" of the New World was fueled by a quest for herbs and spices — Columbus was seeking a quicker, cheaper route to India in 1492. During the Renaissance, nobles of Europe aspired to assemble all human knowledge in their private libraries, and all useful botanicals in their gardens. Some of these nobles commissioned artists to produce beautiful, if not always accurate, catalogs of their collections. Meanwhile, universities teaching botany and herbalism planted "physic" gardens in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sadly, the exchange of plants in this new garden culture had a darker side: when European colonists planted gardens in newly discovered lands, some of their favorite botanicals became weeds, choking out the native vegetation.
Herbalism, Botany and Medicine
In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper published a comprehensive herbal, The English Physitian. In it, he systematically cataloged all the known herbal remedies of England. Dedicating his efforts to the common people, Culpeper showed them how they could rely on their own herbal remedies rather than the expensive concoctions of doctors. Needless to say, some doctors of his day didn't admire him for this.
For centuries, herbalism — and botany in general — suffered from problems of confusion. A single plant could be given many names, and likewise the same name might be given to several different plants. In the early 18th century, Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, better known as Linnaeus, developed the system of binomial nomenclature, giving a unique Latin name every known species. This better classified plants, but also spearheaded a division between botany and herbalism. Up to this time, scholars had discovered and examined plants with an eye toward how those plants could be useful. The Linnaean system placed a greater emphasis on cataloging plants without regard for their usefulness.
Western medicine eventually turned away from herbalism in favor of chemical cures and the isolation of active ingredients in botanicals. In some parts of the Western world, herbalism was actually outlawed when not practiced by a doctor with conventional medical training.
Herbalism has a long history in Western civilization, but what about other cultures? Herbalism is by no means unique to the West. Chinese herbalism is widely regarded as the oldest because it has the longest unbroken recorded history. Likewise, Ayurvedic medicine, rooted in ancient Hindu practices, persists to this day. Long before their contact with the West, Native Americans used Ginseng, Goldenseal, Black Cohosh and Cat's Claw, among others. Many people are surprised to learn that the "primitive" indigenous cultures often outshone the Europeans in pursuing healthy lifestyles. Considering the growth of learning and influx of new medicinal plants between the 12th and 18th centuries, it would make sense that the Europeans would have enjoyed unprecedented improvement in health, but in truth the opposite happened. Europeans lived in overcrowded towns with open sewers and no hygiene. Before the arrival of Columbus, Native Americans actually lived longer, healthier lives than their European contemporaries.
With the germ theory of disease and the advent of antibiotics to combat infections, it appeared for a time as if infectious diseases were a thing of the past, but that has not happened. With the realization that chemical medicines are not always "magic bullets" and sometimes carry serious side effects, herbalism and ancient medicines are making a comeback. Our challenge now is to ensure valued botanicals remain abundant for future generations.
Copyright © 1998 The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs