East and the West
the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the center
of learning shifted to the East in Constantinople and Persia.
The most influential Arab text of the time was The Canon
of Medicine by Avicenna. It was based on Galen's principles,
and by the 12th century had been translated into Latin and brought
back to the West to become one of the leading texts in Western
the Middle Ages, the Church copied faithfully Galen's and Dioscorides'
texts. Monks cultivated "physic gardens" and introduced new
herbs. Medicinal knowledge spread beyond the cloister and became
part of folk medicine and herbal remedies passed on through
the generations. The Saxon herbal, The Leech Book of Bald,
which dates from the first half of the 10th century, includes
remedies and treatments and lots of superstition. Herbs of common
use internally, or that were worn as amulets to ward off evil
or disease at the time, were wood betony, vervain, mugwort,
plantain, and yarrow. Healing was as much a matter of prayer
the 1530's, Paracelsus was revolutionizing European attitudes
toward health care. Condemning the complex and often fatal purgatives
prescribed by crooked physicians, he advocated a return to simpler
medicine inspired by the Doctrine of Signatures. This doctrine
maintained that the outward appearance of a plant gave an indication
of the ailments it would cure. At times, the theory was surprisingly
accurate. Today, some herbal books still refer to the Doctrine
of Signatures when giving background information about the herbs
they are describing. Examples: the leaves of lungwort were said
to resemble diseased lungs, so the plant was used for bronchitis
and tuberculosis. Yellow flowering plants were like jaundice
and so were used for liver problems. (Dandelion is still used
to improve liver function). Nutmeg and walnuts were compared
to the brain and thought helpful for strengthening mental ability.
Age of Herbals
It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that the herbals of Gerard,
Parkinson, and Culpepper were written. An herbal is a book that
describes plants and shows how to use them. During the time
when doctors were as scarce as they were expensive, the herbal
held an important place, second only to the Bible, in the literate
household. In 1597, John Gerard, an eminent Elizabethan herbalist,
published The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants.
He had come upon an unfinished translation of an herbal entitled
Cruydboedk written by Dodoens. The translator, Dr. Priest,
had died before completing the translation from Latin to English.
Gerard cribbed Dr. Priest's work, altering the arrangement of
the herbs, adding his own comments, while describing the rare
exotics he had growing in his own garden (he was an avid gardener
and grew over 1,000 species), along with English flora and botanico-medical
lore and his own remedies. After Gerard died in 1612, this work
was revised by Thomas Johnson who corrected much of Gerard's
misinformation, enlarged the output to cover 2,850 plants, and
illustrated it with woodcuts from the most prestigious botanical
publisher of the day. This text is still in print today.
Parkinson, who called himself the "Apothecary of London and
the King's Herbarist", wrote Theatrum Botanicum. It was
as much a gardening book as an herbal and covered 3,800 plants,
the largest work of its type in English. It groups plants into
17 categories including "Venomous Sleepy and Hurtfull plants
and their counter poisons," "Hot and sharpe biting Plants,"
"The Unordered Tribe," and "Strange and outlandish plants."
Like Gerard, some of his work perpetuates follies that seem
quite amusing now. On the title page was an illustration of
a small plant that existed only in the mind. This fantastic
plant called a "vegetable lamb" bore a fruit that looked like
a lamb which grazed on the grass around it and then died. In
spite of this, his work is distinctive and comprehensive .