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Herbs in European History

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A textbook-style illustration of a herb.

Herbs are an important part of human existence. Used for food from prehistoric times, for medicines and as beauty aids, they have been bartered and traded throughout the world for centuries. From Roman gardens, to monastery, apothecary and physic gardens, herbs have been grown in Britain by generations of cooks and healers. Culinary herbs are mentioned in the Bible and modern medicine is based upon ancient understanding of the properties of herbs and their benefits to humans.

Ancient Uses of Herbs

The citizens of Sybaris slept on beds of fresh rose petals 2,000 years ago. In ancient Athens, violets were worn in wreaths to ward off drunkenness. At public baths Athenians were rubbed with herbs and herb oils to enhance their strength and courage.

Bugle Ajuga reptans
'Being beaten small with figs and given like a pill it mollifies ye belly'

The Romans perfumed their baths with lavender1. Roses were used in salads as well as in marriage beds. Carnations had culinary and brewing uses. It was Roman cooks who created mint sauce2 and other herb sauces to accompany meat dishes, primarily to disguise the taste of old and rancid meat.

Madonna lily Lilium candidum
'It cleareth ye faces and makes them without wrinkles'

Romans developed the first formal and elaborate herb gardens as part of their villa complexes. In Britain, they were planting herbs native to these islands, as well as others brought with them from around the Roman Empire. Their knowledge and expertise in the use of these plants was passed on to the British.

Elder Sambucus nigra
'It softens ye Matrix3 and opens ye passages'

Post-Roman Britain

Little is known about herb cultivation after the Romans left Britain until religious records were kept - and have survived. Monks were growing and writing about herb cultivation elsewhere in Europe from the 8th Century and there is evidence from the 9th Century of herbs being grown in church grounds in England. This is a time when healing was sought from religious establishments.

The growth in monasteries in Britain following the Norman Conquest in 1066 resulted in the development of true medicinal herb, or infirmary, gardens. Monks were, by and large, well educated and tended to have access to trading travellers and pilgrims, who moved between monasteries. Thus a new trade in herbs built up, as did an exchange in knowledge and expertise in the medicinal and culinary use of herbs.

Guelder rose Viburnum opulus
'Used as a sedative in the treatment of cramp, particularly uterine dysfunctions'

The infirmary gardens of monasteries were formally laid out and consisted of a series of raised rectangular beds, with walkways between them. These later became the models for knot gardens in Tudor England4.

Dogs tooth violet Erythronium denscanis
'It provoketh bodily lust if it be only handled, but much more if it be drunke with wine'

Exploration and Books

In the 16th Century, as new lands were discovered by European explorers in the Americas and the Far East, ships returned to Britain carrying new exotic species of medicinal and culinary plants. The cultivation of herbs became increasingly popular, reflected by the publication of two famous herbals5. John Gerard published his Herbal in 1593 and this was followed in 1660 by Culpepper's Herbal, which is still used today.

Box elder Acer negundo
'Used by the Ojibwa and Meskwaki Indians as an emetic6'

It was in the early 17th Century that 'The Doctrine of Signatures' was introduced as a method of recognising the medicinal benefits of herbs. It was a spiritual philosophy created by Jacob Boehme, which was then applied to medicine and promoted by Paracelsus. Basically, the Doctrine states that you can identify the beneficial use of a herb from careful study of its form or where it grows. At a time when most of the world was illiterate, this was a good way to teach students and apprentices how to observe and utilise herbs. For example, because Lung wort, Pulmonaria officinalis, has spots on the leaves, it was related to pulmonary complaints. Plants with yellow parts, such as Goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea, were believed to cure jaundice, because of their colour.

Physic gardens, which grew herbs specifically for medicinal and educational purposes, were being developed in Europe in the 16th Century and by 1621, the first was created in Britain; the Chelsea Physic Garden. In 1670, a physic garden was opened in Edinburgh, adjacent to the medical school. These were the first medicinal herb gardens to be developed outside of monasteries and physicians began to lecture formally on the healing properties of herbs for the first time. Herbal alchemy was born. Apothecary shops opened in towns in Britain, selling all sorts of herbs, both fresh and dried and a wide range of herbal products, such as mint water and syrup of figs.

Periwinkle Vinca major
'A handful of leaves stamped and the juice given to drink in red wine, stoppeth the spitting of blood'

Herbs in the Industrial World

The 18th Century witnessed great movements of people, both within and beyond Britain. Those that moved from countryside to town within the country no longer had access to familiar fresh herbs. As a result the apothecary shops flourished. Immigrants from Britain to the colonies took with them their knowledge of herbs, as well as actual seeds, cuttings and entire plants.

Hydrangea Hydrangea arborescens
'A decoction7 of the roots and other materials is given to women who have unusual dreams'

In the Victorian era, herbs continued to be crucial to flavour food8 and to heal ills, but as technological advances were made in artificial flavourings and medicines into the 20th Century, interest in - and knowledge of - herbal usage declined. The current upsurge in alternative medicines and 'real' food has resulted in a new market for herbs, herbals and physic gardens.

Virginian witchhazel Hamamelis virginiana
'The properties of the leaves and bark are similar, astringent, tonic, sedative, internal and external haemorrhage, treatment of piles, bruises and inflammatory swellings.'

Herbs Today

The Chelsea Physic Garden continues to thrive and develop and is open to visitors. Herbals by Culpepper, William Turner and Mrs Grieves are all still available9. There are numerous books about the growing and use of herbs in the modern garden and kitchen so why not get out there and grow a few?

1The word 'lavender' derives from the Latin lavare to wash.2Chopped mint, sugar and white wine vinegar.3Womb.4Although these did not necessarily have primarily medicinal purposes.5Books which describe herbs, their cultivation, harvest and usage.6Causes vomiting.7A concentration, or extraction of the essence.8Which could be rancid, due to lack of refrigeration and therefore required flavouring.9And from which the plant notes in this entry were taken.

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