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Herbalists in Europe

Plants considered to have useful healing properties are central to all medical traditions. Herbalists focus on the use of products from plants for their cures. Originally this may have meant using local plants, but the range of available plants soon expanded as trade and commerce grew. The Roman author Dioscorides produced the first general ‘herbal’ - a guide to herbs with illustrations and descriptions of the plants themselves. Galen made a distinction between ‘simple’ remedies using one herb and more expensive ‘compound’ medicines which had many different ingredients. In the Middle Ages many herbal remedies were provided by monks and nuns. Most monasteries had ‘physic’ gardens where the most common and useful medical herbs were grown.

European herbalism was influenced first by ingredients from Islamic medicine, especially through texts such as Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine. After the European encounter with the Americas, herbalism was transformed, with new products such as chocolate and tobacco considered medically useful.

With the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, ‘herbals’ became more widely produced. These could be used by people with no special training. Household ‘herbals’ mixed classical recipes with local plant-lore and used cheap local ingredients. In the 1600s Nicholas Culpeper wrote his famous herbal in English rather than Latin, so that anyone could read it.

Herbalists were only granted professional status in Europe in the 1930s. However, modern biomedicine was focused on pharmaceutical drugs, rather than herbs. Herbalism now exists as an alternative medicine, although pharmaceutical companies still explore the medicinal properties of plants. This bioprospecting can be controversial when companies profit from a plant-based product without compensating the people from whose medical tradition it comes.

Bibliography

C Engel, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn From Them (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

N R Farnworth, ‘The role of ethnopharmacology in drug development’, Ciba Found Symp, 154 (1990), pp 2-11

B Griggs, Green Pharmacy. A History of Herbal Medicine (London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1981)

B Inglis, Natural Medicine (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co, 1979)

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (London: Harper Collins, 1997)

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