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British herbalism

'The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants', book, London, England, 1633

'The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants', book, London, England, 1633

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One of the oldest traditions in medicine is herbalism or botanical medicine. The Egyptians used herbs such as myrrh and garlic as medicine over 3000 years ago. Indigenous healers worldwide, from those in Native American tribes to practitioners of Australian Aboriginal bush medicine, have used herbal medicines for thousands of years. Their knowledge has been useful in developing modern drugs.

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Herbalism in Britain

In Britain, the herbal tradition can be traced back over a thousand years. The British Library in London owns an ancient ‘leech book’ (a medical reference book) with herb recipes to prevent diseases. It is thought to have belonged to a Worcester physician called Bald, who probably lived in the 800s CE.

The tradition of herbal medicine was carried on by the Meddygon Myddfai (the so-called physicians of Myddfai).These Welsh healers used simple infusions and poultices made from local herbs to cure patients in Carmarthenshire.

Herbal medicines in the marketplace

Doctors and apothecaries have used herbs in medicine ever since. Medieval lay healers also used herbal knowledge. This was often passed from generation to generation. Most towns or villages had plant and herb experts, who often competed with official university-trained practitioners.

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Nicholas Culpeper was a herbalist, astrologer and pharmacist. He healed London’s poor for free using herbs from the countryside. He also published the first herbal self-help book (The Complete Herbal) in 1653. Culpeper believed anyone should be able to look after his or her own health rather than using expensive doctors.

Herbalism in the 1900s

Interest in herbal remedies in Britain was revived in the 1930s. In 1931, Maud Grieve published A Modern Herbal. This collected her knowledge of herbs and plants used in medicine, cosmetics and cooking.

Herbal medicine still thrives in the UK and worldwide. In the UK herbalists have professional bodies regulating the profession. The National Institute of Medical Herbalists represents over 700 herbal practitioners. It was founded in 1843 as the Medical Reform Association to ensure herbal medical practitioners could practise legally.

Global herbalism today

The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks herbal medicine as the most popular type of traditional medicine in western Europe. In Britain it is even possible to get herbal treatment on the NHS.

Bibliography

S H Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine: Explorations in the practice of indigenous herbalism (Boulder: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1996)

Derek Bryce (ed.), The herbal remedies of the physicians of Myddfai (Lampeter: Llanerch Enterprises, 1987)

B Woolley, The herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom (London: Harper Collins, 2004).

M Grieve, A modern herbal: the medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and economic properties, cultivation and folk-lore of herbs, grasses, fungi, shrubs and trees, with all their modern scientific uses (New York ;London: Hafner Publishing Co., 1931)


A M Young, Antique Medicine Chests: or glister, blister and purge (London: Vernier, 1994)

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