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A Brief History of Herbal Medicine

I thought it would be fitting for the first post on this blog to really start at the start, way back in the murky mists of the Dark Ages and beyond…

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I thought it would be fitting for the first post on this blog to really start at the start, way back in the murky mists of the Dark Ages and beyond. Before diving into the wonderful universe of herbal medicine and healing.

I guess you could say that the start is really with the creation of all life because without life, there’s no plants to make medicines with but as I wasn’t there at the time, I can’t comment. I’m sure that whatever your religion or branch of atheism, you have a theory for where it all started so let’s get going!

History of Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicinal tea on a table with herbs
Tea, anyone?

Every ancient culture, be it Chinese, Native American, Greek, Roman, Native American, and even smaller nations like the Picts were all Herbalists. They lived closely with the earth and nature to function and prosper.

The oldest known record of herbs being used for healing comes from Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago.  They were all documented on clay tablets but not much is known about them.

The Egyptians were also into documenting their herbal journey and we have the “Ebers Papyrus” to marvel at. This document is said to have been dated to 1550 BCE but because of our complete lack of understanding of the Egyptian language, we still don’t know all the gems this scroll holds.

When in Rome… And Greece

One of the first people to be credited with bringing more attention to herbal medicine is “The Father of Western Medicine” Hippocrates of Kos. The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of works by Hippocrates and his students.
What makes his work different to anything that came before is the lack of religious rites and rituals. He focuses on the power of the herb and not associating it to a deity, astrological phase or ritual.

Both the Greek and the Roman empires had herbalists traveling with their armies to keep the soldiers in fighting condition. Each herbalist would generally keep an herbal journal listing all the herbs they have encountered, sketches of what they look like and details about their uses.
While a lot of these herbals have been lost, some have managed to survive through the ages. One of the oldest of these is “De Materia Medica” which was written by Dioscórides between 50-70 C.E and is stretched over 5 volumes.

After the classics, the church got involved and monks started to reproduce these works. Churches began to be the center of medical care as these herbals were over the head of most everyday people, who’s education was basic at best. The monks started to use these remedies for themselves and for the local populace, but they also added their own twists to many of them. Faith healing became the cutting edge of medicinal progression and herbalists started to fall out of favour.

My opinion is that while local herbalists would work for trade; heal a butcher for a gift of sausages, the church wanted cold hard cash for their faith healing, which didn’t work. Because herbalists were popular with the locals and could actually heal people, the church started declaring any healing that wasn’t done by them, “of the devil” or witchcraft.
Just like today, you can buy your way out of purgatory by paying for prayers, the church wanted the people to pay for healing so the best way to get the herbalists out of the way was to lean on very superstitious people’s fear by telling them that herbalists are witches.
Luckily for us, they couldn’t eradicate herbalism from the face of the earth and people still keep secret herbals and pass on verbal knowledge so we can use it today.

Welcome to the early modern age!

Plague doctor picture. The begining of the end of herbal medicine

Since the Dark Ages, there have been many more written records of healing plants in every language. One of the most iconic books that we have access to these days is “The English Physician” by Nicholas Culpeper. This book was written in 1652 and was later renamed to the “Complete Herbal” in 1653 and is a really interesting glimpse into the past. Although it was criticized by his peers because of his inclusion or astrology and magical associations, it was super popular with everyone else.

Over the next few hundred years, herbals played an important part in people’s lives. When the Europeans started to settle in America (18th century), physicians were hard to come by. The savvy explorers took their herbals with them and continued to heal themselves as best they could in a new land.
Luckily for them, the Native Americans shared their knowledge of local plants and their healing arts with them and kept them alive. We can also thank them for giving us Slippery Elm bark and Cohosh.

Over the next century, these new plants and remedies were added to the herbals and passed down the line to us. Herbal medicine was keeping people alive and well in the new world!

The Age of Big Pharma

Pharmacology vs Herbal Medicine

Unfortunately when the early 19th century hit, so did the idea of an organized medical class which came with such great ideas like bloodletting, and giving people mercury.
Pharmacology became the new big thing with the idea of separating “the doctors” from the patients. Because people that had survived this long couldn’t possibly understand how medicine really works, right?

Their idea of medicine was to match the power of the disease with the cure, giving people dangerous doses of purgatives which induced severe vomiting leading to dehydration and other complications that were worse than the original condition.
As an example, from history, President Abraham Lincoln was given mercury which in its self is poisonous and then had a massive amount of bloodletting done. This, no doubt was what killed him.

While herbalism took a serious hit around this time, there was a shining light in the form of Samuel Thompson. He was a very well-respected herbalist of the day and even while people were losing faith in it as an outdated folkloric type of healing, he was still pushing forward with the idea that mercury and bloodletting is a bad idea.

The sad news is that herbalists never reclaimed the spotlight again and as time progressed, so did the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors of the day started to patent their own cures, herbal tinctures became alchemical messes, misdiagnosis was killing more people than curing, but they still managed to convince people that they knew more than these herbal hicks from the sticks.

Eventually bloodletting and poisonous metals were replaced with synthesized versions and things became more controlled and regulated.

Welcome To Today

Here we are in the modern age. The good news is that herbalism and herbal medicine is on the rise. People are becoming way more interested and educated in using herbs for medicine and in their daily lives.
The bad news is that with this rise comes Big Pharma and their lawyers, politicians and their licenses and lots of fat cats wanting to remain on top with their stacks of cash.

The fact that you have found this blog and have read this post (you did read it, didn’t you?) means there is still hope for this great healing art. There are many great modern herbalists and I don’t place myself among them. They are on the front lines, proclaiming the gospel of herbs to the masses, and while you do have to be a bit careful of who you listen to, the majority are very knowledgeable people. One person that I have listened to over the years is Rosalee de la Foret. She is a great herbalist, very knowledgeable and seems to be a very caring soul. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her, but her articles and books seem to come from the heart, the not the wallet.

Now before you think I’m against all doctors and all modern ideas, I’m not. Surgery is much needed and there are some doctors out there who are willing to go against their peers and promote healthy, herbal lifestyles. One guy who is very knowledgeable is Dr Michael Greger who writes eye-opening articles over at nutritionfacts which is a non-profit website he started. He is a great example of a Doctor who isn’t thinking of his wallet and actually care about the patient.

So, there you have it, the brief history of herbal medicine. There is so much to write about, so many rants and so many tragedies that I could fill this blog with just that but really, you’re here for the healing, not a history lesson, right? 😉

While it’s nice to know and acknowledge those who came before, we should look to the future and with that, I invite you to explore more of my blog and immerse yourself in the beautiful world of herbs!

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