Reconnecting with our Herbal Roots and Musings on 17th Century Herbal Medicine

Freshly gathered herbs to make herbal medicines

Freshly gathered herbs to make herbal medicines

When I first set up my herbal clinic my bank manager came to see me.  We chatted over a cup of herbal tea and she admired my shelves of tinctures and drawers of capsules.  I was surprised though when she said to me: ‘But do herbs really work Lucy?’

I was amazed that such an intelligent and educated person could have so little understanding of herbal medicine.  Herbal medicine is the oldest and most widely used form of medicine in the world.  Eighty percent of the world’s population, largely in developing countries, relies on plant derived medicines for their primary health care.  Herbs for them are affordable, effective and part of their cultural heritage.

Why is it then that in the developed West we have relegated herbs to at best a quaint alternative medicine and at worst a form of treatment that is to be mistrusted and feared?  Is this ‘disconnect’ part of the wider desire of society to consume things which are more refined, more complicated, more expensive and more ‘sophisticated’?  

Over and over again we can see how it is in our human nature to be attracted by the novel and the convenient.  We want the latest drug, something that will take away our symptoms quickly and easily without the hassle of making awkward lifestyle or dietary changes.  

17th Century physician taking a patient's pulse

17th Century physician taking a patient’s pulse

I think that our disconnection with herbal medicine started to become evident back in the 17th Century. At that time there had developed three main avenues of obtaining health care.  You could have tooth extractions, amputations or bone setting carried out by the highly skilled barber surgeons.   Then you had the highly educated Physicians who knew about the humours, pulse diagnosis and astrological charts.  They used blood letting and purges to produce dramatic effects on the body and had access to the most modern drugs, for example mercury and antimony.  Physicians would create highly complicated formulae full of expensive and exotic ingredients which patients would obtain from the Apothecaries.

Apothecaries had wonderful shops full of herbs and spices  and also some of the new exotic non plant medicines.  They were not allowed to formulate their own prescriptions for patients until the end of the 17th century so they needed to Physicians to prescribe drugs in order that they could make a living.  It was from this time that doctoring became synonymous with drugging and the health care system revolved around ‘fixing’ ill health rather than staying well.

But what about the common people?  They couldn’t afford Physicians, and in fact may have been wise to avoid them.  If you lived in a rural area you could gather and preserve all the medicines that you needed.  In the towns you could buy fresh herbs from the physical herb women in Newgate Market or Covent Garden, scurvy grass by the basket and violets by the pint.  Fresh herbs were a halfpenny a handful and roots were a groat for a pound.   The only problem was if you didn’t know how to use them you were stuck.

Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper

At this point we have a herbal hero of mine, Nicholas Culpeper, to thank for helping the common people understand how to gather and use herbs.  He studied medicine at Cambridge University and was an accomplished student but dropped out of college when his fiancé was struck my lightning.  In his grief and despair he devoted himself to making medicinal knowledge available more widely, translating the London Pharmacopoea into English from Latin and writing ‘The English Physician’ .

Many women at that time would have relied on books and scrap books of herbal remedies to treat their families and neighbours.  Here is a formula from Gervase Markham’s ‘The English Housewife’ :

“To cure the worst bloody flux that may be, take a quart of red wine, and a spoonful of cumin seed, boyl them together until half be consumed, then take knot grass, and Shepherd’s Purse and Plaintaine and stamp them severall, and then strain them and take the juice of each, a good spoonful, and put them to the wine, and so seeth them again a little, then drink it luke warm, half over night and half next morning.”

The above prescription is a combination of astringent and styptic herbs together with a carminative (Cumin) to ease the griping and a demulcent (Plantain) to soothe the inflammation.  It’s well balanced and must have been very effective.

Somewhere along the way though, we started to lose this grass roots herbal knowledge and rely more and more on the Physicians whose trade revolved around ‘curing illness’ rather than ‘promoting wellness’. We lost the ability to promote good health through timely adjustments to diet and lifestyle, ‘nipping’ potential health conditions in the bud.  In leaving them to become deeper and more well established in the body they become more complicated to treat and less suited to self medication.

I find this very sad.  I would love to see our herbal heritage reawakened and continued.  I would love more people to be able to recognise the plants growing around them and understand how they can help us.  I would love everyday herbal knowledge to be passed down once again between parents and children.  Over all I would love more people to experience true and vibrant good health.

I think that the first step in reconnecting us with our herbal roots, and leaves and flowers for that matter, is to encourage more people to use herbs for everyday family health conditions.  That’s why I’m so excited to see how my Herb Share Scheme is growing and why I love to teach people about herbal foraging each summer.  

If you would like to reconnect with your herbal roots then have a look at my website and check out the sections on Herb Share and Courses.  www.myrobalanclinic.com 

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About myrobalanclinic

I am a registered medical herbalist who uses a unique approach combining Tibetan Medicine with Western Herbal Medicine. I love my job - it is so rewarding seeing people taking control of their health and feeling healthier and more positive. I like to think that I help people get more out of life.
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