Mankind has been using herbs to heal the body and mind for thousands of years.
There is a huge debate that never stops raging on where it came from and who had it first.
However, it is to those who had the ability to write down what they knew that we have to thank for most of what’s known on the subject, as well as those who passed down such information by word of mouth to allow it to be written down.
The herbals known of in the west, have to thank such cultures as Greek, Romans, Sumerians etc; the list is in-exhaustive.
From Historia Naturalis by Pliny 77AD,
A new Herbal by William Turner AD 1551
The English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper AD 1652
A Botanic Guide to health by Albert Coffin AD 1866
A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve AD1931
The Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman year 2000’s
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means but is enough to give some idea of how herbals have existed during the times when mankind has had the means of writing down the knowledge held previously in the head.
Of course, we have Christian monks to thank for putting this knowledge down in words on paper.
Before this time what was known about healing with herbs was kept in the head of the local wise woman or man of the tribe, and was handed down through the generations from person to person, often with a new herb being tried on the self before declaring it of any use or fit to use on the rest of the tribe.
Experimented on the self
The usual way of doing this was for the wise one of the tribe to take a little of the herb and do what would be termed today as ‘investigative testing’ involving tasting, rubbing, smoking or whatever they thought might be the best way of using it, and trying it out on themselves,
It would either begin to have an effect at a particular strength, or it wouldn’t.
If it proved to be of worth then they would try it out on their ‘patients’.
Pollen analysis indicates that mixed woodland, heather moorland and other plant communities were beginning to be established in Britain by 7500BC, providing trees, shrubs and herbs needed for survival.
The diet of peoples of this time was probably 50-90% plant-based, with around 10-20 core species, but perhaps over 60 different plants being used, this meant that they needed an intimate knowledge of which plants were edible.
It’s conceivable that as a by-product of this knowledge they would have discovered which of these plants were also medicinal.
Seeds of plants found in archaeological excavations in Scotland included –
Fat hen Chenopodium album (goosegrass family, containing oxalic acid which can be toxic, but cooking removes toxins and releases the nutrients in the food. Seeds and leaves are used. Contains Saponins which are toxic to some creatures such as fish, hunting tribes would put large quantities of Fat Hen into streams and lakes to stupefy or kill the fish.
Nettle Urtica urens (rich in iron and vitamin C, the presence of the vitamin C ensures that the iron is properly absorbed, important effect on the kidney and uric acid excretion)
Wild cabbage Brassica oleracea this is common kale seeds leaves eaten raw or cooked. diuretic and laxative)
Common bistort Persicaria bistorta (leaves and rhizomes, Vitamins A & C, Bistort means (twisted twice in Latin referring to its root or rhizome)
Cleavers Galium aparine (goosegrass, eaten as a vegetable, and its roasted seed used as a coffee substitute or the whole dried plant used as a tea. Detoxifying agent, lymphatic cleaner, widely used in herbal medicines.
White deadnettle Lamium album vegetable, young leaves are eaten raw or cooked. Tranquillising, haemostatic action (stops bleeding)
Charlock Brassica rapa (wild mustard,)
Orach Atriplex hymenelytra (spinach-like plant, used cooked or in salads, vitamins and minerals. Herb for sore throats and indigestion.
Roots available which were ground into meal included –
Silverweed Argentina anserine L root is edible as a vegetable, antispasmodic for diarrhoea, also put in shoes to absorb sweat, stops bleeding
Pignut Bunium persicum root is nutty and sweet, a valuable source of protein.
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale leaves eaten in salads or cooked as a vegetable, the root is dried and makes coffee. Fantastic for water retention
Wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa may well have eaten the root cooked, but its juices from stems and leaves can burn, looks like hemlock but the flower is a different colour, wild parsnip flowers are yellow and hemlock are creamy white
Wild carrot Daicis carpta the wild carrot is a direct ancestor of the carrot we know and eat today, it’s the root that was eaten, although it needed to be eaten when young, as just like today’s carrot it becomes woody when left to age.
Sow thistle Sonchus arvensis I have done some research on this one and it seems the one in Scotland that is useful is called Alpine Blue sow thistle. Today it’s rare to find this one, but it’s protected on four sites in the Grampian Mountains of Eastern Scotland. It’s been overgrazed by sheep and deer. The only reference I can find to this is that it’s hugely edible, but I have no idea which bits you eat!!! If anyone finds any reference to this one please let me know. The same goes for medicinal use of this one.
Yellow goatsbeard. Tragopogon dubius Related to Salsify, the root is edible.
For salads and flavourings, they could have chosen from –
Sorrel Rumex acetosa a little like spinach in taste. cooling, appetizer, astringent,
Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella sharp but fruity, a little like vinegar diuretic, refrigerant, good for high fever
Dandelion Taraxacum officinalis tastes bitter, a root used as a coffee, cleansing, diuretic, rich in vitamin D, C, B, iron magnesium and zinc.
Hairy bittercress Cardamine hirsute tastes like rocket
Ramsons Allium ursinum this is wild garlic, tastes like mild garlic aphrodisiac, antiparasitic, antiseptic, carminative, detoxifier, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant,
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare used to flavour desserts, tansy pudding, custards and cakes, strange taste, smells of mothballs. Expels worms, stimulates menstruation
Tansy pudding, Traditionally eaten at Easter to celebrate the end of Lent. Take 7 eggs and leave out two of the whites, and a pint of cream, some tansy, thyme, sweet marjoram, parsley, strawberry leaves. Shred some nutmeg and add a plate of grated white bread. Add it all together and fry until brown or put it in the over until firm. (The recipe book by John Nott 1723)
Mint Mentha longifollia used to flavour meat, vegetables, a stock herb in the cupboard of the cook clears wind, headache, conjunctivitis, stomach bloating, lifting the spirits, mouth sores, toothache.
Lady’s smock Cardamine pratensis tastes like cress, bitter, flowers and leaves are used,
Salad burnet Sanguisorba minor cucumber flavoured leaves
Herb bennet Geum urbanum bitter herb, aids digestion
Juniper berries Juniperus communis L flavouring for sauces, bitter, spicy flavour, used to flavour bread and gin, diuretic, stomachic, carminative in indigestion, diuretic
Seasonally available fruit and nuts included nuts contain fats, protein and essential vitamins, carbohydrates and oils. Fruits are rich in fibre, protein, sugar and vitamins
Of especial use for flavouring drinks were –
Elder Sambucus nigra used to make wine, berries are a valuable source of Vitamin C colds and flu, anti-inflammatory
Gorse Ulex europaeus flowers are sweet-tasting, used like sugar
Sweet woodruff Galium odoratum sweet tasting
Wild thyme Thymus polytrichus tea flavouring, antiseptic, wind and colic,
Lime flowers (linden) Tilia europea tea flavouring anxiety, blood pressure
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria little taste but helps with digestion. Salicylic acid, use as aspirin.
Heather Calluna vulagris the famous heather ale of the picts
Legend – Picts famous Heather Ale -
The Picts were especially renowned for their great strength and remarkable stamina, which made them particularly fearful enemies. It was said in ancient herbal lore that the strong sweet alcoholic drink that the Picts made and drank gave them the spectacular battle skills that made them so feared. The drink of renown was the Heather Ale. The Picts were happy to trade what they made and grew, and although they would trade their heather ale for a huge price they would never ever give away its recipe.
The chief of each clan was the only one who held the recipe and it was passed only from father to son.
Back in ancient times, a chief of a Scottish clan went into battle with a clan of the Picts to gain the recipe for himself. After a huge battle, many of the Picts were captured and tortured but not one of them could give him the famous recipe for Heather Ale. The Scots didn’t know that only the chief and his son knew the recipe and the Scots grew very frustrated at what the Picts would endure without giving away the secret recipe.
Having tortured and killed all the warriors all that was left were the chief and his son. They both made a dash and escaped from the Scots and ran like the wind. Over hills and through the valleys they ran with the Scots in close pursuit. As the sun started to set the old chief started to tyre and the Scots gained ground on the two of them, eventually overtaking the old chief and surrounding both him and his son. “Surrender or die” was the order, to which the chieftain and his son threw down their weaponry, and waited.
“We want to know the secret of the Heather Ale, and if you don’t tell us we will kill you both.” Said the chief of the Scots.
The Pict chieftain said, “Before I tell you, you must do something for me; it would shame me beyond this life to give away the secret of the heather ale in front of my son and on the grounds that my forefathers lived and died on, so you must kill my son before I give you the recipe for the Heather Ale.”
The young Pict son looked at his father with disbelief, “That’s the way it must be” said the grey-haired old chieftain looking into the eyes of his son. With that the chief of the Scots party slit the throat of the boy, and he fell silent and dead at the feet of his father.
“Now tell us the secret of the Heather ale,” said the Scot to the old Pict.
But the Pict chieftain said, “Now I will not see my son shamed by his father, but what will you do so my forefathers do not see my shame. Until you have found a way to deal with that part of the problem I will never tell you".
The band of Scots tortured the old chief all through the night until the sun had reached it's highest point in the sky the following day. It was at that point the old chief gave up on life knowing he had saved his son the ordeal he had to go through and kept his honour to meet his forefathers with his head held high.
Such was the importance of the secret of the Heather Ale to the Picts.
Storytime over, back to work!
What has the Pictish/Scottish Neolithic diet got to do with modern-day medical herbalism?
Well, the majority of the plants that were eaten are still used medicinally today, and the emphasis on Alba/Scotland comes about because it’s here that the herbal folk tradition has survived the longest in its purest form.
Druidic physicians were regarded as skilled in the prescription of herbs as well as in surgery. Amongst the operations they performed were Caesarean sections, neuro-surgery and amputations. We are talking here about nine and a half thousand years ago.
The arrival of the Romans brought with them their extensive pharmacopoeia to which was added the native Pictish/Scottish plants, this brings us to the earliest known herbal of British origin -
The Saxon Leechbook of Bald
Probably the oldest surviving complete medical work in Old English dating from around 950AD. Including indication of around 50 herbs.
Included in this huge book is the only surviving example of an early English medical textbook and collection of remedies, the order of the entries is traditional, the plants and materials used are given English names, and the manuscript contains a strong folklore element, so whilst it isn’t a polished work in its honesty and simplicity lies its true worth.
A key here being its folklore element, because in folklore often lies hints of what and how such herbs were used which often predate what’s written down.
It was with the coming of Christianity into these islands that the ability to write gave us the herbals we now know of, but this same Christianity deemed only males fit to use them.
During the dark ages healing became the province of the monastic and university-trained physicians, sadly only males were allowed to walk amongst such knowledge, with the old wise woman of the tribe declared witch, but still required and used by the poor people of the village who couldn’t afford to pay for treatment for illnesses.
The old wise women and men were now driven into hiding and practised their herbal healing clandestinely behind closeted doors and in dark shadowy cottages.
The last house in the village traditionally belonged to those called witch or skinwalkers by the Norse descendants, in this way you always knew where to go for help with healing, and the odd spell or cursing.
But Alba/Scotland and Old England wasn’t the only places where healing was traditional, a family of country doctors who lived in the parish of Myddfai in Wales in the 13th century, are renowned in the legend of “The Fairy Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach”
The Fairy Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach
There is a bottomless lake in north Carmarthenshire with the name of Llyn y Fan Fach.
Legend tells that an old woman and her son Rhiwallen lived near the lake tending a herd of cattle,
One day Rhiwallen had been keeping watch on the cattle and a beautiful lady appeared in the middle of the lake, Rhiwallen immediately fell in love with her.
He tried to entice the lady to come out of the lake by offering her some of the bread his mother had given to him, but she refused, saying that the bread was too hard.
The next day Rhiwallen returned to the lake with some soft dough, and again tried to entice the lady to come to him, but she refused, saying that his dough was too soft.
The third-day Rhiwallen returned to the lake with some part-baked bread, which the lady took from him and disappeared beneath the lake, to reappear moments later with an identical twin sister and an old man.
The old man said that he was the faery lord of Llan y Fan Fach, and that he would give his daughter to Rhiwallen in marriage, but he also gave him a warning
“If you strike her three times, then she will return home to me.”
Rhiwallen agreed, and the old man gave the pair a wedding present of a great number of faery cattle, who all arose out of the lake to come with the faery lady.
The pair were married and lived a happy and prosperous life, they had three sons, and were very much in love, and it seemed that the possibility of the man striking his wife was so remote that Rhiwallen forgot all about it.
One spring the couple were invited to a christening, and when it was done, Rhiwallen was anxious to get back to his farm, he summoned his faery wife by tapping her on the shoulder, to which she replied, “take care Rhiwallen, that is the first time you have struck me.”
Rhiwallen was taken aback, he had forgotten all about the warning given by the faery lord.
The next year the couple were invited to a wedding, where the faery wife burst into tears. Rhiwallen was embarrassed, and he tapped his wife on the arm to tell her to gain her composure To which the faery wife turned back to him and said. “today is a sad day, you have just struck me for the second time.”
Rhiwallen was taken aback, again he had forgotten the warning, and he vowed he wouldn’t do it again, for he loved his wife greatly.
A year later a neighbour died, and when Rhiwallen and his wife went to the funeral, she burst out laughing, for she could see that death was a blessing to him. Rhiwallen was again embarrassed and tapped his wife on the arm to make her stop, To which she replied “this is indeed a sad day for us, you have just struck me for the third time and now I must return to my father, the faery lord of Llan y Fan Fach.
Rhiwallen and his wife returned home, where the wife called all her faery cattle to her, and they walked to the lake and disappeared under the waters.
Rhiwallen never saw his wife again. But one night as the three sons were sitting by the lake, their mother came to them, she told them that they were to become great physicians, healing with the knowledge of the herbs that she would tell them off, and take them to where such herbs grow.
The three sons followed their mother, as she took them to all the places where the healing herbs grow, and she taught them how to use them to heal the ills of all. The three sons did become great physicians, they became known far and wide for their knowledge and their abilities to heal. Their knowledge was passed down through the generations, with the last generation living within the nineteenth century. Their knowledge was eventually written down, and that which came from the faery mother is now known as the writings of The Physicians of Myddfai.
The fair lady of Llyn y Fan Fach was reputed to be one of the race of faery, who gave faery knowledge of herbal healing to one of the sons of the family of Myddfai, resulting in manuscripts entitled
“The Physicians of Myddfai”
A well-respected cornucopia of working with herbs, diagnostic and healing techniques that are still used today.
The years 2000+ have seen a major resurgence of interest in herbal medicine, with a variety of very good, modern herbals in print, however, in some circles the herbalist is still seen as some kind of ill-educated meddler hawking their spells and charms to a gullible public.
To put this into context consider the following.
“Doctor I have an earache
2000 BC - here, eat this root
AD1000 - that root is heathen, here say this prayer
AD1850 - that prayer is superstition, here drink this potion
AD 1940 - that potion is snake oil, here swallow this pill
AD1985 - that pill is ineffective, here take this anti-biotic
AD2000 - that anti-biotic is artificial, here eat this root.”