A History of Herbal Medicine in Britain

A History of Herbal Medicine in Britain.

The use of herbs for healing goes way back into the history of the British Isles, probably as far as when man stood upright, walked on two legs, and developed the use of tools and language.

The first foods hunter-gatherers found as they traveled, along with game which was hunted, were plants, nuts, berries and tree bark; all these were used as food.   It is possible that while ingesting these, some were found to have medicinal properties, usually picked up by the cunning folk of the clan or tribe, and included in their growing knowledge of what cured and what harmed.

The usual way of doing this was for the cunning folk (it was, by and large, the females who were healers in the clan, although other genders did sometimes take on this role) to take a little of the herb and do what would be termed today as ‘investigative testing’, involving tasting, rubbing on the skin, smoking or whatever they thought might be the best way of ingesting the herb.

What was known and learned about healing with herbs was kept in the memory of the cunning folk of the clan, and handed down from mother to daughter, father to son with any new herb being added to the memory of the children, and then passed down to their daughters and sons, thus from generation to generation.

At this point in time, the only way of passing herbal knowledge was orally, by speech, demonstration, and by personal experience.

Farming came to Britain at around 5000 BC, this allowed clans and tribes to settle in places where they could plant crops and enclose cattle, sheep, and chickens for meat.  The cunning folk would have had wide areas available to them, woodlands, Riverside, and grasslands, which became the source of herbs for medicines.  This would have been the beginning of villages, straddling rivers for water and woodlands for fuel for their fires.  They would have still reliant at this point upon the cunning folk of the villages for their midwifery and help with healing.

The arrival of Roman Christianity into Britain at around 43 AD brought with them their extensive Greek and Roman pharmacopeia to which was added knowledge gleaned from local cunning folk by word of mouth, providing an extensive collection of wisdom and knowledge, and this brings us to the earliest known herbals of British origin.  Roman occupation and the church of Rome brought its learned monks and their writing, usually written in Latin, it was now that what had only been passed orally, was written down, heralding the beginning of the first Herbal books.

The Saxon Leechbook of Bald, is probably the oldest surviving complete written medical work in Old English, dating from 950 AD.  Said to have been written at the Winchester scriptorium and possibly at the request of Alfred the Great as part of his educational reform.   It is in three parts, two of which are said to have been the property of one Bald, and written out by a man named Cild, which comes from a quotation at the end of the book  'Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile’.  

The text survives in just one manuscript which is now in the British Library in London.  It is the third part of this manuscript however, that is of interest to us because it is probably the only surviving example of an early English medical textbook and collection of remedies.  The order of entries is traditional, the plants and materials used are given English names, and the manuscript contains a strong folklore element, so while it is not a polished work, in its honesty and simplicity lies its true worth.  This is an important herbal as it was the first one written in the Old English language.

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 cunning folk of the old tribes outlawed and declared Witch.  But the cunning folk were still needed and used by the poor people of the village who couldn’t afford to pay for treatment for illnesses from such lofty men as physicians and monks.

The old cunning folk were now driven into hiding and practiced their herbal healing clandestinely behind closeted doors and in dark shadowy cottages.  Out of these mystical places and individuals come legends and mythology, with such stories of “The Fair Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach” and the sons of the family of Myddfai,

The Legend tells that the fair lady of Llyn y Fan Fach arose from the waters of a lake and gave faery knowledge of herbal healing to one of the sons of the Welsh family of Myddfai, resulting in manuscripts entitled:

It was, and still is, a well-respected cornucopia of working with herbs, diagnostic and healing techniques that are, strange as it may seem, still used today.

The picture that emerges from the shadowy centuries of the Dark Ages is of two parallel traditions developing.  On one side, there were the monastic and university-trained physicians (all men), mainly town and city-based and serving the wealthy.  On the other, were self-treatment and folk healers (usually women) in rural areas.  Often they used the same plant remedies, but operated in different and rarely overlapping circles, with a great distrust of each other.  This situation was later distorted by centuries of religious persecution and witch-hunting.   Herbal medicine survived, but never regained the status it once had and still has in many other parts of the world.

In Britain, the next notable herbal was that of William Turner (1510-1568).  Acknowledged as the father of English botany, Turner was born the son of a tanner, a Northumbrian with strong Protestant convictions.  He fled England and wandered around Europe before finally studying under Conrad Gerber in Switzerland where he was introduced to European Herbals of the day.  His book, A New ‘Herball’ was published in three parts and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.

A contemporary of Turner’s, John Gerard (1545-1611) the Elizabethan physician, was born at Nantwich, Cheshire, and published the famous herbal Generall Historie of Plants in 1597, in which he revealed considerable scientific insight into the medicinal character of plants.  Gerard was the first to discover the “companionship of plants,” referring to the affinities and antipathies in the plant kingdom.  Incidentally, Gerard was the first person to successfully grow potatoes in England.

Following Gerard was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), born the son of a Surrey clergyman, he studied at Cambridge until a personal tragedy caused him to give up his studies and train to be an apothecary.  He set himself up in Spittalfields, London and supplied plant medicines to the poor at minimal cost; he preferred native plants to exotic imports and insisted on using the English names for plants rather than academically accepted Latin.  His decision to publish The Complete Herbal (1653) in English was taken because those of Gerard and Parkinson were based on Latin and included too many imported drugs for Culpepper.  Unfortunately, Culpeper’s love of astrology and the use of often colourful language, coupled with advances in herbal research, have largely discredited much of his work, although his book is usually still found on the bookshelves of most whose interests lay in the use of herbs for healing.

We bring things relatively up to date with A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve, published in 1931.  The first new herbal since Culpeper’s time, it was edited by Hilda Leyel who was an important voice in maintaining herbalism’s place in Britain until the Medicine’s Act of 1968 made alternative therapy available to all.

The new Millennium has 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 witch hawking their “spells and charms” to a gullible public.

To put this into context, consider the following:

Doctor, I have an earache.

2000BC: Here, eat this root.

AD1000: that root is heathen.  Here, say this prayer.

AD1850: that prayer is superstition.  Here, drink this potion.

AD1940: 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.