History of Herbalism

History of herbalism is as long as the history of civilization, however it is important to at least know the short story. We can learn about herbs used by Egyptian priests 5000 years ago from writings on papyrus and walls on sarcophagus and temples. Sumerians knew about medicinal properties of garlic, peppermint, chamomile, psyllium and artemisia 5000 years ago. The "Ebers' Papyrus" from around 1550 B.C mentions several hundred herbs along with the recommended usage. Among these herbs are aloe, peppermint, pimpinella anisium ... Several hundred herbs were also known in Babylon and Assyria. They knew how to collect and dry herbs. A lot of this information is still valid today. Herbs were an interest to people like Hammurabi, who lived around 1700 B.C. India also played an important role in herbalism, where medical knowledge was on a very high level. That's where we know from about many spices and medicinal herbs such as: caraway, pepper, cardamom, cloves and ginger. It seems that only there this knowledge was tightly related to beliefs and religious ceremonies, and the source of astonishing information on herbalism is in sacred books.
The Chinese made an incredible progress in herbalism, which started about 4000 B.C. There are writings in oracle bones from the II century B.C. about the use of herbs in many diseases. Despite that the number of herbs, that were talked about was quite small (around 300 such as: rhubarb, camphor and ginseng), the classification into 3 classes was very interesting.
  • Emperor Class - herbs supporting general health and life - non-toxic herbs.
  • Minister Class - herbs fighting severe diseases and bringing back strength - generally non-toxic
  • Chancellor Class - herbs curing certain diseases, but used in small portions, many times mixtures of different herbs. If used alone - would be considered toxic.
Chinese believed that nature is hiding within itself a cure for every disease. To this day the natural way of healing which is related to chinese beliefs and philosophy is called Chinese Medicine.
In the ancient times trade between Eastern and Southern countries was blooming. It contributed to popularization of herbs. Jews, like Arabs contributed to the "cosmetics industry", making scents out of oily plants, that were as valuable as gold. In the books of the Bible (The Old and New Testament) contain the names of around 50-100 herbs.
In Europe, herbalism originated from Ancient Greece. Greek Myths talk about Gods and Heroes educating people in medicine, based on medical properties of herbs. We can find traces of this in medical names of herbs, which are latinized Greek names of plants. For example:
  • Yarrow (Achillea) - an herb related to Achilles
  • Mugwort and Wormwood (Artermisia) - an herb related to Artemide
  • Blue Lotus (Nymphanea) - related to nymphs, not only by name but beauty as well.
In the ancient Greece herbs were intensively used for their narcotic properties in rituals and as poisons. Extracts of very toxic plants were used in the execution of a death sentence.
Greece was the fatherland of Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) called "the father of medicine". In his book "Corpus Hipocraticum" he mentions around 300 medicines of natural origin. Out of these 300 200 are derived from plants. In the 1st century B.C. Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) in his "Naturalis Historia" (Natural History) talks about 1000 different medicianl herbs.
In the Roman Empire the most famous herbalist was Dioscorides Pedanius (I century). He was a botanist, pharmacologist and a physician of the roman legions He wrote the "De materia medica", which was illustrated in color, and included information about several hundred herbs, among which plenty was medical herbs. This book was the source of information for many generations of botanists and physicians from the entire world for over 1000 years. The last of the great herbalist of the ancient world was Galen of Pergamon (2nd century). He was the physician of a few roman emperors such as Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus and Septimius Severus. He wrote about over 400 medicinal herbs. His work was used in developing pharmacology. It was Galen who invented taking herbs in the form of mixtures.

In the middle ages Arabs translated the works of ancient world authors. They used many new forms of medicines and introduced in Europe the ways of natural healing from China and India. In these times residents of Europe were more prone to sorcerers than known herbal medicines. Education and science was the domain of Monasteries. Benedictine monastery contributed the most to science. For many years the benedictine brothers were translating ancient books, salvaged during wars and battles. They were planting herbs and making mixtures, balms etc... They were often the only physicians during epidemics. Benedictines from Salerno in X-XI century contributed enormously to herbalism. Their work was Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, which contained not only valuable information about medicinal herbs, but dietary recipes as well. Many of these receipes made their way to the popular medicine, which started developing in a less magical , but more rational manner. Monks didn't limit themselves to information from ancient greek and roman works and their own observations, but they deepend teir knowledge with information from the Arab world. In the Arab world the biggest contributor to herbalism was Avicenna from Bukhara (XI-XII century), and later on Ibn Al-Beidha, who wrote about around 1400 medicinal herbs, which in most part he examined himself.


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