The illustrated manuscripts that once dominated medicine

Title page from “The Grete Herball” by Peter Treveris, printed in London in 1526 and illustrated with woodcuts. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain)

If you were sick in medieval times, how would you be treated? Probably with a “physick”, a tonic or a balm. These medicines were often prepared by local apothecaries, wise women or wise housewives. They were based on herbs and other ingredients, some of which may seem quite strange to those who are used to modern medicine. To cure a headache, you can try a concoction that includes bishopric and garlic. Magical or superstitious talismans were believed to aid healing, as was pious prayer.

Critical to the medical knowledge of ancient civilizations, the vast knowledge of herbs was among the ancient heirlooms passed down to Europe from the Dark Ages. Inscribed in handwritten texts called herbs, plants and their medicinal properties have become central in the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Many richly illustrated texts have survived to be studied. Whether they record New World floral discoveries or include entries describing mythical mandrakes, the herbal tradition is a testament to early medicinal thought as well as the art of the book.

What is an herbal plant?

Iris Germanica Aquarelle Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell

An Iris germanica illustrated in watercolor by Elizabeth Blackwell in “A Curious Herbal”, circa 1737 to 1739. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Basically, a plant is a text written about plants and their characteristics. Each plant is usually listed with its physical description or picture to help identify safe, poisonous, or benign flora. Medical uses of a plant are often also included. These can be as simple as helping to cure a headache or as esoteric as encouraging a personality trait such as bravery.

European herbal remedies began in manuscript form and were painstakingly handwritten by professional scribes. These manuscripts could be richly illuminated and illustrated. As the owner of a plant learned more about herbal remedies and plants, many took notes in the margins or kept pages of their own recipes. These outsiders have contributed to a living tradition of the text. With the introduction of printing to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, herbals – like psalters and prayer books – began to be printed for wider distribution. While printing was new to Europe, the technology was well known in China where printing on wood was both utilitarian and an art form.

Where and when were the herbs made?

Bestiary and Herbal Iran

A bestiary and herbs from Iran, circa 1600 (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain)

Medicinal plants are an ancient textual tradition. Of a medical nature, these texts often codify knowledge transmitted for a long time orally. In Han Dynasty China, Shennong Ben Cao Jing (also known as Shennong Medical Matter) was written for the first time. However, the 365 plants listed there are said to have originated from the knowledge and work of ancient (perhaps mythical) ruler and herbalist Shennong. Other ancient compilations of herbal knowledge can be traced back to ancient Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian traditions. The Greeks and Romans created some of the most influential herbal texts, although the originals have not survived. Their knowledge has been preserved in medieval manuscripts from the Byzantines, Islamic lands and even Dark Age Europe.

The ancients were very interested in medicine within the framework of natural history. For example, Pliny the Elder wrote Naturalis Historia in the 1st century AD. Although often cited as a medicinal plant, the work is actually a much larger attempt to synthesize knowledge from the natural world. Like other ancient works that have survived, it is known through repeated medieval and modern editions.

In the industrial age, the cultivation of herbs for medicinal purposes became less and less essential to daily life. Modern pharmacology, although very indebted to botanical knowledge, meant that medical textbooks replaced illustrated herbal remedies. However, the herbal text never went into complete disuse. Gardening as a hobby has produced useful guides to diverse flora. Modern herbalists and those who use traditional medicines still look to the healing properties of plants. While the richly illustrated manuscripts of medieval times have evolved into guides filled with photographs, the fascination with the use of plants remains fundamental.

Explore some famous examples of medicinal plants from different eras.

the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius

Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius

Left: The 6th century Leyden manuscript of “Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius” (MS. Voss. Q.9). This page shows Caelidonia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Right: a mandrake or mandrake in Kassel’s manuscript of “Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius”, 9th century. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Among the ancient texts transformed into medieval traditions is the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius. The text is considered to be a 4th century synthesis of Pliny’s work. Historia Naturalis and the Greek Discorides By Materia Medica. The oldest manuscript dates from the 6th century and is abundantly illustrated. However, countless copies were made of the text in the 14th century and beyond. The work has even been translated into Old English, proving the spread of knowledge from Latin to the local vernacular. The authorship of this important work remains shrouded in mystery. Although originally attributed to the Roman thinker Apuleius of Madaura, it was long thought to be a copy-cat attribution. Explore this 10th century digitized version of the British Library or check out this first print edition from North Africa.

The English doctor

The English Doctor by Nicholas Culpeper

“The English Physitian” by Nicholas Culpeper, 1652. (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

The 17th century was an important period for medicine and scientific progress. Nicholas Culpeper’s work The English doctor was first published when England was in the middle of the Interregnum, the period between monarchs after the Civil War of the mid-17th century. The author subscribed to the radical political ideals of the time, but he was also egalitarian in his approach to herbal remedies; his book detailing simple remedies was printed and sold at a price accessible to ordinary people.

Based on galenic humoral theories and the association between astrology and herbs, Culpeper’s advice would eventually come to be known as Complete herbal. Its herb would influence the development of medicine in the expanding British Empire. You can read his work online thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Ebers papyrus

Ebers Papyrus Ancient Egyptian Herbal Medicinal Text

The Ebers papyrus, an ancient Egyptian herbal and medicinal text dating from the 16th century BCE. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Named after its 19th-century European owner Georg Ebers, the Ebers papyrus is one of the oldest medical treatises in the world. It is quite large; the roll is over 20 meters long. Although not fully decoded, its hundreds of useful recipes include many herbal ingredients. Although the herbs are not listed as in a classic plant, the text is a first study in toxicology. Licorice, for example, is used as a laxative while sesame is recommended for asthma.

And much more…

17th century Japanese herbs

Japanese herb from the 17th century representing a plant from Peru. (Photo: Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

The examples of herbs above are just a few of the texts found in museums around the world. From papyri to printed manuscripts, medicinal plants of yesteryear have informed medical developments that save lives today. To explore more herbal remedies, check out this article from the experts at Botanical arts and artists. The British Library is also home to many illustrious manuscripts, many of which can be explored digitally.

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