Herbal - Legacy

Legacy

Further information: Pharmacopoeia, Plant taxonomy, and Flora

The legacy of the herbal extends beyond medicine to botany and horticulture. Herbal medicine is still practiced in many parts of the world but the traditional grand herbal, as described here, ended with the European Renaissance, the rise of modern medicine and the use of synthetic and industrialized drugs. The medicinal component of herbals has developed in several ways. Firstly, discussion of plant lore was reduced and with the increased medical content there emerged the official pharmacopoeia. The first British Pharmacopoeia was published in the English language in 1864, but gave such general dissatisfaction both to the medical profession and to chemists and druggists that the General Medical Council brought out a new and amended edition in 1867. Secondly, at a more popular level, there are the books on culinary herbs and herb gardens, medicinal and useful plants. Finally, the enduring desire for simple medicinal information on specific plants has resulted in contemporary herbals that echo the herbals of the past, an example being Maud Grieve's A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931 but with many subsequent editions.

The magical and mystical side of the herbal also lives on. Herbals often explained plant lore, displaying a superstitious or spiritual side. There was, for example, the fanciful doctrine of signatures, the belief that there were similarities in the appearance of the part of the body affected the appearance of the plant to be used as a remedy. The astrology of Culpeper can be seen in contemporary anthroposophy (biodynamic gardening) and alternative medical approaches like homeopathy, aromatherapy and other new age medicine show connections with herbals and traditional medicine.

It is sometimes forgotten that the plants described in herbals were grown in special herb gardens (physic gardens). Such herb gardens were, for example, part of the medieval monastery garden that supplied the simples or officinals used to treat the sick being cared for within the monastery. Early physic gardens were also associated with institutes of learning, whether a monastery, university or herbarium. It was this medieval garden of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, attended by apothecaries and physicians, that established a tradition leading to the systems gardens of the eighteenth century (gardens that demonstrated the classification system of plants) and the modern botanical garden. The advent of printing, woodcuts and metal engraving improved the means of communication. Herbals prepared the ground for modern botanical science by pioneering plant description, classification and illustration. From the time of the ancients like Dioscorides through to Parkinson in 1629, the scope of the herbal remained essentially the same.

The greatest legacy of the herbal is to botany. Up to the seventeenth century, botany and medicine were one and the same but gradually greater emphasis was placed on the plants rather than their medicinal properties. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plant description and classification began to relate plants to one another and not to man. This was the first glimpse of non-anthropocentric botanical science since Theophrastus and, coupled with the new system of binomial nomenclature, resulted in "scientific herbals" called Floras that detailed and illustrated the plants growing in a particular region. These books were often backed by herbaria, collections of dried plants that verified the plant descriptions given in the Floras. In this way modern botany, especially plant taxonomy, was born out of medicine. As herbal historian Agnes Arber remarks - "Sibthorp's monumental Flora Graeca is, indeed, the direct descendant in modern science of the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides."

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