Herbs in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Accompanying the decline of the Roman Empire was the rise of the Christian church (and Christendom). From the period of about 500 to 1400 A.D., a time interval often referred to as the Middle Ages, the church greatly expanded its empire and clear was the dominant institution in all walks of life and fields of endeavor. In a very real sense, the church controlled scholarship. During the Middle Ages of Europe, what passed for scholarship was primarily hand-copying of valued, ancient Green and Roman manuscripts. Hand-copied more than any book other than the bible was Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. Of the mandy different hand copies of Dioscorides herbal, the most famous (and valuavle for its beauty and accuracy) is the Anician Codex, prepared in honor of Princess Juliana Anicia, the Christain daughter of the Roman Emperor Flavius Anicius Olybruis. An early sixth-century manuscript, the Anician Codex (preserved at Vienna) is botanically an important link between the ancient world, the early Middle Ages, and all the centuries that followed. Certain other copies of Dioscorides’ work are less admired, with errors (and Christian teachings) creeping into the pages over time…


One specialized area of “progress” or knowledge during the Middle Ages (and continuing through Renaissance times) was in the art of poisoning, a much more common practice than today. In Italy, several families (for example, the Borgia and Baglioni families) made their living as “professional poisoners”. Many ingenious methods for poisoning were devised, including the application of poison as lipstick and its transmission through kissing. Poison tings were very popular in medieval times; typically, a decorative face (lid) concealed the chamber below containing the poisonous powder. At the appropriate moment, the ring’s contents could be emptied into the beverage of the unwitting and unlucky victim. Such “Succession powders” were commonly sold as a quick means of ascendency up the rungs of life. Substances utilized as poisons included (in various mixtures) mineral toxins such as arsenic or copper, poison from venomous toads, and toxic plant materials such as monkshood (aconite), yew, and nux vomica (strychnine). Animals were poisoned as well as people; monkshood (Aconitum) was employed to poison wolves and hence it’s second common name “wolfsbane”. Aconitum eventually became associated with werewolf legends, as did garlic. A highly entertaining account of poisoning through the ages is presented in the work of C.J.S. Thompson.


Poisoning for purposes other than simply inducing death was also common in the Middle Ages in Europe, as in the practice of witchcraft and sorcery. In these dark arts, medieval knowledge and expertise was certainly greater than in the present day. Although we do not know many of the details associated with the practice of medieval witchcraft, some facts are known. Henbane was a mainstay of the witches brew, a concoction doubtless composed of a variety of ingredients (some functional and some not). Other somewhat similar plants of the nightshade family that were also often employed included deadly nightshade or “witches’ very” (Atropa belladonna) and mandrake (mandragora officianarum). Mandrake was also known as “gallows man” because of the belief that it would grow beneath a gallows, stimulated by the urine of semen of a hanged man. Mandrake occurring near a gallows was considered to have greater power than if found growing elsewhere. All three of these hexing herbs contain similar psychoactive compounds and were employed by witches in rituals of the sabbat (witches celebration or ceremony) to induce the desired hallucinogenic state in themselves and their disiples and to cast spells. Salve prepared from one or more of these nightshades applied to the upper thighs or genitals, could induce the sensation of rising into the air or flying (on a broom). Jimson weed IDatura Stramonium), yet another nightshade, apparently also found its way into the witch’s cauldron. Foxglove or “witch’s bells” is known to have been used as a witch’s poison.


During the Middle Ages, a perhaps greater level of intellectual activity took place in the Arab world than in Europe. Although accomplishments in Arabian mathematics and astronomy are most notable, some progress in botany and medicine also occurred. Standing out is the name of Avicenna (Ivn Sina), a Persian who in the early eleventh century wrote a Canon of Medicine, a voluminous book that became a medical text in both the Christian and Moslem worlds. Although the majority of Avivenna’s work was based on ancient authorities, parts are original, including information on herb medicine. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, much knowledge gained in Islam was transported to Christian Europe. During a sequence of bellicose pilgrimages known as the crusades.

Excerpt from pg 19-21 of "Poisonous and Medicinal Plants" By Will H. Blackwell
Photo from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arabic_herbal_medicine_guidebook.jpeg

Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, c. 1334 copy in Arabic
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