BRIEF HISTORY OF HERBAL FOLK MEDICINE - From herbal medicine to isolated molecules

From herbal medicine to isolated molecules

When time was measured by sun and the seasons, essential oils and terpenes were simply known as plants and were not separated from the natural world. Wise men and wise women, shamans, knew which plants were safe to eat, which plants were medicine, and which were for making magic.

All cultures before recorded history had extensive knowledge of the tens of thousands of plant species they lived with. This plant knowledge formed the basis for survival and culture in the world before recorded history. The oral tradition became written history and eventually science as our pharmacopoeia of plants was ‘rediscovered’ with each successive epoch. Every major civilization from Indian Ayurveda, Chinese Alchemy, Greek and Roman medicine, and European Alchemy has a vast body of work regarding the use of medicinal plants. This is the long tradition I draw my knowledge from and belong to as a trained herbalist.

From the beginning, there was a belief in the sentient knowledge of plants, an animism that is seen in modern schools of thought such as Shintoism, Daoism, and even from contemporary authors such as Michael Pollen (His central thesis in the ‘The Botany of Desire’ is that plants cultivate humans in order to amplify their propagation). With an herbalists’ training, it is not hard to see the world from a plants eye view and arrive at the simple truth that plants share their medicine with humankind and through a practiced experience, plants are allies to our healing.

The following presentation of history should provide a contextual explanation of the rise of modern medicine and the tension between its modern institutions and herbal medicine.


How Traditional Medicine Became Modern Medicine

A Snapshot of Medieval Medicine After the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Early Modern circa 476 CE - 1800 CE

Traditions for healing during Medieval times included monks & nuns in their monasteries and the tradition of the Wise Women. Hospitals often grew out of monasteries and served general and specific populations (e.g. lepers).

Monks carried the intellectual traditions of Rome, Greece, and the Arab world through hand copying and translating the books from antiquity. The herb gardens in their monasteries served the needs of medicine making for the clergy, villagers, and pilgrims.

Traditional healers in the villages outside of monasteries, known as ‘Wise Women’, utilized herbs and the medical beliefs of the day to care for the injured & the ill, delivering babies and comforting the dying unto death. They were known in many roles: herbalists, midwives, surgeons, barber-surgeons, nurses, and healers. They were respected and protected by law.

A significant contributor was Hildegard of Bedgen, a nun who became the abbott of her order and wrote the only two books published in the 12th century! Hildegard was born in 1098 and at the age of fourteen she entered the monastery of Dissibodenberg. She wrote the medical text ‘Causae et curae’, in which many medical practices of the time were recorded. This book contained diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of many different diseases and illnesses.


From Wise Women to Witches

Yet the world changed radically in the Middle and Late Medieval eras. What started as opposition to unlicensed medical practitioners which included wise woman, intensified in the last years of the Middle Ages and early Modern Era into a mass hysteria. Wise women were professionally discredited, their herbal based healing stigmatized as ‘magic’, subjecting them to fines, flogging, excommunication, exile, and even death. Initiated by the Church and supported by the secular authorities, wise women were labeled ‘witches’ and hunted down, tortured, and burned at the stake or hanged. Conservative estimates of women executed are 35,000-40,000, but these numbers reflect the executions and not the scores that died by torture or the women who turned to suicide to avoid torture. Some estimates run as high as 200,000 women in the 300 years between 1450-1750. This campaign to discredit wise women was so powerful that even in modern times the image of the word ‘witch’ conjures up a caricature of what was once seen as knowledgeable, powerful, and kind.

Witchcraft once protected by law became outlawed in 1390 in France, setting the stage to persecute the practice of herbology as ‘magic’. The Inquisition, was given the power to prosecute anyone who worked magic (though men who practiced magic were largely spared). The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (translated as the ‘Hammer of Witches’) was written in 1486 and went viral with the help of the Gutenberg press in the 15th and 16th centuries (the book was second only to the Bible in popularity), and it became a blueprint for the persecution and torture of witches.

So what happened? How did the Wise Women become Witches? How did herb based, traditional medicine become chemical based, modern medicine?


The Rise of Academic Universities and Institutionalized Medicine

At the end of the 11th century, universities were established in Salerno, Padua, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. Physicians studied the classic books and theories from Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, and Ibn Sina (the Persian polymath and one of the fathers of medicine, known as Avicenna in the West).

The student of medicine in medieval Europe, read and understood Latin (since all lectures and sermons were in Latin), they were members of the clergy, and they were all men. Most women like the vast majority in medieval Europe were illiterate. The Church prohibited women from joining the clergy. Academic medicine from its beginnings was almost a complete male monopoly which existed until the first women began to matriculate from universities 600 years later in the 17th & 18th centuries. The first female doctors were the German Dorothea Erxleben in 1754 and in America, Elizabeth Blackwell 1847.

Being a physician was prestigious and respectful. Physicians attended to the health concerns of the elites of the time: nobles, clergy, and the wealthy. They occupied the apex of a medical hierarchy with a fragmented caste of surgeons, butcher-surgeons, midwives, and apothocarists below them. Each profession jealously guarded their practices and powers (since it dictated their higher wages if not necessarily their true expertise). You can see the same system in our modern times with doctors protecting their ability to prescribe medication (among other powers) from physician assistants, RNs, LPNs, and EMTs.

Medicine became institutionalized. Non-academically trained medical practitioners, were met with increasingly harsher persecution, enforced by clerical and secular authorities. This was the environment that in the late Middle Ages erupted in the witch hunts. Over 600 years later, bodies of this system still exist in institutions like the FDA which in the name of ‘safety’ can fine you, order you to ‘cease and desist’, and even close your business for making unlicensed health claims.

The history of the US Pharmacopeia is a perfect example of the replacement of plant based medicines in favor of chemical drugs. The US Pharmacopeia is the compendium of standards and quality for medicines, health supplements, and food in the United States. These are the standards the FDA and the Federal Government use for their work of enforcement. Pharmacopeia in the mid 16th century of Medieval Europe were compendiums of plants and the ways to extract their medicines; part botanical guide and part recipe book. As medicines and ingredients became more common place, apothecaries were given a charter in London in 1617 to be the only places to buy a physician’s prescriptions. In order to justify the charter, there was a need to standardize the preparations and quality of medicines and ingredients. City pharmacopeia became national pharmacopeia over time.

In America the United States Pharmacopeia was published in 1820 with 221 plant drugs with 329 preparations. The passage of the 1906 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act established the United States Pharmacopeia as the recognized standard for strength, quality, and purity guidelines for the federal government. In the 1940’s patented drugs were admitted into the USP and “synthetic compounds began to replace ‘mineral and vegetable drugs’”. ( If you look at the USP today, there are only medicines in pill or synthesized form. Plant medicines are not listed as ‘medicine’; there is no category for them.

The modern model is to identify a plant in nature, find its efficacious molecules in the lab, and synthesize them into a medicine with the goal of creating patents and intellectual property. For plant based medicine this model is restrictive in 2 ways. Not only are whole plant remedies forbidden to make any health claims, they can’t even be labeled as ‘medicine’. Secondly, plants which have their uses and medical properties listed in previous pharmacopeia of the past are little studied in the lab’s of today, since their uses are well known and not patentable. 

The Plague and How It Helped Change the Model of Medieval Medicine

The medical modal in the Middle Ages was based on ‘Humorism’. Adopted from the ancient Greeks Humorism was the belief that health depended on the balance of 4 humors in the body; blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Disease transmission was thought to occur through ‘Miasma’ or bad air. These medical models were powerless to cure the medical scourge of the times, the plague.

The First Wave of Bubonic Plague 1346-1353 CE

By the end of the first wave of infection 75-200 million people in Europe (estimated 475 million worldwide) would be dead. It is estimated this was 30-60% of Europe’s population at the time. Yearly reoccurrences of the Plague continued throughout the world repeatedly devastating cities (Cairo had 50 occurrences of the Plague in 150 years; Constantinople had 10 occurrences from 1347 to 1400).

Bubonic Plague deaths slowed over hundreds of years of continual outbreaks as people developed immunity, but a cure for plague would have to wait for ‘Germ Theory’ to be proven by the experiments of Louis Pasteur in the 1850’s and a vaccine to be created in 1896. The first antibiotics were invented in 1928, ushering in the “Golden Age” of Bacteriology.

Pioneers such as Paracelsus, an alchemist and physician began to move the medical model away from humorism. Paracelsus’ contributions include the following:

  • Use of chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, sulfur for medicine. His belief was that dosage determined toxicity and small amounts were curative. Our modern medicines follow the same model of dosage and toxicity. He is credited with being the father of toxicology.
  • A belief that diseases were located in specific organs and that applications of targeted medicines can produce the desired, healing results. This was in contrast to a more holistic way of seeing healing.
  • He is credited with curing syphilis with a treatment composed of small amounts of mercury. This ‘heroic’ dosing strategy is the approach used by modern medicine; isolated molecules, highly concentrated for heroic results
  • He is credited with reintroducing opium to Western Europe.
  • He created the terms: ‘chemistry’, ‘gas’, and ‘alcohol’
  • He advocated hygiene and challenged the belief of the time that infection was a part of healing (surgeons applied cow dung among other things after surgeries to promote infection)

History From The Past Shows You Where You Are Today - Or Why Is All This History Important?

Traditional plant based herbology is discredited as a form of quackery by modern medicine. The transference of knowledge from the forests and field’s of herbology to the labs of universities is the story of modern medicine. The institutions of medicine sought to control the practice of medicine, down to the very definition of what is ‘medicine’ and what is not. This battle for control has been ongoing for over 800 years.

It is not a productive matter of debate which system is superior; both have their merit, but the success and the achievements of today’s biopharma industries are built on and grew out of that vast body of plant knowledge, shared from ancient peoples and their relationship and use of medicinal herbs. 

The Story of the Plague Thieves

(Probably apocryphal, this story, so commonly told, has become folk lore. Of interest nonetheless, because the use of essential oils became legend)

During the plague years a notorious band of thieves was stealing from the houses of the recently deceased. All the gold. All the jewels. All the fine things on earth the dead could not take.

After much effort, the thieves were finally apprehended and brought before a judge. The judge, much amazed, that the thieves, despite being in pestilent houses - the very bedrooms where people had spent their last moments on earth, were disease free. He offered the thieves freedom if they would tell him their secret of health in the time of plague.

This is what the judge heard:

The thieves were merchants from the Silk Road. They had been to the East and had access to all manner of spices and essential oils in their trade. Understanding the preventative and curative power of essential oils, the thieves had completely doused themselves in gallons of essential oils before entering each house. In this way, they protected themselves and were able to stand before the judge and tell their story in good health.

The story of the plague thieves, still told to this day even has a blend of essential oils named after them, the eponymous ‘Thieves Oil’.