History Of Herbal Medicine In Britain
By Linda Harrold DBTh. MURHP
The first recorded history of herbs in this country appeared with the advent of the Roman invasion in circa 50AD. They brought with them to this country a wealth of knowledge that had been gathered from the other great civilizations, including the Greeks and Egyptians. When they arrived in this country they found a land of forests and swamps but quickly changed the landscape with their road and building projects and so it is reasonable to suppose that these changes enabled a much wider range of plants to be grown .The Romans were an incredibly well organised race and even prior to their main invasion, had organised to send ahead parties to prepare for their future life here on this island ,including the sowing and planting of many herbs .They brought with them auxiliaries, soldiers from lands as far away as
Macedonia, Syria and Egypt and so herbal uses from those countries quickly found their way into our culture.
|Since man took his first steps on this planet, he has been sustained by the plant kingdom and continues to be so to this day. The history of herbal medicine has been well documented over the years, but without being aware of the context in which people were living their lives, our understanding of how herbs were used, is incomplete. Records of herbs and medicine are really the story of the growth of civilization. What soon becomes apparent though on closer examination, is the twin themes of power and persecution snaking their way through time, in a way that seems to resemble the double helix shape of man’s very DNA.
Knowledge is power. Persecution grows when the power groups forcibly suppress and deny information from the common man that he needs to be whole.
Just because the Romans were the first to make records, it would be wrong to assume that the native Celts were little more than savages. Their intellectual leaders, the Druids were immensely knowledgeable but we know from letters written by the Romans, that their culture forbade them to commit their teaching to writing. Instead they were expected to commit to memory all of the plants that were used in healing as well as the many surgical procedures that they performed, such as amputations, caesarean sections and even neurosurgery..
It was with the introduction of Christianity to this land , that herbal knowledge emerged again from the dark woods, and appeared again on paper. From approx 700AD monks gradually built monasteries and also hospitals to care for the sick. This necessitated the growing of herbs and thus the first Physick gardens appeared. Pilgrims and travellers were frequent visitors to the monasteries and therefore both the knowledge of how to use the herbs and the plants themselves were spread around the country. One of the first known herbals was The Leach Book of Bald. Leach means healer and the book was the work of a monk called Bald but actually written on his behalf by another monk named Cild.
In order to subjugate the natives and take total control of the country the Romans knew that the best way was to destroy the Druids and so the order went out to kill them. To justify their actions and to denigrate the Celts, they claimed that they indulged in human sacrifice and would put their victims into a large wicker man shaped object and burn them alive.
Although many Druids were murdered, those who escaped hid themselves away in the woods and their healing knowledge went underground and became fragmented.
So the control of Britain remained in the hands of the Romans until they returned to their home land in circa 450AD. This country then entered a period commonly referred to as the Dark Ages as nothing was recorded, although the healing knowledge of plants remained in the human consciousness.
By the 12th century, the Crusades saw the further spread of herbal knowledge and the trade in herbs and spices. It was also at this time that various plagues, which would last for centuries, began to spread around the country and the demand for remedies became insistent.
|Soutra Aisle in the Scottish borders, is believed to be one of the largest medieval hospitals in the country. Founded by King Malcolm the First of Scotland in 1164. It was sited in a remote spot but one that was in the vicinity of one of the few major routes into Scotland. Recent archaeology has revealed evidence of some herbs such as Henbane, Hemlock and Opium Poppy. Given the powerful actions of these herbs, it is thought that they were used as a form of anaesthetic for any surgical procedures that were carried out.
The manner of continuing to keep the herbal skills alive by passing on the knowledge by oral history is well demonstrated by the Physicians of Myddfai from Wales. Legend has it that the physician Rhiwallon was given his knowledge of herbs by his mother who was a lake fairy. Their teachings carried on for hundreds of years, with the death of the last known physician being in 1842. Common sense would suggest that some of this learning at least must have still been passed on to the present day. Their most important text is the Red Book of Hergest, which contained over 500 ways to use 200 different herbs.
From the 15th to the 17 th century, Witch hunts were commonplace and people were constantly on the lookout for even the slightest sign that someone was in “league with the devil” Of course the power to heal brought these people into that category and yet again those keepers of herbal knowledge were murdered.
||Herbal medicine was used by all, peasants to kings included. King Henry viii (born 1491) was a huge advocate of herbal medicine and as well as treatment from his own apothecaries, enjoyed making his own remedies. His charter of 1543 enshrined the rights of the herbalist to be able to practice. In yet another piece of irony, his dissolution of the monasteries meant that he actually ended up destroying the physick gardens that contained the very plants that he held dear to himself.
Although one of the first known herbals written in English, the Rosa Medicinae, was written in 1314 by
John of Gaddesden, the most well known ones started to appear from about 1500's. These included such works by Gerard, Banckes and Culpeper. It is these herbals that are the base on which herbal medicine continues to be practised today.
Although both physicians and apothecaries/herbalists worked side by side during these times ,albeit somewhat uneasily, the power was definitely in the hands of the Physicians.
For the common folk though, it was generally the so called wise woman who was responsible for the health of the locals with her wealth of knowledge about the healing properties of herbs. However, she had a somewhat precarious position.
By Victorian times although physicians were the ones with the power as far as healing was concerned, the poorer folks still preferred herbs and while it might seem obvious that it was because it was all they could afford, it was also normal for rich people to have at least one of their servants to be skilled in the use of herbs so that they had remedies to hand for any illness that should strike.
With the advent of World War I, the demand for medicine was huge, due to the enormous number of casualties, and herbs were widely used. Garlic and sphagnum moss were used in large quantities. Garlic was widely respected for its antiseptic properties, likewise Thyme, which was used in the form of essential oil. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll set aside a large plot of land just for the growing of Marigolds (Calendula), which was shipped to France to treat burns victims.
All continued well for some years. The second world war saw as in the previous one the need for large amounts of medicines. This though is where events took a sinister turn, in 1941 the Government found themselves in trouble with the pharmacy world for unwittingly having levied a double tax on them in the form of Stamp duty and also Purchase tax. When the illegality of this was pointed out to them, they didn’t want to refund the overpayments. As a way of placating the chemists, they introduced the 1941 Medicines Bill, which precluded the sale of herbs in anything but a dried state and there by delivering in one swift blow, the end to the practise of herbal medicine. The pharmacy world was delighted as herbalists had become a real thorn in their sides as so many people were using herbs in preference to the modern drugs.There was even a clause in the Bill that allowed chemists to investigate any herbalists premises and report them to the Pharmaceutical Society. In an incredible feat of timing, the Government got this Bill through Parliament in a matter of days, and even though there was a ground swell of protest, the government remained intractable.
is known as the father of medicine, it is fair to say that Hilda Leyel is the mother of modern herbal medicine.
In her book, The Truth About Herbs
,written in 1943, she says "My first intention when I left school was to be a doctor, and I started to train for that profession, but when I married at the age of seventeen my medical career was cut short." It is interesting though that her grandson, Peter Leyel, can confirm that his grandmother did in fact give up her pursuit of a medical career earlier to become an actress, joining the troupe of Sir Francis (Frank) Robert Benson
. Carl Leyel was Frank Benson's secretary, and Carl and Hilda married in 1900, as confirmed by her marriage certificate.
Hilda had a great love of botany, which
she attributes to Rev Edward Thring
and his daughter Sarah who took over Hilda's education after Thring's death. Thring was the headmaster of Uppingham School, Rutland where Hilda's father Edward Wauton was a housemaster. Other family influences came into play, her uncle Dr Dawtrey Drewitt,
a pathologist by profession, was also interested in zoology and botany. He was a fine artist and his water-colours were exhibited at the Royal Academy, he was also vice-chairman of the Chelsea Physic Garden
In 1927 she put that love into practise by opening a herbalists in Baker Street, which she named Culpeper’s
which was the beginning of the Society of Herbalists, later to become The Herb Society. Her original intention had been to merely sell herbs, mainly in cosmetic preparations and for tisanes, from clean and hygienic premises, but she had unknowingly tapped into the publics memory for herbal treatment and the shop soon became a magnet for large numbers of people wanting a return to the old ways. She quickly realised that as well as selling dried herbs for the self treatment of minor ailments, there was a need to prescribe individual prescriptions for those with more serious ailments. So she began to practise as a consultant herbalist. Her fame spread and with the number of rich and influential patients consulting her, herbal medicine was once again in vogue.
It seems bizarre to say the least, that at time when one would assume that the Government would be fully occupied with the war effort that they could invest so much in passing this legislation. When one considers how much the Drug companies interests are represented in the Commons and how much money is involved, then the situation can be viewed with much more clarity. Fortunately, Mrs Leyel was a resourceful character and discovered that if someone was a member of the Society of Herbalists, this allowed them to receive herbal treatment. Naturally, in the light of this discovery membership went up in the thousands virtually overnight.
By a strange juxtaposition of fate, 1941 saw the government appeal to the public to help grow and wild craft herbs for the war effort. In 1940, Whitechapel hospital alerted Kew Gardens that essential supplies of medicines were virtually depleted. Very quickly the Vegetable Drugs Committee was formed, comprising members of Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Kew, Pharmaceutical Society and herb growers. Lists of essential plants were drawn up and an assortment of organisations was approached for help to collect the herbs. The Woman’s Institute, WRVS, Scouts and Guides as well as school children were amongst those enlisted and cigarette cards carried pictures of various herbs to help with the identification. However these herbs were sold to botanical drug companies in order that they could be made into conventional medicines! Over 90% of which were made from Plant Material.
The desire for herbal medicine continued and eventually, in 1968, after much campaigning, a new Bill was passed, 1968 Medicines Act which allowed for the practice of herbal medicine, under which law herbalists are still protected today.
In 1994, the government decided under the guise of incoming European law, to once again pass a law banning herbal medicine. This time the public response was so overwhelmingly against it, that they quickly retreated. It was probably no coincidence that at the time, the drug companies were once again feeling the pressure from the public who were becoming disillusioned with modern drugs.
In yet another twist of fortune, chemists and scientists in Wales are today, 2008, examining the Myddfai text of Hergest, as they believe that it could provide the secrets to herbs whose active principles could be extracted to use in modern medicine!! The Text was written in the 13th century by
Rhiwallon of Myddfai.
||Now to the present day. We are in a strange place in many ways. At the end of the 1990`s it was the intention of the government that all medical herbalists should be state registered but that it was to be by self regulation The various herbal registers got together under the umbrella group of the European Herbal Practitioners Association in order that all aspects of the profession could be standardised. As anyone can set themselves up as a herbalist, it is a situation that those of us who are qualified, are broadly in agreement with. It is anticipated that this process, which has dragged on for some time, should be completed in the next year or so. However, at the same time, we find ourselves under constant attack by so called “quack busters” who seek to discredit the use of herbs and those who prescribe to them at every turn. As has been seen in earlier times, the drug companies are finding that the rise in natural treatments to be immense.
In an ideal world there would be respect from both sides of the divide. There is a time for orthodox treatments and a time for herbal ones and they shouldn't be mutually exclusive but in a world where money is power, unfortunately the orthodox world is unlikely to take that view.
Whilst at times it may be easy to feel discouraged by the constant persecution that the herbal healers may find themselves under, it is clear to see that the racial memory is so strong that no one , however strong and powerful they may be, will be able to eradicate it from our souls. You don't have to walk far down any city street to see a plant of some description forcing its way through somewhere in the concrete. No matter how badly we abuse it, Nature will never be subdued.