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Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period

Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period by Susan Francia and Anne Stobart, eds. New York, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing; 2014. Hardcover; 368 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4411-8418-4. $120.00.

This book grew out of seminars on the history of herbal medicine held in London in 2010 and 2011. Both of its editors, Susan Francia and Anne Stobart, PhD, are qualified medical herbalists, as are six of the other 13 contributors; Dr. Stobart also is a founder-member of the recently established Herbal History Research Network, which has done much to promote interest in this field.

The 16 chapters cover a wide range of research topics, which are grouped into four main parts. The authors come from a variety of backgrounds, including: social, medical and other historians, medical scientists, herbal practitioners, language experts, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and even an archaeoethnopharmacologist, as Elizabeth Williamson, PhD, distinguished professor of pharmacy at the University of Reading in England, points out in her foreword. Throughout, each chapter has its own section of reference notes; there is a useful glossary for names and terms that might be unfamiliar to readers, an impressive 33-page bibliography, and an index. Pleasingly, the publisher offers a generous eight pages at the back of the book for the readers own notes.

The book opens with an overview by its editors, titled The Fragmentation of Herbal History: The Way Forward, in which they express their wish to support and stimulate those interested in pursuing further research studies. They also indicate the giddying range of sources that may be mined for nuggets of information, among them papers relating to estates and gardens, seed catalogues, merchant records, customs and import books, diaries, letters, domestic recipe collections, household accounts, probate records, prescriptions, individual case histories, printed medical advice books and pharmacopoeias, ... apothecary bills and notebooks and institutional, professional and legal records.

Each of the four parts is prefaced with an introduction by the editors.

Part One, devoted to original texts, contains chapters on Early Greek Medicine, a discussion of the philosophy concerning the medicine of ancient Greek physicians, by medical herbalist Vicki Pitman, MPhil; the interpretation of medieval herbals, by Anne Van Arsdall, PhD; Early-modern Midwifery Manuals and Herbal Practice by Elaine Hobby, professor of seventeenth-century studies at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom; and an exploration of Culpepers The English Physitian, by medical herbalist Graeme Tobyn.

Part Two concentrates on archival sources: Francia examines a variety of documentary sources to explore the importance of cumin (Cuminum cyminum, Apiaceae) in medieval England; Nicky Wesson assesses the evidence for the use of herbs in childbirth and perinatal care; and Richard Aspin, PhD, head of research at the Wellcome Library, searches for clues to the practice of herbal medicine in testamentary documents from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Part Three focuses on four household names from herbal history, with chapters on Galen, by John Wilkins, PhD, professor of Greek culture at the University of Exeter; Dioscorides, by two experienced British medical herbalists, Alison Denham and Midge Whitelegg, PhD; William Turner, by Marie Addyman; and John Parkinson, by Jill Francis, PhD.

Part Four addresses the multi-disciplinary nature of the history of herbal medicine, with a case study of St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum, Hypericaceae) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Caprifoliaceae) at Soutra hospital, by Brian Moffat, PhD, director of the Soutra Hospital Archaeoethnopharmacological Research Project (SHARP); and a consideration of how ethnobotany can contribute to herbal history, with special references to the Aztec empire and Spanish colonial medicine, by Anna Waldstein, PhD.

In the conclusion, Francia and Dr. Stobart consider the proliferating avenues of research opened up by studies such as those presented in this book, and they discuss the ways such research could benefit both scholars and practitioners.

This is a broad investigation of sources for the history of herbal medicine. Some chapters significantly add to our knowledge of how medicinal herbs have been used in the past. Dr. Moffats chapter, Archaeological Sources for the History of Herbal Medicine Practice, is of exceptional interest: It tells the story of SHARP, which was established in the early 80s to study clues to medieval medical practice found at the site of the Soutra medieval hospital. This site formed part of a once-impressive Augustinian monastery in southeast Scotland, and researchers have identified remains of 360 different plant species at the site, suggesting a well-stocked physic garden. The drains have yielded further treasures of information in the form of well-preserved caches of medicinal plant seeds, indicating that a combination of St. Johns wort and valerian was a common remedy, and that both herbs may have been used to treat depression as early as the 14th century.

The section dealing with four individual giants from the history of herbal medicine Galen, Dioscorides, William Turner, and John Parkinson will appeal particularly to those like me who view history in terms of people. It was perhaps unfortunate that the study of Parkinson was written by Francis, a specialist in the history of gardening; while she considers Parkinsons magisterial Theatrum Botanicum to be the last in the genre of great herbals and as such the end of an era, she devotes most of her attention to his book on gardening, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, which she finds new, exciting, and revolutionary in its approach.

Research is deeply addictive, but it can lure its practitioners into byways well away from the beaten track: Dr. Aspins Testamentary Records of the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries as a Source for the History of Herbal Medicine in England is a neat example. He has examined one potentially rich source wills and inventories of domestic goods. From an impressive display of vast research, one fact emerges: that stills and sets of pestle and mortar appear quite often, though the latter usually outnumbered the former. Does this prove that the family members in question were regular practitioners of herbal medicine? Not necessarily. As any kitchenware store will confirm, a pestle and mortar is a run-of-the-mill buy for any homemaker; distilling has been a fashionable occupation for ladies of the manor from the late-16th century onwards. Possession of this gadget doesnt necessarily mean that it was used to make herbal remedies any more than ownership today of a state-of-the-art food processor proves that its owner is a dedicated cook.

In her chapter on cumin, Francia offers a delightful example of how rewarding research in the history of herbal medicine can be: she has drawn on records of monastic and household accounts, rent payments, and port-tax documents, among others, to paint a vivid picture of the popularity and affordability of cumin in medieval England, as well as its uses both culinary and medicinal.

The two separate chapters devoted to midwifery illustrate the range as well as the limitations of research. In Elaine Hobbys chapter on midwifery manuals, the reader can learn much about the spectrum and diversity of the manuals themselves, but not much about how or by whom they were actually put to use. Nicky Wesson, studying the use of herbs in childbirth in early modern times, found that although there was plenty of information about which herbs were recommended for use in childbirth, there was virtually no evidence as to which ones midwives actually employed. Her discussion of herbs used as analgesics and antimicrobials, however, is both surprising and intriguing.

All in all, this is perhaps not a book for the general reader, but it certainly will inform and delight researchers in this very broad field of study.

Barbara Griggs, FLSAuthor, Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal MedicineBrighton, England