In prehistoric times, knowledge of the healing powers of herbs was passed down orally, often within a family lineage. Sacred clay tablets, hieroglyphics, then later, books and manuscripts all marked the beginning of written knowledge. One of the earliest documentations of the medicinal uses of plants is the Ebers Papyrus, believed to have been written around 1550 BCE.* This Egyptian text describes 500 natural materials and medicinal plants and their properties. Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine contain texts written between 2700 and 1500 BCE.
Europe holds a significant portion of the history regarding the use of medicinal plants in health and healing. Empirical medicine began its evolution into a more scientifically-based medicine through the work of the Greek physician, Hippocrates (468–377 BCE) in the 5th century BCE. During the Middle Ages in the Roman Empire, beginning with the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, the Greek physician/herbalist Dioscorides (whose writings date from ca. 50–70 CE) first catalogued the curative properties of plants (empirically based on his experiences as a physician) in the five books of De Materia Medica. Also, Galen (129–199 CE, though some sources say post 205 CE), physician to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, refined the humoral theory, first introduced by the Hippocratic corpus (i.e., the body of work generally ascribed to what may be the mythical physician Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine”). Galen created a system of medicine whose ideas dominated herbal medicine in Europe for 1500 years. Some of the principles of this humoral system are still applied in many strains of traditional herbalism today—the idea that herbs have energetic properties (e.g., cold, hot, damp, dry) that affect various bodily “humors” (bile, phlegm, melancholia, etc.). Much later, the famous Persian physician Avicenna (aka Ibn Sina; 980 – 1037 CE) wrote the Canon of Medicine in the 11th century CE.
Much of what passed for medicine belonged to the domain of monks in the Christian monasteries from the 9th through 11th centuries, a tradition still visible in contemporary Italy and throughout Europe. During the 14th and following centuries, plants were documented according to their true physical morphology, a focus on botany. The printed herbal became more available in the 15th century through the invention of the printing press. The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541) often called the “father of pharmacology,” traveled extensively throughout Europe, Russia, and the Middle East studying medicine. He opposed and challenged Galen’s theories,† opening the doors of herbal medicine in Europe and creating a potentially new depth for herbs. By introducing the systematic use of heavy metals, he created a schism in the evolution of medicine, with one branch continuing to use herbs, and the other, relying more on chemistry, particularly heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury). The British physician Nicholas Culpepper (1616–1654), trained in medicine and pharmacy, translated Latin medical writings dealing with herbs into English, thereby helping to make herbal medicine more accessible to common people (who could read English). He reduced the exclusivity of formal herbal medicine knowledge held by the physicians and apothecaries. In the late 15th century, the “discovery” of America began the process of the importation and eventual melding of North American plants into the European materia medica, altering the face of herbal medicine in Europe.
The Aboca Museum, located in central Italy in the historic center of the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro, is an exquisite and sensate journey through the utilization of herbs and herbal medicine through the ages. A major cultural and educational initiative by Aboca, one of Italy’s leading cultivation and manufacturing companies for medicinal herbs, the museum project was born out of Aboca’s commitment to the study of historic sources for the medicinal uses of plants and to reviving their traditional uses in modern times.
The museum’s primary goal is to illustrate and document the use of medicinal herbs throughout the centuries through a large number of artifacts, with an exhibition that shows how remedies were prepared in different historical periods in various locations in Europe. In addition, there are several key operating components to the Aboca Museum: