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Grete Herball

( Originally Published 1912 )

Among the earlier English herbals, the greater reputation belongs, not to Banckes' Herbal in any of its forms, but to the ` Grete Herball ' printed by Peter Treveris in 1526, and again in 1529. This was admittedly a translation from the French, namely from the work known as ` Le Grant Herbier,' whose origin we have discussed on p. 24. In the preface and supplement, however, it also shows some indebtedness to the Ortus Sanitatis. The figures in the Grete Herball are degraded copies of the series which first appeared in the Herbarius zu Teutsch (see Text-figs. 20 and 21).

The introduction to the Grete Herball, though it is less na´ve and charming than the corresponding part of the German Herbarius, may yet be quoted, in part, as giving a very lucid idea of the utilitarian point of view of the herbalist of the period, and also as bringing home to the reader the immense influence of the theory of the four elements:

" Consyderynge the grete goodnesse of almyghty god creatour of heven and erthe, and al thynge therin comprehended to whom be eternall laude and prays. etc. Consyderynge the cours and nature of the foure elementes and qualytees where to ye nature of man is inclyned, out of the whiche elementes issueth dyvers qualytees infyrmytees and dyseases in the corporate body of man, but god of his goodnesse that is creatour of all thynges bath ordeyned for mankynde (whiche he bath created to his owne lykenesse) for the grete and tender love, which he hath unto hym to whom all thinges erthely he hath ordeyned to be obeysant, for the sustentacyon and helthe of his lovynge creature mankynde whiche is onely made egally of the foure elementes and qualitees of the same, and whan any of these foure habounde or bath more domynacyon, the one than the other it constrayneth ye body of man to grete infyrmytees or dyseases, for the whiche ye eternall god hath gyven of his haboundante grace, vertues in all maner of herbes to cure and heale all maner of sekenesses or infyrmytes to hym befallyng thrugh the influent course of the foure elementes beforesayd, and of the corrupcyons and ye venymous ayres contrarye ye helthe of man. Also of onholsam meates or drynkes, or holsam meates or drynkes taken ontemperatly whiche be called surfetes that brengeth a man sone to grete dyseases or sekenesse, whiche dyseases ben of nombre and ompossyble to be rehersed, and fortune as well in vilages where as nother surgeons nor phisicians be dwellyng nygh by many a myle, as it dooth in good townes where they be redy at hande. Wherfore brotherly love compelleth me to wryte thrugh ye gyftes of the holy gost shewynge and enformynge how man may be holpen with grene herbes of the gardyn and wedys of ye feldys as well as by costly receptes of the potycarys prepayred."

The conclusion of the whole matter, which is set forth immediately before the index, is in these words :

"O ye worthy reders or practicyens to whome this noble volume is present I beseche yow take intellygence and beholde ye workes and operacyons of almyghty god which hath endewed his symple creature mankynde with the graces of ye holy goost to have parfyte knowlege and understandynge of the vertue of all maner of herbes and trees in this booke comprehendyd."

From a twentieth-century point of view, the Grete Herball contains much that is curious, especially in relation to medical matters. Bathing was evidently regarded as a strange fad. We learn, on the authority of Galen, that "many folke that hath bathed them in colde water] have dyed or they came home." Water drinking seems to have been thought almost equally pernicious, for we are told, " mayster Isaac sayth that it is unpossyble for them that drynketh overmoche water in theyr youth to come to ye aege that god ordeyned them." A period when men were more prone than they are to-day to settle their differences by the use of their own strong right arms is reflected in the various remedies proposed for such afflictions as "blackenesse or brusinge comynge of strypes, specyally yf they be in the face."

Turning to less concrete ailments, it is rather striking to find what a large number of prescriptions against melancholy are considered necessary. For instance, " To make folke mery at ye table," one is recommended to " take foure leves and foure rotes of vervayn in wyne, than spryncle the wyne all about the hous where the eatynge is and they shall be all mery." The smoke of Aristolochia " maketh the pacyent mery mervaylously," and also " dryveth all devyllsshnesse and all trouble out of ye house." Bugloss and Mugwort are also recommended to produce merriment, and it is suggested that the lesser Mugwort should be laid under the door of the house, for, if this is done, "man nor womann can not anoy in that hous'." The number of specifics proposed as a cure for baldness is somewhat surprising, when one remembers that this condition is often attributed to the nervous stress and strain of modern life ! Hair-dyes and stains for the nails also receive their share of attention.

Very remarkable powers were ascribed to products of the ocean, such as coral and pearls. The former is described as being " a maner of stony substaunce that is founde in partyes of the see, and specyally in holowe, and cavy hylles that ben in ye see, and groweth as a maner of a glewy humour, and cleveth to the stones." The writer mentions that " some say that the reed corall kepeth the bous that it is in fro lyghtnynge, thondre, and tempest." Pearls were regarded as of great value in medicine, and, for weakness of the heart, the patient is recommended to " Take the powdre of perles with sugre of roses," which suggests a remedy worthy of a poet ! Many travellers' tales are incorporated in the herbal ; we find, for instance, a most thrilling description of the lodestone. " Lapis magnetis is the adamant stone that draweth yren. founde in the brymmes of the occyan see. And there be hylles of it, and these hylles drawe ye shyppes that have nayles of yren to them, and breke the shyppes up drawynge of the nayles out." This description is illustrated by a picture of a rocky pinnacle and a ship going to pieces ; one man is already in the water, and two others are on the point of losing their lives.

Many of the remedies for different ailments strike the modern reader as being violent in a terrifying degree, and adapted to a more robust age than the present ; they incline one to echo the words, There were giants in the earth in those days." But apparently the sixteenth century held an exactly corresponding view of its predecessors, for under the heading of " Whyte elebore " we read, " In olde tyme it was commely used in medycyns as we use squamony. For the body of man was stronger than it is now, and myght better endure the vyolence of elebore, for man is weyker at this time of nature."

It is somewhat remarkable that both Christianity and Greek mythology find a place in the Grete Herball. The discovery of Artemisia and its virtues is attributed to Diana and the Centaurs, but in the event of being bitten by a mad dog, the sufferer is recommended to appeal to the Virgin Mary before employing any remedy. " As sone as ye be byten go to the chyrche, and make thy offrynge to our lady, and pray here to helpe and heale the. Than rubbe ye sore with a newe clothe," etc.

Quite a number of medicines enumerated in the Grete Herball still hold their own in modern practice. Liquorice is recommended for coughs ; laudanum, henbane, opium and lettuces as narcotics ; olive oil and slaked lime for scalds ; cuttle-fish bone for whitening the teeth, and borax and rose water for the complexion.

This book throws an interesting light on the early names of British plants. The Primrose is called " Prymerolles " or "saynt peterworte." The " devylles bytte " is said to be "so called by cause the rote is blacke and semeth that it is iagged with bytynge, and some say that the devyll had envy at the vertue therof and bete the rote so for to have destroyed it." Duckweed is called " Lentylles of the water " or " frogges fote," while Cuckoo-pint is known by the picturesque name of " prestes hode," and Wood-sorrel is called " Alleluya " or " cukowes meate."

One of the most noticeable features of the herbal is the exposure of methods of " faking " drugs, for the protection of the public, " to eschew ye frawde of them that selleth it." This is a great step in advance from the days of the old Greek herbalists, when secrecy was part of the stock-intrade of a druggist, and, as we have pointed out in a previous chapter, the credulous public was warned off by threats of the miraculous and fearful ills, which would follow any unskilled meddling with the subject.

Another work, which was illustrated with the same figures as those of the Grete Herball, was `The vertuose boke of Distillacyon of the waters of all maner of Herbes,' which appeared in 1527. This was a translation by Laurence Andrew from the ` Liber de arte distillandi' of Hieronymus Braunschweig, to which we have already referred. It was almost entirely occupied with an account of methods of distillation, but occasionally there is a picturesque touch of description. For example, in speaking of the Mistletoe, the author says, This herbe hath a longe slender lefe nother full grene, nor ful yelowe, and bereth a small whyte berye." The book was printed " in the flete strete by me Laurens Andrewe, in the sygne of the golden Crosse."

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