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Doctrine Of Signatures And Astrological Botany

( Originally Published 1912 )

DURING the preceding chapters, we have restricted our discussion to those writings which may be credited with having taken some part, however slight, in advancing the knowledge of plants. We have, as it were, confined our attention to the main stream of botanical progress, and its tributaries. But before concluding, it may be well to call to mind the existence of more than one backwater, connected indeed with the main channel, but leading nowhere.

The subject of the superstitions, with which herb collecting has been hedged about at different periods, is far too wide to be dealt with in detail in the present book. We have referred in earlier chapters to the observances with which the Greek herb-gatherers surrounded their calling (p. 7) and to the mysterious dangers which are described in the `Herbarium' of Apuleius as attending the uprooting of the Mandrake (p. 36). There is comparatively little reference to such matters in the works of the German Fathers of Botany or those of the greatest of their successors ; indeed, as we have previously mentioned (pp. 55-58, 103, 104), Bock's famous ` Kreuter Bach' and William Turner's herbal contain definite refutations of various superstitions.

Contemporaneously, however, with the fine series of herbals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there appeared a succession of books about plants, which had as their subjects one or both of two topics—the " doctrine of signatures," and "astrological botany." These works cannot be said to have furthered the science to any appreciable extent, but they have considerable interest, rather on account of the curious light which they throw upon the attitude of mind of their writers (and presumably their readers also) than from any intrinsic merit. One of these authors, in his preface, speaks of the " Notions" and " Observations " contained in his work, "most of which I am confident are true, and if there be any that are not so, yet they are pleasant." The excuse that the " Notions," cherished by the botanical mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were " pleasant," even if untrue, may perhaps be offered in extenuation of the very brief discussion of their salient points, which we propose to undertake in the present chapter.

The most famous of those mystical writers who turned their attention to botany was undoubtedly Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus of Hohenheim, better known by the name of Paracelsus (1493-1541). His portrait is shown in Text-fig. Io8. He was a doctor, as his father had been before him, and in 1527 he became professor at Basle. Here he gave great offence by lecturing in the vulgar tongue, burning the writings of Avicenna and Galen, and interpreting his own works instead of those of the ancients. His disregard of cherished traditions, and his personal peculiarities led to difficulties with his colleagues, and he only held his post for a very short time. For the rest of his life he was a wanderer on the face of the earth; and he died in comparative poverty at Salzburg in 1541.

The character and writings of Paracelsus are full of the strangest contradictions. Browning's poem perhaps gives a better idea of his career than any prose account aiming at historical accuracy. His life was so strange that the imagination of a poet is needed to revitalise it for us to-day. His almost incredible boastfulness is the main characteristic that everyone remembers—the word " bombast " being, in all probability, coined from his name. In one of his works, after contemptuously dismissing all the great physicians who had preceded him—Galen, Avicenna and others—he remarks, "I shall be the Monarch and mine shall the monarchy be,." The conclusion that he was something of a quack can hardly be avoided, but at the same time it must be confessed that his writings were occasionally illumined with real scientific insight, and that he infused new life into chemistry and medicine.

Paracelsus' actual knowledge of botany appears to have been meagre, for not more than a couple of dozen plant names are found in his works. To understand his views on the properties of plants it is necessary to turn for a moment to his chemical theories. He regarded "sulphur," " salt," and " mercury " as the three fundamental principles of all bodies. The sense in which he uses these terms is symbolic, and thus differs entirely from that in which they are employed to-day. " Sulphur" appears to embody the ideas of change, combustibility, volatilisation and growth ; "salt," those of stability and non-inflammability; "mercury," that of fluidity. The "virtues" of plants depend, according to Paracelsus, upon the proportions in which they contain these three principles.

The medicinal properties of plants are thus the outcome of qualities that are not obvious at sight. How, then, is the physician to be guided in selecting herbal remedies to cure the several ailments of his patients ? The answer to this question given by Paracelsus is summed up in what is known as the Doctrine of Signatures.

According to this doctrine, many medicinal herbs are stamped, as it were, with some clear indication of their uses. This may perhaps be best understood by means of a quotation from Paracelsus himself (in the words of a seventeenth-century English translation). " I have oft-times declared, how by the outward shapes and qualities of things we may know their inward Vertues, which God hath put in them for the good of man. So in St Johns wort, we may take notice of the form of the leaves and flowers, the porosity of the leaves, the Veins. i. The porositie or holes in the leaves, signifie, to us, that this herb helps both inward and outward holes or cuts in the skin.... 2. The flowers of Saint Johns wort, when they are putrified they are like blood ; which teacheth us, that this herb is good for wounds, to close them and fill them up " etc.

It is sometimes held that the real originator of the theory of signatures, in any approximation to a scientific form, was Giambattista Porta, who was probably born at Naples shortly before the death of Paracelsus. He wrote a book about human physiognomy, in which he endeavoured to find, in the bodily form of man, indications as to his character and spiritual qualities. This study suggested to him the idea that the inner qualities, and the healing powers of the herbs might also be revealed by external signs, and thus led to his famous work, the ` Phytognomonica,' which was first published at Naples in 1588.

Porta developed his theory in detail, and pushed it to great lengths. He supposed, for example, that long-lived plants would lengthen a man's life, while short-lived plants would abbreviate it. He held that herbs with a yellow sap would cure jaundice, while those whose surface was rough to the touch would heal those diseases that destroy the natural smoothness of the skin. The resemblance of certain plants to certain animals opened to Porta a vast field of dogmatism on a basis of conjecture. Plants with flowers shaped like butterflies would, he supposed, cure the bites of insects, while those whose roots or fruits had a jointed appearance, and thus remotely suggested a scorpion, must necessarily be sovereign remedies for the sting of that creature. Porta also detected many obscure points of resemblance between the flowers and fruits of certain plants, and the limbs and organs of certain animals. In such cases of resemblance he held that an investigation of the temperament of the animal in question would determine what kind of disease the plant was intended to cure. It will be recognised from these examples that the doctrine of signatures was remarkably elastic, and was not fettered by any rigid consistency.

The illustrations of the ` Phytognomonica' are of great interest as interpreting Porta's point of view. The part of man's body which is healed by a particular herb, or the animal whose bites or stings can be cured by it, are represented in the same wood-cut as the herb. For example, the back view of a human head with a thick crop of hair is introduced into the block with the Maidenhair Fern, which is an ancient specific for baldness ; a Pomegranate with its seeds exposed, and a plant of " Toothwort," with its hard, white scale-leaves, are represented in the same figure as a set of human teeth ; a drawing of a scorpion accompanies some pictures of plants with articulated seed-vessels (Text-fig. 109) and an adder's head is introduced below the drawing of the plant known as the "Adder's tongue."

It would serve little purpose to deal in detail with the various exponents of the doctrine of signatures, such, for example, as Johann Popp, who in 1625 published a herbal written from this standpoint, and containing also some astrological botany. We will only now refer to one of the later champions of the signatures of plants, an English herbalist of the seventeenth century, who made the subject peculiarly his own. This was William Cole', a Fellow of New College, Oxford, who lived and botanised at Putney in Surrey. He seems to have been a person of much character, and his vigorous arguments would often be very telling, were it possible to admit the soundness of his premisses.

William Cole carried the doctrine of signatures to as extreme a point as can well be imagined. His account of the Walnut, from his work `Adam in Eden,' 1657, may be quoted as an illustration : " Wall-nuts have the perfect Signature of the Head: The outer husk or green Covering, represent the Perieranium, or outward skin of the skull, whereon the hair groweth, and therefore salt made of those husks or barks, are exceeding good for wounds in the head. The inner wooddy shell hath the Signature of the Skull, and the little yellow skin, or Peel, that covereth the Kernell of the hard Meninga and Pia-mater, which are the thin scarfes that envelope the brain. The Kernel bath the very figure of the Brain, and therefore it is very profitable for the Brain, and resists poysons; For if the Kernel be bruised, and moystned with the quintessence of Wine, and laid upon the Crown of the Head, it comforts the brain and head mightily."

In Cole's writings we meet with instances of a curious confusion of thought, which characterised the doctrine of signatures. The signature in some cases represents an animal injurious to man, and is taken to denote that the plant in question will cure its bites or stings. For instance, "That Plant that is called Adders tongue, because the stalke of it represents one, is a soveraigne wound Herbe to cure the biting of an Adder." In other cases, the signature represents one of the organs of the human body, and indicates that the plant will cure diseases of that organ. For example, "Heart Trefoyle is so called, not onely because the Leafe is Triangular like the Heart of a Man, but also because each Leafe containes the perfect Icon of an Heart, and that in its proper colour, viz a flesh colour. It defendeth the Heart against the noisome vapour of the Spleen."

Cole seems to have possessed a philosophic mind, and to have endeavoured to follow his theories to their logical conclusion. He was much exercised because a large proportion of the plants with undoubted medicinal virtues have no obvious signatures. He concluded that a certain number were endowed with signatures, in order to set man on the right track in his search for herbal remedies; the remainder were purposely left blank, in order to encourage his skill and resource in discovering their properties for himself. A further ingenious argument is that a number of plants are left without signatures, because if all were signed, " the rarity of it, which is the delight, would be taken away by too much harping upon one string."

Our author was evidently a keen and enthusiastic collector of herbs. In his book ' The Art of Simpling' (1656) he complains bitterly that physicians leave the gathering of herbs to the apothecaries, and the latter "rely commonly upon the words of the silly Hearb-women, who many times bring them Quid for Quo, then which nothing can be more sad."

Another strong supporter in this country of the doctrine of signatures was the astrological botanist, Robert Turner. He definitely states that " God hath imprinted upon the Plants, Herbs, and Flowers, as it were in Hieroglyphicks, the very signature of their Vertues."

It is interesting to find that the doctrine of signatures was repudiated by the best of the sixteenth-century herbalists. Dodoens, for instance, wrote in i 583 that " the doctrine of the Signatures of Plants has received the authority of no ancient writer who is held in any esteem : moreover it is so changeable and uncertain that, as far as science or learning is concerned, it seems absolutely unworthy of acceptance'."

A later writer, Guy de la Brosse, criticised the theory very acutely, pointing out that it was quite easy to imagine any resemblance between a plant and an animal that happened to be convenient. "C'est comme des nuées," he writes, " que l'on fait ressembler à tout ce que la fantaisie se represente, à une Grue, à une Grenouille, à un homme, à une armee, et autres semblables visions."

Both Paracelsus and Porta deprecate the use of foreign drugs, on the ground that in the country where a disease arises, there nature produces means to overcome it. This idea is one which constantly recurs in the herbals. In 1664 Robert Turner wrote, " For what Climate soever is subject to any particular Disease, in the same Place there grows a Cure." There is ample evidence of the survival of this theory even in the nineteenth century ; for instance, in the preface to Thomas Green's ` Universal Herbal' of 1816 we find the remark, " Nature has, in this country, as well as in all others, provided, in the herbs of its own growth, the remedies for the several diseases to which it is most subject." The notion persists indeed to the present day ; there is a wide-spread belief among children, for example, that Docks always grow in the neighbourhood of Stinging Nettles, in order to provide a cure in situ ! Whether this view contains any grain of truth or not, it certainly deserves our gratitude, since it led to Dr Maclagan's discovery of Salicin as a cure for rheumatic fever. On the ground that in the case of malverdana diseases " the poisons which cause them and the remedy which cures them are naturally produced under similar climatic conditions," Maclagan sought and found, in the bark of the Willow, which inhabits low-lying, damp situations, this drug, which has proved so valuable in the treatment of rheumatism.

The doctrine of signatures is not the only piece of botanical mysticism associated with the name of Paracelsus. He was also a firm believer in the influence of the heavenly bodies upon the vegetable world, or, in other words, in botanical astrology. He considered that each plant was under the influence of some particular star, and that it was this influence which drew the plant out of the earth when the seed germinated. He held each plant to be a terrestrial star, and each star, a spiritualised plant. Giambattista Porta also believed in a relation between certain plants and corresponding stars or planets. A figure in his Phytognomonica' here reproduced (Text-fig. I Io) shows a number of ' lunar plants."

In order to appreciate the attitude in which Paracelsus and his followers approached the subject of the relation between plants and stars, it is necessary to realise the position which Astrology had come to occupy in the Middle Ages'.

It was in ancient Babylon that this pseudo-science mainly took its rise. Here the five planets which we now call Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Mercury, and also the Sun and Moon, were identified, in certain senses, with seven great Gods. The movements of these heavenly bodies were supposed to represent in symbolic fashion the deeds of these Gods. It was thought possible to interpret the movements and relative positions of the planets and the sun and moon, in a way that threw light upon the fate of mankind, in so far as it depended upon the Gods in question.

Some centuries before the Christian era, Babylonian astrology began to influence the nations farther to the West. In Greece, the subject took a more personal turn and it was believed that the fate, not only of nations but of individuals, was determined in the skies, and could be foretold from the position of the planets at the time of a man's birth. At a later period, speculation on the subject was carried further and further, until finally not only men, but all animals, vegetables and minerals were associated, either with particular planets, or with the constellations of the Zodiac.

That a belief in the influence of the moon upon plants dates back to very early times in western Europe, is shown by the statement, in Pliny's ` Natural History,' that the Druids in Britain gathered the Mistletoe for medical purposes, with many rites and ceremonies, when the moon was six days old. To trace the history of astrology in detail is altogether beyond our province, but, as an example of its universal acceptance, we may recall the reference to the supreme influence of the stars in the preface of the Herbarius zu Teutsch of 1485 (see p. 19). Astrological ideas were familiar in Elizabethan England, and are reflected in many passages in Shakespeare's plays, never perhaps more charmingly than in Beatrice's laughing words-" there was a star danced, and under that I was born."

Paracelsus, though his name is so well known in this connection, was by no means the first writer on botanical astrology. A book called ` De virtutibus herbarum,' erroneously attributed to Albertus Magnus, had a wide circulation from early times, being first printed in the fifteenth century. It was translated into many languages, one English version appearing about 156o under the title ' The boke of secretes of Albartus Magnus, of the vertues of Herbes, stones and certaine beastes.' I t does not contain very much information about plants, being mostly occupied with animals and minerals, but there are very definite references to astrology. For instance we are told that if the Marigold " be gathered, the Sunne beynge in the sygne Leo, in August, and be wrapped in the leafe of a Laurell, or baye tree, and a wolves tothe be added therto, no man shal be able to have a word to speake agaynst the bearer therof, but woordes of peace." Concerning the Plantain we read, "The rote of this herbe is mervalous good agaynst the payne of the headde, because the signe of the Ramme is supposed to be the house of the planete Mars, which is the head of the whole worlde."

The herbal of Bartholomæus Carrichter (1575), in which the plants are arranged according to the signs of the Zodiac, is considerably more complete and elaborate than the book to which we have just referred. It seems however impossible to discover the principle, if any, which guided the author in connecting any given herb with one sign of the Zodiac rather than another.

Much stress is laid in this herbal on the hour at which the herbs ought to be gathered, great importance being ascribed to the state of the moon at the time. We are reminded of a passage in `The Merchant of Venice' where Jessica says of a bright moonlight evening

"In such a night
Medea gather'd the enchanted herbs
That did renew old AEson."

This aspect of the subject is emphasised in a curious little book published in 1571, Nicolaus Winckler's `Chronica herbarum,' which is an astrological calendar giving information as to the appropriate times for gathering different roots and herbs.

Almost contemporaneously with Carrichter's ` Kreutterbûch,' the first part of a work on astrological botany was published by Leonhardt Thurneisser zum Thurn. This writer, who was possessed of undoubted talent, was also an adventurer and charlatan of the first order. He was born at Basle in 1530 He learned his father's craft, that of a goldsmith, and is said to have also helped a local doctor to collect and prepare herbs, and to have been employed to read aloud to him from the works of Paracelsus. His career in Basle came to an untimely end, for he seems to have tried to retaliate on some customers who treated him badly, by selling them gilded lead as a substitute for gold, and consequently-had to flee the country when the fraud was discovered. He travelled widely, making an especial study of mining. He had an adventurous and varied life, sometimes in poverty and obscurity, sometimes in wealth and renown.

During Thurneisser's most influential period he lived in Berlin, practising medicine, making amulets, talismans, and secret remedies which yielded large profits. He also published astrological calendars, cast nativities, and supplemented his income by the practice of usury. At this time he owned a printing press, and employed a large staff which included artists and engravers. Later on, he was pursued by a succession of misfortunes, including accusations of magic and witchcraft, which compelled him to leave Germany. Little is known of the latter part of his life ; he died in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

Leonhardt Thurneisser projected a great botanical work in ten books. The first was published in Berlin in r 578, but the others never appeared. The title was 'Historia unnd Beschreibung Influentischer, Elementischer und Natürlicher Wirckungen, Aller fremden unnd heimischen Erdgewechssen.' A Latin version of this book, under the name, ` Historia sive descriptio plantarum,' was published in the same year. This first instalment deals only with the Urnbellifers, which were regarded as under the dominion of the Sun and Mars. The nomenclature and the figures are not clear enough to allow individual species to be recognised. Each is drawn in an ellipse surrounded by an ornamental border, which contains mystical inscriptions denoting the properties of the plant (e.g. Plate XX). " In some cases diagrams are given, showing the conjunction of the stars under which the herb should be gathered.

After the manner of the ancients, Thurneisser describes plants, according to their qualities, as either male or female. He also adds a third class, typified by a child, to symbolise those whose qualities are feeble. It may perhaps be worth while to translate here a few sentences of the first chapter the 4 Historian,' to show how far such writers as Leonhardt s,urneisser had departed from the pursuit of the subject on legitimate lines. When discussing the planting of roots and herbs and the gathering , of seeds, he declares that " it is absolutely essential that these operations should be performed so as to correspond with the stations and positions of the planets and heavenly bodies, to whose control diseases are properly subject. And against disease we have to employ herbs, with due regard of course to the sex, whichever it be, of human beings ; and so herbs intended to benefit the male sex should be procured when the Sun or Moon is in some male sign [of the Zodiac], e.g. Sagittarius or Aquarius, or if this is impossible, at least when they are in Leo. Similarly herbs intended to benefit women should be gathered under some female sign, Virgo, of course, or, if that is impossible, in Taurus or Cancer."

In the seventeenth century, England became strongly infected with astrological botany. The most notorious exponent of the subject was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), who, about 164o, set up as an astrologer and physician in Spitalfields. His portrait is reproduced in Plate X XI. He created great indignation among the medical profession by publishing, under the name of ` A Physicall Directory,' an unauthorised English translation of the Pharmacopoeia, which had been issued by the College of Physicians. That Culpeper was unpopular with orthodox medical practitioners is hardly surprising, when we consider the way in which he speaks of them in this book, as " a company of proud, insulting, domineering Doctors, whose wits were born above five hundred years before themselves." He goes on to ask —" Is it handsom and wel-beseeming a Common-wealth to see a Doctor ride in State, in Plush with a footcloath, and not a grain of Wit but what was in print before he was born ? "

Many editions of the ` Physicall Directory' were issued under different names. As ` The English Physician enlarged,' it enjoyed great popularity, and was reprinted as late as the nineteenth century. The edition of 1653 is described on the title-page as "Being an Astrologo- Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation : Containing a Compleat Method of Physick, whereby a man may pre-serve his Body in Health ; or Cure himself, being Sick, for three pence Charge, with such things only as grow in England, they being most fit for English Bodies."

Culpeper describes certain herbs as being under the dominion of the sun, the moon, or a planet, and others as under a planet and also one of the constellations of the Zodiac. His reasons for connecting a particular herb with a particular heavenly body are curiously inconsequent. He states, for example, that "Wormwood is an Herb of Mars,...I prove it thus ; What delights in Martial places, is a Martial Herb ; but Wormwood delights in Martial places (for about Forges and Iron Works you may gather a Cart load of it) Ergo it is a Martial Herb."

The author explains that each disease is caused by a planet. One way of curing the ailment is by the use of herbs belonging to an opposing planet—e.g. diseases produced by Jupiter are healed by the herbs of Mercury. On the other hand, the illness may be cured " by sympathy," that is by the use of herbs belonging to the planet which is responsible for the disease.

Culpeper indulges in a strange maze of similar reasons to justify the use of Wormwood for affections of the eyes. " The Eyes are under the Luminaries the right Eye of a Man, and the left Eye of a Woman the Sun claims Dominion over : The left Eye of a Man, and the right Eye of a Woman, are the priviledg of the Moon, Wormwood an Herb of Mars cures both'; what belongs to the Sun by Sympathy, because he is exalted in his House; but what belongs to the Moon by Antipathy, becaus he hath his Fat in hers."

It is somewhat surprising to find that, in his preface, Culpeper claims that he surpasses all his predecessors in being alone guided by reason, whereas all previous writers are "as full of nonsense and contradictions as an Egg is ful of meat."

Culpeper met with considerable opposition and criticism from his contemporaries. Shortly after his death, William Cole in his 'Art of Simpling' wrote scornfully of astrological botanists, "Amongst which Master Culpeper (a man now dead, and therefore I shall speak of him as modestly as I can, for were he alive I should be more plain with him) was a great Stickler ; And he, forsooth, judgeth all men unfit to be Physitians, who are not Artists in Astrology, as if he and some other Figure-flingers his companions, had been the onely Physitians in England, whereas for ought I can gather, either by his Books, or learne from the report of others, he was a man very ignorant in the forme of Simples."

It is interesting to notice that Cole, though he seems to the modern reader very credulous on the subject of the signatures of plants, was completely sceptical as to the association of astrology and botany. The main argument by which he tries to discredit it is an ingenious one. The knowledge of herbs is, he says, "a subject as antient as the Creation (as the Scriptures witnesse) yea more antient then the Sunne, or Moon, or Starres, they being created on the fourth day, whereas Plants were the third. Thus did God even at first confute the folly of those Astrologers, who goe about to maintaine that all vegitables in their growth, are enslaved to a necessary and unavoidable dependance on the influences of the Starres ; Whereas Plants were, even when Planets were not."

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