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Early History Of The Herbal In England

( Originally Published 1912 )


CONCERNING the Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus, a few remarks have been already made. This herbal was perhaps the first through which any kind of systematic knowledge of medicinal plants was brought into Britain. For this reason it may be mentioned here, although manuscript herbals do not, strictly, come within our province. In the Bodleian Library there is an Anglo-Saxon translation of the work, which is said to have been made for King Alfred. Another Anglo-Saxon manuscript of later date, probably transcribed between A.D. I000 and the Norman Conquest, has been rendered into modern English by Dr Cockayne. The classical and Anglo-Saxon plant-names are given in the herbal, and, although there is scarcely any attempt at description, the localities where the plants may be found are sometimes mentioned.

The greater part of the manuscript is concerned with the virtues of herbs. The plants were regarded in this, as in most early works, merely as " simples," that is, the simple constituents of compound medicines. Hieronymus Bock in 1551 described his herbal as being an account of "die Einfache erd Gewachs, Simplicia genant." The term " simple," now almost obsolete, was a household word in earlier times, when most remedies were manufactured at home in the stillroom. The expression of Jaques in ' As You Like It'---" a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects "—would not have seemed in the least far-fetched to an audience of that day. It is interesting that, although the word "simple," used in this sense, has vanished from our common speech, its antithesis "compound" has held its place in the language of pharmacy.

The southern source of the Herbal of Apuleius is suggested by the fact that the origin of the healing art is attributed to AEsculapius and Chiron. We are told, also, that the Wormwoods were discovered by Diana, who "delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron, the centaur, who first from these worts set forth a leechdom." The Lily-of-the-Valley, on the other hand, is said to have been found by Apollo and given by him "to AEsculapius, the leech."

Many of the accounts of the virtues of the plants are of the nature of spells or charms rather than of medical recipes. For instance it is recommended that " if any propose a journey, then let him take to him in hand this wort artemisia, then he will not feel much toil in his journey." As is usually the case in the older herbals, the proper mode of uprooting the Mandrake is described with much gusto. " This wort is mickle and illustrious of aspect, and it is beneficial. Thou shalt in this manner take it, when thou comest to it, then thou understandest it by this, that it shineth at night altogether like a lamp. When first thou seest its head, then inscribe thou it instantly with iron, lest it fly from thee ; its virtue is so mickle and so famous, that it will immediately flee from an unclean man, when he cometh to it ; hence as we before said, do thou inscribe it with iron, and so shalt thou delve about it, as that thou touch it not with the iron, but thou shalt earnestly with an ivory staff delve the earth. And when thou seest its hands and its feet, then tie thou it up. Then take the other end and tie it to a dog's neck, so that the hound be hungry next cast meat before him, so that he may not reach it, except he jerk up the wort with him. Of this wort it is said, that it hath so mickle might, that what thing soever tuggeth it up, that it shall soon in the same manner be deceived. Therefore, as soon as thou see that it be jerked up, and have possession of it, take it immediately in hand, and twist it, and wring the ooze out of its leaves into a glass ampulla."

The writer of the herbal evidently fully accepted the mythical notion that the Mandrake was furnished with human limbs. Plate V shows how this plant was depicted in an early printed edition of the Herbarium of Apuleius, but much more spirited and sensational treatments of the same subject are to be found in some of the manuscripts dealing with herbs. Sixteenth-century representations are shown in Text-figs. 107 and 112.

The earliest English printed book containing information of a definitely botanical character is probably the translation of the ` Liber de proprietatibus rerum' of Bartholomæus Anglicus, which was printed by Wynkyn de Worde before the end of the fifteenth century. This has been briefly mentioned in the last chapter (pp. 10 and II) and a wood-cut from it is shown in Text-fig. 19.

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