While there are certainly texts from the medieval period that denote the uses of herbs, there has been a long-standing debate between scholars as to the actual motivations and understandings that underline the creation of herbal documents during the medieval period. The first point of view dictates that the information presented in these medieval texts were merely copied from their classical equivalents without much thought or understanding. The second viewpoint, which is gaining traction among modern scholars, states that herbals were copied for actual use and backed by genuine understanding.
Some evidence for the suggestion that herbals were utilized with knowledgeable intent, was the addition of several chapters of plants, lists of symptoms, habitat information, and plant synonyms added to texts such as the Herbarium. Notable texts utilized in this time period include Bald’s Leechbook, the Lacnunga, the peri didaxeon, Herbarium Apulei, Da Taxone, and Madicina de Quadrupedidus, while the most popular during this time period were the Ex Herbis Femininis, the Herbarius, and works by Dioscorides.
Benedictine monasteries were the primary source of medical knowledge in Europe and England during the Early Middle Ages. However, most of these monastic scholars’ efforts were focused on translating and copying ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic works, rather than creating substantial new information and practices. Many Greek and Roman writings on medicine, as on other subjects, were preserved by hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries. The monasteries thus tended to become local centers of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens provided the raw materials for simple treatment of common disorders. At the same time, folk medicine in the home and village continued uninterrupted, supporting numerous wandering and settled herbalists. Among these were the “wise-women” and “wise men”, who prescribed herbal remedies often along with spells, enchantments, divination and advice. It was not until the late Middle Ages that women and men who were knowledgeable in herb lore became the targets of the witch hysteria. One of the most famous women in the herbal tradition was Hildegard of Bingen. A 12th-century Benedictine nun, she wrote a medical text called Causae et Curae. During this time, herbalism was mainly practiced by women, particularly among Germanic tribes.
There were three major sources of information on healing at the time including the Arabian School, Anglo-Saxon leechcraft, and Salerno. A great scholar of the Arabian School was Avicenna, who wrote The Canon of Medicine which became the standard medical reference work of the Arab world. “The Canon of Medicine is known for its introduction of systematic experimentation and the study of physiology, the discovery of contagious diseases and sexually transmitted diseases, the introduction of quarantine to limit the spread of infectious diseases, the introduction of experimental medicine, clinical trials, and the idea of a syndrome in the diagnosis of specific diseases. …The Canon includes a description of some 760 medicinal plants and the medicine that could be derived from them.” With Leechcraft, though bringing to mind part of their treatments, leech was the English term for medical practitioner. Salerno was a famous school in Italy centered around health and medicine. A student of the school was Constantine the African, credited with bringing Arab medicine to Europe.
Translation of text and image has provided numerous versions and compilations of individual manuscripts from diverse sources, old and new. Translation is a dynamic process as well as a scholarly endeavor that contributed great to science in the Middle Ages; the process naturally entailed continuous revisions and additions. The Benedictine monasteries were known for their in-depth knowledge of herbals. These gardens grew the herbs which were considered to be useful for the treatment of the various human ills; the beginnings of modern medical education can be connected with monastic influence. Monastic academies were developed and monks were taught how to translate Greek manuscripts into Latin.
Knowledge of medieval botanicals was closely related to medicine because the plant’s principal use was for remedies. Herbals were structured by the names of the plants, identifying features, medicinal parts of plant, therapeutic properties, and some included instructions on how to prepare and use them. For medical use of herbals to be effective, a manual was developed. Dioscorides’ De material medica was a significant herbal designed for practical purposes.
Monasteries established themselves as centers for medical care. Information on these herbals and how to use them was passed on from monks to monks, as well as their patients. These illustrations were of no use to everyday individuals; they were intended to be complex and for people with prior knowledge and understanding of herbal. The usefulness of these herbals have been questioned because they appear to be unrealistic and several plants are depicted claiming to cure the same condition, as “the modern world does not like such impression.” When used by experienced healers, these plants can provide their many uses. For these medieval healers, no direction was needed their background allowed them to choose proper plants to use for a variety of medical conditions. The monk’s purpose was to collect and organize text to make them useful in their monasteries. Medieval monks took many remedies from classical works and adapted them to their own needs as well as local needs. This may be why none of the collections of remedies we have presently agrees fully with another.
Another form of translation was oral transmission; this was used to pass medical knowledge from generation to generation. A common misconception is that one can know early medieval medicine simply by identifying texts, but it is difficult to compose a clear understanding of herbals without prior knowledge. There are many factors that played in influenced in the translation of these herbals, the act of writing or illustrating was just a small piece of the puzzle, these remedies stems from many previous translations the incorporated knowledge from a variety of influences.
In Western Europe, after Theophrastus, botany passed through a bleak period of 1800 years when little progress was made and, indeed, many of the early insights were lost. As Europe entered the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), a period of disorganised feudalism and indifference to learning, China, India and the Arab world enjoyed a golden age. Chinese philosophy had followed a similar path to that of the ancient Greeks. The Chinese dictionary-encyclopaedia Erh Ya probably dates from about 300 BC and describes about 334 plants classed as trees or shrubs, each with a common name and illustration. Between 100 and 1700 AD many new works on pharmaceutical botany were produced including encyclopaedic accounts and treatises compiled for the Chinese imperial court. These were free of superstition and myth with carefully researched descriptions and nomenclature; they included cultivation information and notes on economic and medicinal uses — and even elaborate monographs on ornamental plants. But there was no experimental method and no analysis of the plant sexual system, nutrition, or anatomy.
The 400-year period from the 9th to 13th centuries AD was the Islamic Renaissance, a time when Islamic culture and science thrived. Greco-Roman texts were preserved, copied and extended although new texts always emphasised the medicinal aspects of plants. Kurdish biologist Ābu Ḥanīfah Āḥmad ibn Dawūd Dīnawarī (828–896 AD) is known as the founder of Arabic botany; his Kitâb al-nabât (‘Book of Plants’) describes 637 species, discussing plant development from germination to senescence and including details of flowers and fruits. The Mutazilitephilosopher and physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (c. 980–1037 AD) was another influential figure, his The Canon of Medicine being a landmark in the history of medicine treasured until the Enlightenment.
In India simple artificial plant classification systems of the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and Taittiriya Samhita became more botanical with the work of Parashara (c. 400 – c. 500 AD), the author of Vṛksayurveda (the science of life of trees). He made close observations of cells and leaves and divided plants into Dvimatrka (Dicotyledons) and Ekamatrka (Monocotyledons). The dicotyledons were further classified into groupings (ganas) akin to modern floral families: Samiganiya (Fabaceae), Puplikagalniya (Rutaceae), Svastikaganiya(Cruciferae), Tripuspaganiya (Cucurbitaceae), Mallikaganiya (Apocynaceae), and Kurcapuspaganiya (Asteraceae). Important medieval Indian works of plant physiology include the Prthviniraparyam of Udayana, Nyayavindutika of Dharmottara, Saddarsana-samuccaya of Gunaratna, and Upaskara of Sankaramisra.