09.03.15, Dendle and Touwaide, eds., Health and Healing from the Medieval Garden

Main Article Content

Ülle Sillasoo

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.015


Dendle, Peter and Alain Touwaide, eds.. Health and Healing from the Medieval Garden.. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 256. ISBN: 978-1-84383-363-5.

Reviewed by:
Ülle Sillasoo
Tallinn University

This book mainly deals with the history of medicine and medical uses of plants. The contributions deal with plants and medicine of Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Anglo-Saxons and English in antiquity, during the Carolingian Renaissance, and in the Middle Ages. Articles on the sources of and medical uses of plants give a historical overview of the materia medica in Europe since Hippocrates, the origin of possible cultural influences, contacts, and the variety of ideologies on powers and properties of plants. The topics also include plant names, cooking in the Middle Ages, Spanish gardens, treatises on individual plants (rosemary), and modern reconstructions of medieval gardens.

I found most useful the writings of Alain Touwaide, one of the editors of the book. Firstly, he gives an overview of medico-pharmaceutical literature available in the West from Hippocrates until the late Middle Ages. He is concerned with questions, for instance: what differentiates medical literature in a certain period from the one in the previous period? Which were the transformation processes that led to these differences? The author feels confident in the bibliography of early medieval medical sources. In this chapter he also, somehow, introduces the intentions of the book for the second time. The most interesting idea in the first chapter was the transformation of medicinal concept after Christianisation, after adopting Christian anthropology. Later, in his other article, he introduces the first and well known sources of medieval gardens, including the first satisfactory documented medicinal or botanical gardens in Europe and Byzantine. The main topic of this other article is Byzantine herb gardens. The author uses Greek pharmacological literature for featuring the practices of therapeutics. He compares plant lists in Corpus Hippocraticum, De materia medica and two different versions of Dioscoride's texts, which refer to different cultures of healing. Question remains, how representative are these differences concerning time? The author discusses the introduction of Arabic plant names into Greek texts by their translation. His research on the jujube tree in ancient texts (identification of the plant, its distribution and mentioned uses) shows how the making use of this plant changed through time. And what were the possible cultural influences between regions. One also learns, that classical and early medieval sources refer to collecting plants in the wild rather than cultivating them in gardens, and that people who collected plants for medical doctors existed already in the 4th-3rd century BC.

Linda Ehrsam Voigts deals with plants in connection with celestial bodies in early medieval society. The focus of this article is not scholastic botany or herbal materia medica, but early medieval treatises, where plants were related to the elements of cosmos. The author illustrates the tradition of celestial bodies in a number of examples: a) seven planets--seven plants, including the Alexander/ Pseudo-Albertus tradition, the Kiranides tradition (both deriving from Greek texts and astrological tradition), and a Variant tradition; and b) treatises on individual plants and planets, including Lunary and Mortagon treatises, the former related to the moon and the latter to Mars. These examples suggest that there was a variety of understandings of the world and universal natural law, also persisting in modern societies. When Christian anthropology relates the power of plants with the God, the tradition of celestial bodies suggests that plants received their powers from planets. These ideas were considered as magic causing execution of people involved. One also learns that books on plants, which were written from non-medical point of view (e.g. by Theophrastus and Albertus Magnus), were not as popular as herbals, and that the antique tradition of medical herbals continued in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages these herbals were affected by scholastic classification.

Three chapters of this book deal with Anglo-Saxon plants. Maria Amalia D'Aronco contributes to the topic by writing about the origin and history of Anglo-Saxon illustrated herbals. The author underlines that Greek works were the true ancestors of late antique herbals which disseminated in medieval Europe. The legacy was carefully kept since the 4th century BC. Images, such as Mother Earth and the gatherer, which the Greek and Roman world received from pre-Hellenic times, were handed down to the Middle Ages. More sophisticated versions of illustrated herbals circulated since the second century AD and later, where together with image and name, the physical description of plant, place of its growth, supposed way of gathering, and possible remedies that could be obtained were presented. The author emphasizes the contribution of two remarkable medieval monks, Cassiodorus and St Benedict, into the development of medicine. Their attention and interest in healing started a process that lead to the transformation of Benedictine monasteries into important centers of medical knowledge and practice. After referring to many interesting and specific details on early medieval medical manuscripts, including the Old English Pharmacopoeia, she gives a list of illustrated Anglo-Saxon herbals with the sources. The paper is comprehensive, but at places difficult to read.

Another contributor to the knowledge of Anglo-Saxon plants, Philip G. Rusche, agrees that a large part of Anglo-Saxon plant lore in England was inherited from classical antiquity, and that Greek and Latin translations of names and the access to non-native plants were problems encountered by early translators of medical recipes. There was a variety of alternative names in the original sources, and these alternatives only multiplied in time due to copying and translating the manuscripts. Glossaries were meant to overcome these difficulties, but sometimes they blurred the picture instead. The author discusses primary sources, the medical and non-medical materials with the knowledge of Greek and Latin plant names in Anglo-Saxon England. There are, for example, schoolbooks which reveal the standard method of making glossaries, and classical and late antique medical and herbal texts which were plausibly brought to England by medical doctors trained in southern Europe. In the late 10th century, many medical texts were translated into Old English, and related to these there were a few glossaries. The main concern of the author is the 12th- century English Laud Herbal Glossary of which he is preparing a new edition. He suggests that the compiler of the manuscript had many sources at hand resulting in a non-homogenous manuscript. The sources of the manuscript are identified and discussed.

The contribution by Marijane Osborn closely reviews an Anglo-Saxon doctor's book from ca. 950. The third part of this book represents native English medical material, verbal lore about eleven Nordic flowering plants. The article focuses on their pragmatic uses. It represents women's tradition concerned with woman's health. The seven recipes, transliterated and translated in the article refer to the use of wild parsnip, henbane, coriander, brooklime, wild mallow, pennyroyal, burdock, two kinds of centaury, mugwort, and wild celery. These recipes are in a modern sense a mixture of sympathetic magic, superstition and a bit of real chemical properties. They were suggested to conceive a child, expel a blocked placenta and dead child, reduce excessive bleeding after giving birth, and induce the monthly period. The author discusses the real pharmacological properties of these plants, the value of these recipes and their place in modern medicine.

Peter Dendle writes about the Carolingian Renaissance, more specifically how the world, including medicine and the power of plants and healing was understood by early medieval writers. The author starts very philosophically, but ends up discussing examples of herbs. One learns about herbariums, charms, the Book of Secrets, and the principles and ways how plants were used directly and indirectly for healing. Also, how diseases of the time were understood and explained. A disease was compared with an intruder; healing was equal to expelling the intruder, in contrast to the Latin Renaissance (Roman- Arabic) understanding of illness as not balanced humours. One gets an impression that no measure was too much, and that all possible knowledge available was used to cure the sick. Plants were used and feared at the same time. The knowledge that spread at that time in Europe is traceable back to India and the ancient Near East.

Peter Murray Jones analyses the notes of a 14th-century English surgeon John of Arderne, studying his use of herbs during and after the surgery and cure of fistula in ano. The surgeon's care in making notes is impressive and shows the importance of the written record in memorizing the variety of opportunities and practical details a surgeon can use in his highly responsible work. This writing reflects the collection of knowledge on plant uses in the time, where beside "real" plant properties, theory of signatures and superstition is employed. In this article, it is demonstrated that medicine, like food, clothing, etc, were the matter of social distinction. There are medicines suggested for nobles, and plants suggested for ennobling certain medicines. This record also sheds light on hopeless medical cases where plant amulets are suggested and accepted as an "experimental" working with the help of God, a cure not explainable for the surgeon, in case of cancer.

The uses of rosemary are the topic of the paper by George R. Keiser, a thorough and detailed analysis of rosemary manuscripts in medieval and early modern England. The contribution at times loses focus, with long sections on manuscript science and manuscript making that are not clearly related to information about rosemary, its introduction to England and its occurrence in medical treatises. Many cited texts are in Middle English which will prevent their understanding by a number of readers. One also wonders who were the producers and users of the mentioned manuscripts. Although a wonderful piece of study, I missed the cultural approach to the topic that could contextualise the manuscripts, and clarify the social environment where rosemary texts occur.

Terence Scully analyses which were the most important herbs used in cooking for the sick. As late medieval medicine used the theory of humours, the scheme of the properties of foodstuffs (and related) is given. Cooks in noble houses looked for advice from court physicians. The article examines how medical information was used by cooks to content their wealthy employers, family and house guests. Two foodstuffs/ingredients were frequently proposed in dishes for the sick in well-off households: chicken and barley. Concerning herbs and spices, the analysis shows the frequent use of parsley, sage, pepper, and ginger in food for the sick, which does not differ from what is known about the most frequently used condiments in late medieval Europe, in food for the wealthy. Green souse, commonly used in 14th century Europe, is also prescribed for the sick. Perhaps not the use of these herbs by means of spices, but neglecting meat on doctor's recommendation, was the most interesting result of this study.

Two last contributions talk about real gardens. These are the chapters on gardens referred to in the title of the book. The study by Expiración García Sánchez outlines the principal varieties of Arab- Muslim gardens in medieval Europe, and discusses their influence on the gardening practices in Europe. This paper approaches gardens of al-Andalus by dividing them by their owners rather than functionality. It was interesting to read about the process of selecting plants for the Arab-Muslim gardens. In royal gardens, the social status of the owners was applied to plants using the symbology of power and self- assertion by means of displaying refinement, rareness, "strange beauty", exotic varieties, gifts. Plants were selected for admiration or production of sensory pleasure. In family gardens the multiplicity of plant uses was greater. The example of the Arab-Muslim gardens shows that medieval garden plants were multifunctional. Garden plants can be ornamental due to their location in the garden. Trees can be used for delimiting boundaries, producing edible fruit and shade, once more stressing the utilitarian-ornamental concept of the Arab-Muslim gardens of al-Andalus. I only wish the author had mentioned the individual species which were introduced and distributed in Europe by the Arab-Muslim gardeners through particular cultural contacts.

Deirdre Larkin writes about the sources and ideas of recreating medieval gardens in modern times. Our understanding of medieval garden design is based on pictorial sources and plans. The layout used to be narrow, rectangular beds, each bed devoted to a single species, the utilitarian design typical for productive gardens. Productive gardens have a more conservative layout than pleasure gardens shaped by fashion. Sparsely planted medieval beds--was this an artistic convention or matter of practical horticulture? The author touches on the cultural diversity and variety of forms that "medieval gardens" may take both in the Middle Ages and the modern times. The author emphasizes the multifunctionality of medieval garden plants, and asks why it is so important to recreate medieval gardens and not classical ones? She concludes that our cultural roots are in the Middle Ages. A recreated medieval garden gives us cognitive knowledge of this cultural space. Here, as in the introduction of the book, it is repeated that there was no aspect of medieval life--artistic, literary, social, economic, religious or scientific, which could not be approached through plants and gardens. I just hope that readers do not mind a tiny error that appears in the header of this article, where Hortus redivivus has become Horus redivivus, calling for the re-birth of an ancient Egyptian god.

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Author Biography

Ülle Sillasoo

Tallinn University