The first written record of medicinal herbs comes from China, dating from 2800BC, and includes 366 plants. In other parts of the world, as soon as writing was adopted, information about herbs began to be recorded.
The Greek physician Hippocrates left a list of 400 plants, many of which, including Elder, Garlic, Hawthorn, Henbane, Juniper and Thyme, are still in use today. Hippocrates is also notable for being what we would now describe as an 'holistic' practitioner. He laid much emphasis on treating the whole patient, including physical, mental and emotional states. He saw the role of the physician as heloing patients to help themselves, an idea to which we have only recently begun to return.
Holistic thinking received a setback undert the system of Galen (AD 121-180), the personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. His system was a very rigid one. He classified plants according to their reaction with the patient's "humours" (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic or sanguine), and designated a "termperament" for each herb with very strict rules about the conditions that indicated its use.
It was probably during Galen's time that the division began to appear in Western Europe between the "qualified" physician and the traditional healer. The former had learned Galen's system abd knew how the temperament of each plant reacted with the patient's humours; the latter simply knew that a specific planbt was good for treating a particular condition. Galen also used inorganic compounds.
In ancient Britain, the native tradition of the Druids was enriched when Greek and Alexandrian knowledge was brought in by the Romans. In the sixth century AD, the School pf Physicians at Myddfai in Wales reflected the holistic approach of Hippocrates rather than the rigid system of Galen. Later on, medicinal herbs were used by monks to treat the sick, and medicinal plants were cultivated in monastery gardens.
There are several famous English herbals but the one with the most historical significance was that written by Nicholas Culpeper and published in 1652. He was aopthecary who had achieved notoriety and incurred the wrath of the orthodox physicians when, in 1649, he translated their London Pharmacopeia from Latin into English. Thus it could be read and understood by other apothecaries who used it to treat poor people who could not afford a phusician's fee.
Culpeper's herbals is significant in two respects:
The use of herbs had always been associated with myth and magic to some extent, but Culpeper's timing was unfortunate, coming at a time when medicine was becoming "scientific". The use of inorganic poisons, such as mercury, lead, antimony and arsenic, had been introduced due to the influence of the Swiss-German doctor Paracelsus (1493-1591). Herbal medicine fell into disrepute because of its association. It was criticised by the Church of Rome and its practritioners were foten burnt as witches. One of the factors that particularly angered the Church was the knowledge held by "wise women" concerning fertility and abortion.
Some of the so-called superstition associated with the gathering of herbs for medicine has now received scientific backing. Many plants were gathered at specific times: at sunrise, at dusk or during a particular phase of the moon. It has been discovered that the alkaloid activity of many plants can fluctuate during the moon's cycle or even over a 24 hour period. For instance, the cardiac glycosides of the Foxglove decompose in the leaves from morning onwards. Hence, it is better to gather in the afternoon.