Evaluating Change in Medicine: The Difficulty in Comparing Old Methodology with New

by AyBeeSeeOneTwoThree on October 31, 2017 - 4:00pm

Evaluating Change in Medicine: The Difficulty in Comparing Old Methodology with New

            The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597), by John Gerard is a book containing detailed information pertaining to: a wide variety of plants which can be found within a large geographical area, the common names of these plants, the temperature at which they can grow, and their “vertues” (Gerard, 1363); which is an explanation of their practical uses, usually medicinal. The book itself is very large: weighing at approximately 10-15 pounds, has 1732 pages, with dimensions of about 9 by 12 inches. The burgundy binding is bent and ripped at the corners, some of which is peeled off completely. The pages are discolored at the edges, appearing to be burgundy as well; they smell like mold. Most of the book is written in English, whereas certain pages are written in Latin; which would allow one to deduce that it was limited to usage by Early Modern Apothecaries, Aristocrats, and Scholars; a book like such would be costly. Though it was printed (as one can tell from the nature of the font), the marginalia remain in the more recent copies. For one to know what they are reading, they must turn to the first few pages for the Author’s note and the title page, since there are no inscriptions on the cover itself. Importantly, the book contains an index, a glossary, and images to support the aesthetical claims pertaining to the plant being evaluated. With that said: The aesthetics of the book are like medical works of today, but the medical content (the “vertues” (Ibid), or virtues) aims at answering questions posed in a period at which human nature was understood in a complete different manner. Therefore, it is important to compare Gerard’s approach towards treatments with the usage of natural remedies by understanding his limitations (the knowledge of medicine at the time was confined to everything revolving around the four humours (Cook, 410); so that science and religion could thrive as one) to knowledge considering the times, but, to seek similarities with today’s approach.

            Firstly, medical knowledge in 1597 strongly revolved around tending to the four humours (Ibid), as previously mentioned. Not always to treat illnesses affecting either: one’s blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm (Brand, Marianopolis College, 2017-10-16), but to take precautionary measures in the attempt to avoid an imbalance within. Though the principles of practice in this period were based off the scientific method (Lewis, The Scientific Method in Medicine) as they are today, the approach for treatment always fell back onto this humoral theory (Ibid). Gerard’s theories and discoveries on the nature of various plants and herbs were focused on healing or keeping a balance between these humors. This focus proved to be effective in certain cases because, as we will see later, Gerard’s proposed remedies are still used today (although, modified). Yet, as we know today: the intricacies of human anatomy transcend our contemporary physical knowledge and at the least, is more complex and detailed than the Early Modern’s proposed four humors. Also, the belief that special powers, or that spirits played a role in Early Modern medicine, and influenced botany: “certain plants […] were thought to have special powers, or to be inhabited by particular spirits, which could do good or ill” (Cook, 417). It is imperative to use this point as a token to interpret the change in framework from then to now. Science of today strongly revolves around empirical observations but also, that these observations can be justified through the scientific method and validated by being tested by many scientists (Lewis, The Scientific Method in Medicine).

            Though Gerard’s evaluation of plants and their uses in medicine was sufficient for treating issues like stomach ulcers and colic, there lacked accuracy in the actual effect this confection had on the body. Once again, it was interpreted that, for example: a plant like the Mandragora had roots, that when squeezed for juice, proved to be effective for purging the stomach of excessive phlegm and melancholic humors (black bile) (Brand, Marianopolis College, 2017-10-16). One cannot deny that the Mandrake (root of the Mandragora), still proves to be effective treating stomach-related illnesses in modern medicine (Grieve, A Modern Herbal). Yet, there is a noticeable difference when interpreting the treatment information, and one could admit that today’s method and understanding is more accurate (though, not to undermine Gerard’s and many other scholars of the time’s ingenuity, simply stating that technology and medicine is more advanced in present-day). Another difference is that in today’s medicine and science, spirituality does not play a role. Gerard included, as one of the virtues for the Mandrake, that it causes women to be fruitful and makes them healthier for carrying babies: but only due to its relation to a biblical passage in which a human requested God to grant her a baby or else she would take away her life, and so he did (qt. in Gerard, 282). These are crucial differences when relating medicine from Gerard’s time to that of today, but in no way, is presented to undermine the validity of his, or other M.D.’s findings. Instead, I am stating these points to present the difference in the framework for which early modern, and modern-day doctors operated within; but, also to display the similarities and evolution of this knowledge.

            Evidently, there are differences between interpretations and the practice of medicine between the Early Modern Period, particularly in 1597 when John Gerard’s The Herball or General Historie of Plantes was published, and contemporary medicine. Though, one could not deny the similarities such as what a natural remedy could be used for, as some are still in practice to this day. Everything changes with time, especially scientific discovery and medicine. Therefore, it is imperative to not sabotage the lack of accuracy or correctness of a claim in a book published in 1597 or any time for that matter, but to respect the fact that knowledge, and paradigm changes over time.














Works Cited:

(Brand, Sarah)., (Course Lecture, New Scientific Knowledge)., (Marianopolis College),

     (October 16, 2017)

(Brand, Sarah)., (Early Modern Knowledge Course Pack 345-101MQ), (Marianopolis College),


(Gerard, John)., (The herball or generall historie of plantes)., (Theatrum Orbis Terrarum),


Grieve, M. “Mandrake.” A Modern Herbal | Mandrake, 1995,


Lewis, Nolan D. C. “The Scientific Method in Medicine.” Journal of the National Medical

     Association, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 1958, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2641521/?page=1.