Natural Medicine in the 16th Century

by abc123456 on October 26, 2017 - 5:17pm

The Osler library, located on the McGill campus, is a place where you can find hundreds of rare and expensive books about medicine written as long as 500 years ago. During my two trips there, I read pages from The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, a 1392-page medicine book written by John Gerarde and published in 1597, not very long after the invention of the printing press. The book, which is around 20 by 30 cm, is printed in a font very similar to what we use today (except for the letter s, which is often written as “ſ”, and “u” and “v” which are interchanged), contains no handwritten notes in the margins and seems to be in an excellent condition. Unlike most modern books, the cover, back, and side of the book are red and have nothing written on them. Each page contains detailed black and white illustrations of plants, information about where and at what time of the year they can be found, a description, names in different languages, a list of their medicinal uses, and even a list of their dangers. Although it is surprising how much knowledge Early Modern Europeans had about plants, the book also makes us realize how differently medical knowledge was acquired in the 16th century: instead of testing the effectiveness and dangers of drugs through trials as we do today, they relied on their knowledge of plants and false beliefs about the causes of illnesses to find cures that were sometimes successful, sometimes ineffective, and other times very dangerous.

Firstly, the theory on which many of the treatments rely is false. For example, the chapter about reeds describes them as “hot and drie in the second degree, as Galen saith” (Gerarde 35), which is a reference to yellow bile the theory of the four humours (which is completely false and also justified practices such as bleeding sick people), and uses this to explain that reeds heal “hot and sharpe inflammations” (35). In fact, most of the benefits of the plants are either unjustified or justified using humorism. Another example can be found in the chapter about barberries: “[t]he leaves and berries of this thorne are cold and drie in the second degree: and as Galen also affirmeth [...]”, so they are therefore used to “alaieth the the heat of the bloud, tempereth the overmuch heat of the liver”, “coole hot stomackes”, and treat “hot burning agues” (fevers) (1145). Galen, the person whom Gerarde repeatedly cites throughout the book, was in fact a physician, surgeon, and philosopher in the Roman Empire who lived during the second century, which shows that doctors still relied on 1500 year old beliefs.

Secondly, many of the cures described in the book are ineffective, and some of the illnesses mentioned don’t even exist. For example, the chapter about “female Fluellens” tells a story about how some of the best physicians and surgeons were about to cut off the nose of a patient suffering from leprosy when an unskilled barber saved his nose by making him drink the juice of that plant (501). In this case, it is likely that the person healing after the plant was just a coincidence, but the author uses this single case as evidence that it is a “perfect cure for leprosie” (501), which shows that there is a problem in the way medical knowledge was confirmed in the 16th century. The index of the book lists more supposed effects of herbs such as “draw[ing] foorth corrupt and rotten [b]ones out of sores and ulcers”, “comfort[ing] the cold, weake and feeble [b]rain” (another reference to the four humors, which is also sexist because the theory considers women cold and wet) (index letter B, no page number) and “tak[ing] away proud [f]lesh growing in the nostrils” (index letter F), all of which are obviously not actual illnesses.

To summarize, although the knowledge of Early Modern Europeans about plants was very impressive, they relied on many false beliefs and still had a lot to learn to reach our level of medical knowledge. It is important to understand the importance of plants in medicine in the 16th century and what their theories about illness were if we want to be able to understand why some treatments which now seem to be nonsense were being practiced during that period of time and how medical knowledge has progressed over the centuries.  


Work Cited

John Gerarde, The Herball or General Historie of Plantes. 1597.