On the History of Herbals
Some time ago I began working on what I’ve dubbed a working herbal. Er, maybe just a notebook of plant information…either way, I have a 18″ by 30″ monster of a moleskine notebook (my unrivaled favorite notebook). Each page is dedicated to an herb. At first I freaked out because the paper was unlined. I wanted all my information to be neat and easily accessible, unmerciful Virgo that I am.
But as I toyed with the layout, I found that it would be much more useful and authentic to not have the information embedded in this working herbal to be linear. I could divide up the page in strange and dorky ways, write in circles, use symbols, codes and pictures. I could have the most lavish illustrations and have the actual plants and tinctures on the page. Information is transmitted in many ways. Plants, especially medicinal plants, and their interaction with the human being is a complex phenomenon. So, why in the dickens am I just using words? Rich and varied materials create a more rich and varied experience.
All of this musing about design of herbals has brought me deep into the history of herbals. In case someone reading were interested in similar topics, I wanted to provide some information and resources. I love old herbals, not only for their unique perspective of bodily processes, but also for their design and illustrations.
In the Western world, herbals can be traced by to two branches or lineages. The Greek/Arabic tradition was realized through the publication of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. The Latin tradition began with Pseudo-Apuleius. To share some classic antiquated herbals:
- Pen Tsao Kang-Mu (2700 bc) by Chinese Emperor Shennung, China
- De Materia Medica (1st cent.) by Dioscorides, Mediterranean region
- Pseudo-Apuleius Herbal (5th cent.) by Pseudo-Apuleius
- Physica (12th cent.) by St. Hildegaard von Bingen, German Benedictine abbess and Christian mystic, present-day Germany
- Herbarius Latinus (1486) by Johann Petri, present-day Germany
- Bancke’s Herball (1525) by Richard Banckes, England
- The Aztec Codex (1552), authors unknown, present-day Mexico
- Generall History of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard, England
- A New Herbal, Or Historie of Plants (1619) by Henry Lyte, England
- Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper, England
Some books on the history of herbals include Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions by Minta Collins, An Illustrated History of the Herbals by Frank J. Anderson, The Illustrated Herbal by Wilfrid Blunt and Sandra Raphael.
Isn’t it interesting to consider the design of herbals, and how to convey information about the plants! These texts can give us a context and inspiration to envision a new and better way to record and share our knowledge.