Herbal medicine, nowadays referred to as phytotherapy, is the main field of medicine of the Middle Ages. The cultivation of herbs, preparation of infusions, decoctions and preparations were mainly dealt with by clergymen in the monasteries: Dominicans, Cistercians, Carmelites, and Benedictines.
Initially the monks looked for plants in forests, fields and meadows. However, with time, they began to grow herbs in monastery gardens. The gathered herbs were dried, preserved and processed into ointments, spirits and syrups. They gave the names of saints to proven medicinal plants, for example they called valerian ‘St. Clare’s herb’, and wort ‘Virgin Mary’s bells’.
At first, the monks only studied and copied old medical books, then they began to create new ones. They wrote down their knowledge in richly illustrated herbalia.
Few had access to monasteries, where medical care could be obtained. Simultaneously folk medicine developed, saturated with magic and superstitions. It was cultivated by old women (i.e., according to the standards of the time, about 40-year old), quacks, witches, fortune-tellers or sorcerers. Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, and the herbalists themselves could lead a sedentary or nomadic life.
Administration of the drug was accompanied by ubiquitous rituals, spells, and patient’s incensation. It was believed that the disease could be caused by evil powers, curses, possession or planets’ arrangement. It was also believed that illness is a punishment for committed sins. Belief in the supernatural power of herbs was widespread, which is why they were hung at home or carried to protect the holder from evil spells and charms. The church forbade such magical practices and persecuted herbalists. Treated as sorcerers, they were often punished by burning at the stake.
• St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the healer.
• ‘Tractatus de Herbis’, 1440.
Edited by Beata Ceynowa, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk