History of Western Herbalism

History of Western Herbalism

New Stone Age Europe (8,000 to 5,000 B.C.)

The Sorcerer — c.11000 BC, Painting from Trois Frères Cave, Ariège, France Cave Painting
The Sorcerer — c.11000 BC, Painting from Trois Frères Cave, Ariège, France
Cave Painting
  • Transition from the paleolithic to neolithic period…from a food gathering to a food producing economy.
  • Stone was polished, creating tools to clear trees, help farming.
  • Lake-dwellers cultivated or gathered over two hundred different plants, among which are not a few that possess medicinal qualities (Papaver somniferum L., Sambucus ebulus L., Fumaria officinalis L., Verbena officinalis L., Saponaria officinalis, Menyanthes trifoliata L., etc.).(1)
  • In the history of herbalism, women prepared food and healing potions—women generally practiced herbalism on a day to day basis, as well as took care of the ills of other members of the family or tribal unit(2). However, throughout history, men compiled the remedies and wrote them down, which is why nearly all the herbals are by men.
  • Chimpanzees have been seen to self-select medicinal herbs for treatment of disease.
  • Early mind-body medicine is seen to be practiced in the many rituals, magic rites, beliefs of higher beings affecting health and disease, etc. This was especially prevalent up until the time of the Egyptians (2500 B.C.), when “rational” medicine began to rise and continued to run concurrently with religious and magical medicine.
  • Magic, religion, and medicine are one to the primitive mind. The belief in spirits that reside in animate and inanimate objects of man’s environment, in the elements of nature, spirits that interfere in man’s life for good or evil and therefore may cause disease, is extremely widespread, in fact almost universal(3).
  • Most primitive tribes today possess an expert knowledge of medicinal plants, which number at times to hundreds(4).


Part of the Ebers Papyrus c.1550 BC
Part of the Ebers Papyrus c.1550 BC

Menes, the founder of the 1st Dynasty united Upper and Lower Egypt around 3000 B.C., but the land along the Nile had been inhabited for thousands of years before that.(5) The Secret Book of the Heart tells of 3 kinds of healers, the physician, the priest, and the sorcerer. The most complete medical documents existing are the Ebers Papyrus (1550 B.C.) and the Edwin Smith Papyrus (1600 B.C.)(6). However, the Kahun Medical Papyrus was the oldest that has been translated—it comes from 1900 B.C. and deals with the health of women, including birthing instructions. Commonly used herbs included senna, honey, thyme, juniper, frankincense, cumin, colocynth (all for digestion); pomegranate root, henbane (for worms); as well as flax, oakgall, pine-tar, manna, bayberry, ammi, alkanet, acanthus, aloe, caraway, cedar, coriander, cyperus, elderberry, fennel, garlic, wild lettuce, nasturtium, onion, peppermint, papyrus, poppy-plant, saffron, sycamore, watermelon, wheat, and zizyphus-lotus(7). Babylonian and Syrian medicine formed a bridge between Egypt and Greece and flourished between 1000 and 2000 B.C.


Dioscorides — De Materia Medica, Codex Neapolitanus, 7th century
Dioscorides — De Materia Medica, Codex Neapolitanus, 7th century

Much of the early Greek medical knowledge came over from Egypt(8). In Dioscorides´ work, De Materia Medica (ca. 55 A.D.), a number of the recipes are the same as listed in Papyrus Ebers and prescribed for the same ailments. Although Dioscorides was considered the absolute authority in materia medica for over 1600 years, it is important to note that knowledge of herbs and healing was handed down from one generation and culture to the next, and thus belongs to no one man, woman, or individual, but to humanity. As is well-known, the Greeks were highly skilled in medicine and materia medica. The following sources come down to us from the ancient period of about 500 B.C. to 60 A.D.

  1. Hippokrates: usually considered an entire school of “rational” or scientific” medicine, though the individual may also have lived. Hippokrates may also have been the first “nature doctor” in a more modern sense, for he utilized simple natural remedies such as vinegar, honey, herbs, and hydrotherapy in healing. He emphasized prevention and healthful living. Many works survive and have been translated from the original Greek. The work that is of the greatest interest to herbalists today is Dierbach’s The Medicine of Hippokrates (in German). All of the 257 drugs mentioned in this work are listed and compared to modern Pharmacognosy texts by Riddle(9). Only 27 of these are not listed as medicinal plants today, some of which are now considered foods.
  2. Theophrastus (340 B.C.) wrote on natural history and botany—his work Inquiry into Plants survives and is available in English translation(10). He writes of many kinds of plants and how they are used in medicine, how to grow them, and many other observations.
  3. Pliny’s (60 A.D.) Natural History is the largest compilation on plants from the Greek period. Although Pliny was not very critical, he reports from the writings of many authors whose work does not survive, so is a valuable resource for the medicinal uses of plants in ancient medicine. Pliny lists more plants than Dioscorides or any of the other ancient writers.
  4. Krateus was a Greek herbalist who is considered the first person to produce an illustrated work on medicinal plants(11). Pliny speaks of his illustrated “herbal,” which does not unfortunately, survive. His influence is thought to be felt in the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, as well as other later works on medicinal plants.
  5. Dioscorides is the greatest and most influential ancient Greek writer on materia medica. He was supposedly a physician in Nero’s army and thus traveled far and wide gathering, using and studying plants and recording the folk uses of many herbs as well. The influence on future generations, even until the 1700s, cannot be overestimated. His work was considered absolute and was copied, recopied, and commented on for 1600 years. The earliest surviving manuscript is the Codex Vindobonensis from 512 A.D. This magnificent work was illustrated with about 400 full-page hand-colored plates and was made for the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West in 472. An English translation of Dioscorides (by Goodyer) was published by Gunther(12), unfortunately now out of print, but available in libraries and occasionally seen second-hand. For additional perspective and analysis of Dioscorides, see Riddle(13).

Middle Ages

A patient taking barley water. Theatrum sanitatis,15 century
A patient taking barley water. Theatrum sanitatis,15 century

Throughout the history of humans, science, art, and consciousness has been kindled from time to time to an especially bright flame. During these times, knowledge and awareness of health and disease increased dramatically, at times influencing people for generations until the flame rekindled in another time and place. In the Middle Ages, taken here to mean the long period between Greek and Roman culture and the Renaissance, several “schools” of medicine which contributed substantially to the progression of herbalism can be noted. But it must be remembered that these times were built from the day to day practice of herbalism and investigation of the natural world. As has been mentioned before, it is mostly men who wrote down and compiled the works we have to go by when considering the history of herbalism, but it was both men and women who practiced and developed herbalism—perhaps women more than men on a day to day basis. Payne, in his English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times, supports this by saying that in Europe medicine (especially among the Germanic Tribes) was largely practiced by women; and Tacitus relates that warriors wounded in battle brought their wounds to their mothers and wives to be attended to(14). The following outline details briefly the major sources of information during this period.

Arabian School

Arab Pharmacy, 13th century
Arab Pharmacy, 13th century

During the period from about 700 A.D. until 1300 A.D., the flowering of all branches of knowledge was magnificent. Many works were written about medicine, health and disease, pharmacy, and materia medica—most of which are extant, but in Persian. Two works on materia medica have been translated into English (The Formulary of Al Kindi and that of Al-Samarqandi) and are available(l5, 16). From them it can be seen that the practice of herbalism was brought to a high degree of skill.

Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft (512-1154)

Apuleius Platonicus Herbarium, England, c.1050
Apuleius Platonicus Herbarium, England, c.1050

Leech was the collective English word for medical practitioners—those who practiced all forms of healing. Several works survive from Anglo-Saxon medicine in England, among them Herbarium Apuleius (480-1050), one of the most copied herbal manuscripts, available in modern English. This work contains recipes and uses of over 100 herbs(17). Another work available in modern English is the Leechbook of Bald (925), (18) containing many formulas and herbal remedies in a fairly sophisticated system of therapeutics, but many superstitious notions about how to apply herbal treatments as well. Meanwhile, a number of generations of the family Myddvai practiced herbalism in a highly artful degree; their herbal therapies were written down in the work, Physicians of Myddvai (1250), which is available in modern English, though out of print (19).


The school of Salerno or Salernum (11th to the 12th century) in Italy was a famous and influential medical and health center, epitomized by the work of the Christian physician, Constantine the African (20), who is generally credited with the introduction of Arabian medicine into Europe. Two works (in English) are notable, Experiments of Cohpon (1080) and the famous poem of health, Regimen Sanitatis Salerni (21).

Uses of Herbs in Medical History

(* see bibliography for sources)

Ancient Medicine

Egyptian Medicine

 Papyrus Ebers1550 B.C.*22

Greek Medicine

 Hippocrates450 BC*23
 Theophrastus340 BC*24
 Pliny60 AD*25
 Dioscorides160 AD*26

Middle Ages



Saxon Leechcraft

 Herbarium Apuleius480-1050*29
 Hildegard of Bingen1099-1179*29
 Physicians of Myddvai1250*31


 Experiments of Cohpon1080*32


Age of Herbalism


Official Medicine in Europe

 Ph. Londenensis1618*39
 Ph. Universalis1747*40

American Medicine

Colonial Medicine


19th century medicine


Use in Asia, other Cultures

China (TCM)

 Smith & Stuart1980*52

India (Ayurveda)



  1. Sigerist, H.E. 1951. A History of Medicine, 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press (vol 1, p. 108).
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid, p. 135. [The Cherokees, in America, know many spirits that are neither good nor evil, but when these are offended, when they feel provoked by man, they hit back and cause sickness. Thus the spirit of fire is resentful when a person throws the offal of anything he has chewed into the fire, and the result is a toothache….the river ‘sends disease to those who insult it by such actions as throwing rubbish into it..”]
  4. ibid., p. 203.
  5. ibid., p. 226.
  6. Ebbell, B., trans. 1937. Papyrus Ebers. Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard.
  7. Bryan, C.P., tr. 1931. Papyrus Ebers. New York: D. Appleton & Co.
  8. ibid,p. 25.
  9. Riddle, J.M. 1987. “Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine: Recognition of Drugs in Classical Antiquity.” In: Folklore and Folk Medicines, J. Scarborough, ed. Madison, Wl: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.
  10. Hort, A.F. (tr.). 1948. Theophrastus. Enquiry into Plants, 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  11. Blunt, W. & S. Raphael. 1979. lllustrated Herbal. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
  12. Gunther, R.T. 1933. The Creek Herbal of Dioscorides. Hafner Publishing Co. 1968.
  13. Riddle, J.M. 1985. Dioscorides on Pharmacy and Medicine.: Austin: [p.m.].
  14. Payne, J.F. 1904. English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 11.
  15. Levey, M. 1966. The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi. Madison: The U niversity of Wisconsin Press.
  16. Levey,M. & N.Al-Khaledy. 1966. TheMedical FormularyofAl-Samarqandi. Philadelphia:Universityof Pennnsylvania Press.
  17. Cockayne, 0. 1864. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.
  18. ibid.
  19. Pughe, J. (tr.) & J. Williams (ed.). 1861. The Physicians of Myddvai. London: Longman & Co.
  20. Park, R. 1902. An Epitome of the History of Medicine, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co.
  21. Ordronaux, J. 1870. Code of Health of the School of Salernum. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
  22. Ebbell, B. (tr.). 1937. The Papyrus Ebers. London: Oxford University Press.
  23. Dierbach, J.H. 1824 (1969). Die Arzneimittel des Hippokrates. Hildesheim: Georg Olms.
  24. Hort, A. 1948. Theophrastus: Enquiry into Plants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  25. Jones, W.H.S. 1956. Pliny: Natural History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  26. Gunther, R.T. 1934. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  27. Levey, M. 1966. The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
  28. Levey, M. & N. Al-Khaledy. 1967. The Medical Formulary of Al-Samarqandi. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  29. Cockayne, O. 1864. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.
  30. Madaus, G. 1938. Handbook of Biological Medicine. Reprinted by George Olms Verlag, NY (1976).
  31. Pughe, J. (tr.) & J. Williams (ed.). 1861. The Physicians of Myddvai. London: Longman & Co.
  32. Fordyn, P. (ed.). 1983. The “experimentes of Cophon, The Leche of Salerne.” Brussels: Research Center of Medaeval and Renaissance Studies.
  33. ibid.
  34. Larkey, S.V. & T. Pyles, trs. & eds. 1941. An Herbal [1525]. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints.
  35. Brunfels, O. 1532. Kreüterbuch contrafayt. Strasszburg: Schotten. Reprinted by Verlag Konrad Kölbl, München (1964).
  36. Dodoens, R. 1586. A New Herball, or Historie of Plants. London: Ninian Newton.
  37. Gerard, J. & T. Johnson. (ed.). 1633. The Herbal or General History of Plants. Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York (1975).
  38. Parkinson, J. 1640. Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants. London: Tho. Cotes.
  39. Urdang, G. 1944. Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618 reproduced in facsimile. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  40. James, R. 1747. Pharmacopoeia Universalis. London: J. Hodges, at the Looking-Glass.
  41. Duncan, A. 1790. The Edinburgh New Dispensatory. Edinburgh: William Creech.
  42. Cullen, W. 1802. A Treatise of the Materia Medica. New York: T. & J. Swords, etc.
  43. Pereira, J. 1843. The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.
  44. Bartram, J. 1751. Description, virtures and uses of sundry plants of these northern parts of America, and particularly of the newley discovered Indian cure for the venereal disease. Philadelphia: Printed by B. Franklin and D. Hall.
  45. Barton, B.S. 1810. Collections for an Essay Towards a Materia Medica. Philadelphia: Printed for Edward Earle and Co.
  46. Bigelow, J. 1817-20. American medical botany. Boston: Cummings and Hilliard.
  47. Eberle, J. 1834. A Treatise of the Materia Medica and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliot.
  48. Griffith, R. 1847. Medical Botany. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.
  49. Gathercoal, E.N. & H.W. Youngken. 1942. Check List of Native and Introduced Drug Plants in the United States. Chicago: National Research Council.
  50. ibid.
  51. Felter, H.W. & J.U. Lloyd. 1898. King’s American Dispensatory. Cincinnati: The Ohio Valley Co.
  52. Smith, F.P. & G.A. Stuart. 1973. Chinese Medicinal Herbs. San Francisco: Georgetown Press.
  53. Perry, L.M. 1980. Medicinal Plants of East and Southeast Asia. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  54. Ainslie, W. 1826. Materia Indica. Reprinted by Neeraj Publishing House, Delhi.

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