Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
( Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

I’ve been thinking about the opening of Kipling’s poem “Our Fathers of Old” as I write the current Merchant book. The protagonist is an herbalist-healer, or will be. Perhaps. Back in the day, before modern medicine, and sometimes because of what today we’d call academic medicine, people relied on plants and animals for medical treatment. Which for the author means learning a lot more about medieval and Dark Ages plants.

Readers of the series know that the four humors, more or less, are used in the Merchant world. However, once you move past “it it should be wet, dry it; if it should be warm, cool it,” things become a touch more complicated (Tycho Rhonarida’s fondness for spicy fried things notwithstanding.) What about infections, blisters, burns, fevers, coughs? Some of that comes out in White Gold of Empire, when a respiratory disease hits the city. And there have been mentions of “the summer complaint,” which carried off babies and small children well into the 20th century. What about worms and other intestinal problems? OK, the less said about intestinal parasites, the better, more or less. There are some things I don’t care to be fully realistic about.

Everyone knew some basics, if only so they didn’t poison themselves or their livestock. Nightshade, henbane, wormwood, rhubarb leaves, foxglove, and a few other things were to be avoided because they’d kill you. Watercress had a nasty look-alike in a hemlock that slowly paralyses the respiratory and circulatory centers. Mushrooms . . . best left to experts, or at least don’t eat the ones that everyone knows are bad. People also associated darnel (tars) or false-wheat with hallucinations and death because it hosts a fungus very much like ergot, and can host ergot proper. Other plants are caustic and had medical use but needed to be kept out of pastures and hay meadows.

Medical plants came under some broad categories. Fever tonics, anti-inflammatories, internal medicines, wound-care, pain reduction and sleep aids, and “women’s matters.” Even after Christianity became the official religion, some cures required magic, or were intended to chase off supernatural ills such as being hag-ridden or elf-haunted. Some prescriptions called for the herbs involved to be placed in front of an altar for twelve or so masses, then they were compounded and given to the patient. Psychology mattered as much as pharmacopia. Within the main groups you had sub-groups, some of which were pretty specific. Fevers that recurred every three days needed something different than those that returned after four days, or that came without vomiting. Did the patient have problems urinating because of muscle spasms or because of an enlarged prostate? Each of those had a different plant associated with the remedy.

Often, complicated preparations reveal that some of the herbs balance the others, mitigating some of the effects. For example, one for “wendenhearte” or general malaise and weakness includes: lupine, bishopwort, elfthorn, elcampane, cropleek, hindhealth, radish, and burdock. If you sort the plants, aelfthorn and burdock are sedatives of varying strength, and burdock is also an antispazmotic. Radish and elecampane serve as general tonics and attenuate the effects of aelfthorn, as does hindhealth. Cropleek and bishopwort are antiseptics and “draw out” illness, while elecampane also soothes the stomach and serves as an expectorant. Oh, if you are wondering, aelfthorn is a nightshade, one of the milder ones. [Sinead Spearing Mandrake, Wormwood, and Raven’s Eye: Old English Medical Remedies. loc. 630-31 Kindle]

Battlefield medicine made some use of herbs, although surgery, post-surgical care, and reconstruction were common. The basics such as using poppy and other sedatives, burn treatments, and so on circulated among everyone. Herbwives used what they had and didn’t worry too much about Greek and Roman humors and so on. Physicians used Latin, went to schools, studied for years, and treated the great, powerful, and wealthy. Sometimes, herb wives supplied physicians and apothecaries with things that the men wouldn’t or couldn’t get for themselves.

An herbalist has to know what works for what ailment, how to compound tinctures and infusions, poultices and ointments, common dosages and conversions, and what plants are forbidden under most circumstances. He also needs to be able to identify plants in their natural habitat as well as in a garden, and to know that some things need to be gathered without using iron, or compounded without iron. In other words, it is a very skilled trade, and one that needs a lot of training and education. There’s far more to medieval (and Merchant) medicine than there seems on the surface.

I will also add that while there are some real herbs and compounds used in the book, DO NOT try them at home. Consult a modern herbalist and current books for your region if you are inclined to try herbal medicine for yourself. Some things should only be used for external use, and some really are not that great for you.


15 thoughts on “Excellent Herbs Had our Fathers of Old

  1. Burdock root is a very nutritious root vegetable, and a lot of ethnic markets sell it.just for food. It is part of French cuisine, and a traditional tonic in many cultures to perk people up.

    But it is also diuretic, and lowers blood pressure through various mechanisms, so you don’t eat big quantities of it. (As well as being full of inulin fiber, so it also encourages number two.)

    It also gets used externally to soothe the skin, in teas and such.

    But just like any other food, some people are allergic.

    And this is in modern times, after studying the compounds in a vegetable. Think how confusing all these varied effects would be, for an herbalist.

    • Beat me to it! Leslie’s earlier Kipple-tapes (Cold Iron / The Undertaker’s Horse) were what got me reading Kipling in the first place.

  2. “Consult a modern herbalist and current books for your region if you are inclined to try herbal medicine for yourself. ”

    Also your doctor / pharmacist. Herbs are drugs and should be treated as such.

  3. Then add the “more is better” or “more gets me better, faster” view of the patients without patience, and it’s easy to see how toxic doses or awful side effects can happen. That gives herbs and herbalists a bad reputation. Good caution to add, and thank you for the reminder. A lot of people will still go “one pill good, 2 pills better”. Same effect, but requires asking how many and how often a patient takes meds, and looking for the “tell” of someone trying to explain it away. A few antibiotics or other meds can have physician orders to take 2-3 now to front-load and fight an infection or condition, then X a day spaced out with food, for REASONS!

    A couple of physician friends point out the other elephant in the room, one mentioned above. Diagnostics are a dying art, and you need a good mentor or internship to learn how to diagnose, chart, and ask questions well. With the focus on WebMD or similar tools, this human touch is lost. The robot can help, but it takes a human to read cues or tells and ask more embarrassing or detailed questions about bodily functions, medications, herbs used, or food. Burdock root is an excellent example, suburbanbanshee.

    • Thank you. I’m focusing on what was used in the Middle Ages, how it was used, and what folk-traditions were. For the Familiars books I’ll be shifting gears to modern practices, but for now it’s the available Anglo-Saxon and similar practices I’m working from.

      • Probably not sufficiently granular as to usage by time and place, then. For example, for Arnica montana, “Traditional usage” is: “Externally for bruises, sprains, swellings, unbroken chillblains, haematomas, inflammation, dislocations, oedema associated with fractures; haemorrhoids; rheumatic, muscle and joint complaints; inflamed insect bites; surface phlebitis and symptoms of varicose veins.”

        The references given are Grieve’s Modern Herbal and the Eclectic Institute reprint of the 1905 Felter and Lloyd King’s American Dispensatory.

        I suspect the following won’t be news to you, but if it is it might be helpful: henriettes-herb.com has many classic works (including the Dispensatory mentioned above) in its archives. It’s a superb site.
        The American Botanical Council’s journal is also very good.

  4. From what I’ve read, besides the problem of “More Is Better”, the preparation of herbal medicines had to be done very carefully.

    Prepared correctly, they were good medicines but prepared wrong they were poisons.

    • Oh, I suspect that some modern herbalists may fall into the “It’s Natural So It’s Always Good” category. IE Poisons are “natural”.

    • As Paracelsus (said? quoted?:) Ubi virus ibi virtus. Of course, he was talking about heavy metals. Dose there is kind of important. . .

  5. Once again the amount of research needed is mind boggling to put a complete story together!

  6. Every book in the series reads like a 648 2-credit “Seminar” text, but far more interesting and conducive to reading. Same with parts of the Familiars series.

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