Number 41   March - April 2005


372 B.C. to 1066 A.D.

By Bea and Bill Jennings

Animals know instinctively which plants to avoid that can be poisonous to them. Man, however, had to learn by trial and error. This knowledge was passed on by oral tradition and later by written herbals. In the beginning the primary concern was medicine. As man progressed, so did his knowledge of the plants. Soon plants were documented for their uses: roses for fragrance, woad for blue dye, and flax for linen.

In this issue of Subrosa, Historic Herbals, Part 1, represents a sampling of the evolution of Western thinking about plants from Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) down to the Norman conquest in 1066 A.D. In the next issue of Subrosa, Historic Herbals, Part 2, will represent the continuing evolution of Western plant lore from 1066 A.D. through the invention of printing to 1800 A.D.

Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.) became head of the Lyceum when Aristotle retired in 323. Two major botanical works he wrote are: Peri phyton historia ("Inquiry into Plants") and Peri phyton aition ("Growth of Plants"), comprising nine and six books respectively. These books were not translated into Latin until the fifteenth century. They became an important reference for many medieval herbalists.


Crateuas (1st c. B.C.) influenced pharmacology and medicine with the earliest known botanical drawings of plants. He classified and described plants and explained their medicinal uses. The drawings that bear his name are copies made about A.D. 500.

Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) wrote about plants in his Natural History. His writings were described by The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1986) as 'an encyclopedic rag-bag of popular science.'

Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62-112) provides more useful information about plants and the layout of Roman gardens in his letters.

The most important writer on medicine is Pedanius Diocorides, (1st cent. A.D.), a Sicilian of Greek extraction. He wrote Materia medica (A.D. 77) which was the leading source of botanical terminology and pharmacology for 16 centuries. It named over 600 plants, including cannabis, colchicum, water hemlock, and peppermint. He also described approximately 1,000 simple drugs. The earliest surviving copy, called the Codex vindobonensis, was written and illustrated at Constantinople for Juliana Anica, daughter of the Emperor Flavius, in about A.D. 512. It is the earliest surviving illustrated herbal in the Western world.

The Doctrine of Signatures, the theory that the appearance, or outward sign, of a plant resembles the part of the human body that it can help or cure came out of the writings of Dioscorides.

Palladius (A.D. 363-431) was a Galatian monk who exhibited a sober humanism in his reaction to monastic vanity when he wrote: "to drink wine with reason is better than to drink water with pride". He wrote: Palladius de agricultura that advised what to do each month throughout a gardening year.


Aelfric (955-1010 A.D.) Grammaticus ('the Grammarian') - a Benedictine monk of Cerne Abbas and Winchester, who wrote the Nominum herbarum in 995 that listed over 200 herbs and trees.

Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.), known as the 'Prince of Physicians', frequently acknowledged the teachings of Aristotle and Galen in his Canon of Medicine. His work was not only highly regarded in the Arab world but was used in the European medical schools for 600 years.

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscript dealing with the virtues of herbs is the Leech Book of Bald. This herbal was written in the vernacular by a Saxon doctor or 'leech' in the early tenth century and embodies beliefs that date back to primitive and mysterious times, long before Christianity, and indeed before the Romans invaded English shores.

The oldest illustrated herbal preserved from Anglo-Saxon times is a translation of the Latin Herbarium of Apuleius, originally compiled in the fifth century. The Anglo-Saxon translation of this herbal was produced between 1000 and 1050. It appears to have been copied from a manuscript that originated in southern Italy. One of the illustrations depicts a mandrake being pulled out of the ground by a lead attached to a dog. (Legend has it that a mandrake will emit a loud shrieking sound that drives anyone mad who tries to dig it up. Therefore, a dog would be attached to the mandrake to pull it up.)

The Lacnunga, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in the tenth century, contains an alliterative lay or charm in praise of the nine sacred herbs of the Nordic god Woden. These nine herbs were mugwort, waybroad (plantain), Stime (watercress), maytehn (chamomile), wergulu (nettle), chervil, fennel, crab-apple, and the unidentified 'atterlothe'.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 numerous Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were destroyed and replaced exclusively with books written in Latin.

To be continued in Part 2 in the next Subrosa.

Bea and Bill Jennings, Herb Garden Docent Co-Chairs

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