- Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period ed. by Anne Stobart and Susan Francia
In this ambitious collection of essays, Francia and Stobart set out to establish a new historical field: the history of herbal medicine, defined as “systematic enquiry to understand and explain the supply, knowledge and use of plants incorporating people’s beliefs, knowledge and involvement in past therapeutic practices in the context of health and illness” (p. 9). To achieve this, they have drawn together a diverse group of authors from several disciplines, several of whom are also practitioners of herbal medicine, to demonstrate the range of areas and approaches that could be incorporated, and examine some of the methodologies that might be employed.
A sense of what this new field might look like is readily apparent from the organization of the volume around the four main approaches the editors identify with it: first, the analysis of key texts, particularly classical writings on pharmacopeia and later herbals, for insights into the understanding and use of plants as medicines; second, alternative sources on medical practice, such as probate and trade records; third, evaluations of the ideas and contributions of key individuals, here including Galen, Dioscorides, William Turner, and John Parkinson, to medicinal plants; and fourth, interdisciplinary approaches, represented by archaeology and ethnobotany.
Several of the chapters stand out as particularly valuable. Graeme Tobyn’s dissection of Culpeper’s limited contribution to his English Physician is insightful, reinforcing the findings of Catherine Meaden’s recent University of London Ph.D. dissertation (2014).1 John Wilkins very neatly unpicks the difficulties of interpreting Galen’s pharmacology, while tidily debunking various of David Wootton’s assertions about the pointlessness of classical medicine.2 Anna Waldstein concludes the volume with an intriguing survey of ethnobotanical approaches to the question of efficacy. Nearly all make a serious contribution to thinking about the understanding and use of plants in classical and early modern medicine. Several do particularly important work in thinking about the efficacy of therapeutics.
The merit of such a programmatic book is measured not by the individual studies, however, but by the degree to which they sustain the editors’ claim to stake out a novel research field. I found this less convincing. Their desire to foster [End Page 798] more research on the use of plant medicines in the past is laudable. But to seek to distinguish herbal medicine in the ancient and early modern West as a distinctive historical subdiscipline makes less sense.
The volume left me with three questions about the viability of their project. First, at a basic level, the history of plant use is simply very hard to write. Several chapters—particularly those that seek to examine methodologies and sources—are rather pessimistic about the potential of the material they discuss. Elaine Hobby’s lucid discussion of midwifery manuals rightly emphasizes the questionable validity of these mostly republished and repackaged Continental texts for a history of Western herbal medicine. Richard Aspin’s elegant review of what testamentary records can say about herbal medicine clearly sets out how difficult it is to use this enormous set of sources for the history of herbal medicine. A history of premodern herbal medicine risks being a slender plant without a stronger root stock. Second, in a history that explicitly seeks to consider potential modern applications of herbal knowledge as part of its remit (p. 295), historical judgments can become inflected by the desire to defend the rationality and legitimacy of herbal medicine per se. Nicky Wesson’s interesting discussion of herbs used during childbirth struggles to accept that her striking find of a relative lack of recipes for birth (many do survive for antenatal and postpartum care) might be because pain relief was not being used, and instead ends with the rather unconvincing suggestion that midwives must have been deliberately concealing information. Similarly, Anne Van Arsdall weakens her discussion of medieval...