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Essay: Herbals used throughout history

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  • Published: January 17, 2020*
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  • Herbals used throughout history
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Herbals are selections of texts about the medicinal use of herbs and plants, created and used for over four thousand years; herbals are an important part of botanical history. The first ever herbals are believed to have been created in China at around 2700BC, the Egyptian, Arab and Graeco-Roman people produced them. The first printed herbal appeared in 1469 and the first printed illustrated herbal appeared in 1481. The first illustrated English herbal, however, was printed in 1526. These illustrated herbals were not art books, but practical manuals mainly used for medicinal purposes. Herbals were most popular during the 16th and 17th centuries as they were available in English for the first time rather than Greek or Latin. Whereas the 18th and 189th centuries showcased more plants found in America whilst simultaneously advancing the modern science aspect. Herbals were relied upon in America mostly for medical knowledge, as it was less than common to come across a physician during this time, so herbals were hugely convenient.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the medicinal knowledge suffered in Europe due to the loss of Greek medical texts. This greatly affected the future of herbals, as they may have contained information that not even modern physicians have knowledge of. These medical texts that were lost may have derived from some of the original botanists to our knowledge, that created the base foundation of medicinal herbal information. Whereas in terms of more modern physicians, their information originated from physic gardens, which are gardens with herbs and plants for medicinal usage. Both public and private physic gardens have always been associated with the unfolding of botanical science. As they were often associated with academic institutions such as universities they were also used for study purposes. The owners of these gardens were physicians with educational roles of “scientific gardeners”, and it was the staff of these academic institutions that produced many of the originally published herbals.
Botany had endured some drastic changes during the early Middle Ages. A herbal called the Ex Herbis was more popular during its time as not only was it easier to read, but it contained plants and their remedies that related to where botany was currently being studied, in regions of southern Europe. It also provided more accurate direction in terms of creating medical remedies and how to use them efficiently. What made this herbal easier to comprehend botany, was the number of accurate illustrations, as this was less common in earlier herbals.

Herbals are not necessarily books about herbs. Herbals had their foundations in medicine and the functional interest in plants. Printing first developed in the 15th century, with that followed the evolution of herbals and plant illustration. In medieval Europe, before herbals were printed, they were usually written in Latin and hand-copied by monks. Some herbals from this era have never been translated and may contain interesting or useful information about the plants. The interest in herbals began to grow as finally information about plants developed over the centuries could be universally shared. Shortly after the production of printed works on herbals began, there was a demand for illustrations so the plants could be identified; therefore botanical illustration advanced.

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