Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina, known to us as Avicenna, merits particular mention. He was a highly gifted physician and scholar and, as noted by Julia Lawless, in her book The Encyclopaedia of Essential Oils, he wrote over 100 books, one of which was devoted entirely to the flower most cherished by Islam, the rose. He studied logic, geometry, metaphysics, philosophy, astronomy and all the other natural sciences known at that time, as well as medicine. He was what we would call today, a Renaissance Man. He is also credited with inventing the technique of distilling essential oils. However in 1975 Dr. Paolo Rovesti led an archaeological expedition to Pakistan to investigate the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. There, in the museum of Taxila at the foot of the Himalayas, he found a perfectly preserved distillation apparatus made of terracotta. The presence of perfume containers also exhibited, dating from the same period, around 3000 BC confirmed its use in the preparation of aromatic oils. This discovery suggests that Avicenna did not invent the technique but perfected it.
By the sixteenth century Lavender water and essential oils known as ‘chymical oils’ could be bought from the apothecary, and, following the invention of printing the period 1470 to 1670 saw the publication of many herbals. The women of a household would have made all these remedies for home use, as well as pomanders, lavender bags and other herbal sachets to perfume the home. More complex remedies were bought from apothecaries, who also sold the precious essential oils though great houses had their own still rooms. Floors were strewn with herbs that gave off their volatile oils when walked on, and pomanders or little bouquets of aromatic herbs, known as ‘tussy-mussies’ were carried in public places to ward off infection, especially the Plague.
Some of the most celebrated herbals were those compiled by Gerard, Banckes and Culpeper in England, Brunfels, Fuchs and Bock in Germany, Nicolas Monardes in Spain, Charles de l’Ecluse in France and Pietro Mattioli in Italy, whose herbal was closely based on the work of Dioscorides.
Throughout the Middle Ages and up to the late 16th century, all forms of plant medicine were used by doctors, apothecaries and laypeople alike, but by the 17th century, the growing new science of experimental chemistry gave rise to new uses of chemical substances in medicine. Culpeper wrote denunciations of doctors who use poisonous substances such as mercury but was dismissed. Our current concerns about the side-effects of dangerous drugs is nothing new!
Although witch burning has been part of history for many hundreds of years, the spate of witch burning in the 17th century coincided with the rise of early chemotherapy, and was as much inspired by the medial establishment’s wish to suppress the knowledge of the village ‘wise-women’ as by the religious establishment’s wish to stamp out so-called heresy.
The chemist Friedrich Hoffman (1660-1742) did much research into the nature of essential oils, as well as investigating natural mineral waters at various spas. But the damaging aspect of this growing specialisation was the way it took medicine out of the hands of ordinary people.
Next week, we look at the use of plants for healing in the Far East, especially India and China…
Part one can be read here