Article first published as Monks, Friars and Herbs on Blogcritics.
“Nature in our region is God blessed. When we are collecting flowers and leaves, when digging for roots and peeling bark, we’re also considering not causing destruction, but only taking a little bit from the nature, just what we need. We gather only as much as we’ll use in one year. When using these herbs we need to be meticulous and patient; healing comes slowly, but when it comes it is thorough,” are the words of Cistercian monk Simon Ašič (pronounced /See-mon Ash-itch/), who dedicated his life to herbal medicine.
Motivation for research
When writing a blog about cappuccino I came across a reference to a monk. It attracted my attention, so I started researching and I found so many references to different monk orders and their contributions to modern society. My previous blog was about trappist beers, which can be also attributed to monks. When reading about Trappist monks I found information about different orders. Today’s blog will be a fair mixture of history, achievements and legacy.
Herbalism and Hollywood
In the movie Medicine Man Sean Connery finds a cure for cancer coming from a plant. Another, perhaps a bit less known movie, about plant medicine is Juliette of the Herbs telling the story of Juliette de Bairacli Levy and her search of herbal wisdom. In order not to stray away from monastery walls too much I have to mention brother Cadfael, a monk with a difference. He’s an herbalist and a gardener with an interesting hobby – solving crimes and mysteries in the old Norman England.
Medicine men, witch doctors, charlatans
Originally pharmacology was about studying poisons (drugs). It’s the study of the interactions between an organism and chemicals. First major studies in the field were conducted only in mid-19th century.
What about earlier? How were people healed? “Doctors” were using natural substances, mainly plant extracts. Scientists worth mentioning here are Hippocrates, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina, commonly known as Ibn Sina or by his Latinized name Avicenna, and Paracelsus.
Hippocrates is an undisputable father of medicine as his contributions are considered the first milestone in practice of modern medicine. Avicenna wrote among other things about introduction of quarantine, experimental medicine, and even clinical trials. Another milestone was the idea of a syndrome when diagnosing diseases. Paracelsus has introduced chemicals and minerals to healing diseases. He concluded that diseases were caused by poisons. He is nicknamed the father of toxicology, because of his famous quote: “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” Or in simple words: “The dose makes the poison.”
At this point I cannot omit the most famous druid, Getafix. He is the one responsible for the most powerful concoction that makes Asterix and Obelix who they are, the bravest Gallic warriors of all times, fear in the bones of every Roman legionary.
In modern medicine the power of herbal medicine is still understated. I would say that most of the knowledge accumulated over centuries, or even millennia, is latent, dormant, or even lost to some extent. This reminds me of the world in 1950s. There are many cities where trams were replaced by buses. The move was sponsored by major car companies who wanted their buses to rule the streets. Now, when we are realizing the pollution the diesel buses are causing, the environmentally friendly electrical powered trams are returning.
Nowadays you can find herbal supplements in every pharmacy. But the natural medicine has been side-tracked in favour of pharmaceutical giants who are acting as mid-20th century car companies. On the other hand it might be wise to some extent that not everybody is collecting plants, as we tend to destroy the natural equilibrium with our modern day approach of grabbing everything and stockpiling stuff, even if we don’t need it. Maybe the forests are better off, if only the lone medicine men are wandering around and collecting flowers, buds and chasing butterflies.
I have a sort of negative attitude towards taking medicine in the form of pills, capsules, sprays, and drops, only administering them when I really have to. Drinking tea many times per day is my answer to ancient wisdom combined with the knowledge of modern medicine. Tea has many positive effects on health and wellbeing in general. Maybe replacing a cup of coffee here and there with a cup of tea will brighten your day.
I would like to close my today’s flow of thoughts the same way as I started it – with a quote.
Drinking a daily cup of tea will surely starve the apothecary.