The History of Ancient Herbal Knowledge

Almost all that is known about herbs, especially as to their healing properties, can be traced back to a text written by Dioscorides over 1900 years ago. Such was the impact of this book that in one form or another it has never really gone out of print. Of course, the book itself has long since been off the best seller lists, but nearly every book or article you read about herbal powers can in a sense said to have been cut and pasted from the original knowledge handed down by Dioscorides. The author was a Greek physician who was doing time in the military of the Roman emperor Nero. This position allowed him to travel widely throughout Asia Minor, where engaged in the massive text of locating, identifying and writing down all the information he could gain from the various plants he found, focusing especially on their medicinal powers. Among the herbs that received prominent publicity in the writings of Dioscorides were such popular plants used in medical treatments today as garlic, marjoram and rosemary.

It was those soldiers in Nero’s army that acted to spread the word about many of these healing herbs. Especially important was the madonna lily which was extremely useful for helping to heal battle wounds. Garlic was also quite popular because of its ability to be used as a crude antiseptic. Aside from the medicinal properties of herbs, the Romans were also inclined toward flowers in their bathing rituals. The Roman baths weren’t just for illicit sex, you know; they were also important for the actual intention of remaining clean. Fragrant oils and perfumes were derived from everything from almonds to roses. In addition to keeping clean, these oils were also useful for rubbing into the skin to keep it healthy and glowing. The more times change, the more they stay the same, it seems. The Romans even used flowers and plants to fashion exactly the same kind of facial masks that make up your $350 visit to the local spa. The Romans were truly the inspiration for today’s modern obsession with using flowers and plants to stay beautiful.

Until the Christians took over, that is. The Catholic Church had always been resistant to the idea of knowledge being placed into the hands of anyone but church leaders and this view was legalized by Pope Gregory in 529 AD. His papal ruling served notice that any knowledge that was not aligned with furthering the political gains of the Catholic Church would be forbidden. Pope Gregory’s ruling is the main reason that the knowledge of herbal use for medicinal purposes went dangerously underground during the Middle Ages. Until the Renaissance, nearly all scientific study of herbs in accordance with the initial writings of Dioscorides was rudely ended; only those willing to risk the wrath of the Catholic Church continued. Fortunately, this included many village doctors who saved lives that would otherwise have been another notch on the momentous death toll that can be directly traced back to the Catholic Church.