On the Practical Use of Herbaria

Faculty of “Artes Liberales” University of Warsaw

De materia medica - Folio with image of the author (c. 515 AD) by DioscuridesPolish History Museum

The use of herbariums

From the moment they were invented, herbaria enjoyed great popularity due to their useful nature. At a time when professional medical care was a luxury, the information they provided about the healing properties of plants and animals was of enormous value.

De materia medica - Page with scene preparing medicine from honey (1224) by DioscoridesPolish History Museum

In ancient times, the most famous book on the topic was De materia medica by Dioscorides, a doctor and botanist who lived during Nero’s reign. Copied many times throughout both antiquity and in later periods, the work was also translated into many different languages.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page with image of asphodel (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

Florian's medical encyclopedia

The first Polish compendium of practical knowledge on the medicinal properties of plants (and not only plants) was Stefan Falimirz's On Herbs and Their Potency printed by Florian Ungler in 1534.

Almost every page of this popular pharmacopoeia was full of advice on how to treat various ailments. A good case in point is the description of the Asphodelus, whose powdered root was supposed to be good for wounds and whose extract was believed to alleviate ear and tooth aches.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page with scene of childbirth (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

The print was also a source of knowledge about ways to prepare tinctures and oils and offered guidance on childbirth, bloodletting, taking a pulse or cupping therapy. Little wonder, then, that it was eagerly consulted, as can be seen from the signs of wear on the copies.

On Herbs and their Potency - Middle pages with index (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

Practical advice from Falimirz

The best proof of the wide scope of advice given in the work published by Ungler is the index included at the beginning in which individual recipes were categorised according to the ailments they cured.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page with scene of (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

“Cups placed beneath the throat, that is beneath the chin, are good for toothache, cheek ache and all sorts of headaches,” ran just one of the many tips on the medical benefits of cupping.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page with scene of patient treatment (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

Much useful advice is to be found in the chapter entitled Tried and Tested Medicines Against Various Ailments which, among others, recommends treating eye pain with a decoction of wormwood boiled in water or wine with the addition of small raisins.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page opening the fourth chapter (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

Animals as medicine

Chapter Four in Falimirz’s herbarium is devoted to the healing properties of animals. It is decorated with about 120 illustrations, depicting a variety of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. The authors of herbaria focused on the physical description of animals and the medicines.

On Herbs and their Potency - Page with image of owl (1534) by Stefan FalimirzPolish History Museum

“There is a bird from the owl family prone to settling on churches or bricked buildings. Sometimes drinks lamp oil. Forages at night. Eats eggs of jackdaws and pigeons and, if possible, catches the birds at night so that jackdaws fight it and eat its own eggs".

The description is followed by a list of owl’s benefits: “put an owl’s heart against the left side of a sleeping woman’s body, and the woman will admit to whatever she has done.” Besides having medicinal qualities, the animals were also believed to be symbolic and magical.

Polyptych of The Annunciation with a Unicorn - Central part of retabulum (c. 1480) by Unknown silesian artistsPolish History Museum

The best antidote for all kinds of poison was a unicorn’s horn, which was in fact a narwhal’s tusk. The mythical horn was considered to be a panacea. Stefan Falimirz recommended using it, in powdered form, as a prophylactic against miasma during the plague.

On Domestic and Overseas Herbs - Page opening the chapter about minerals (1542) by Hieronim SpiczyńskiPolish History Museum

Healing stones

It was not only plants and animals that had medicinal properties. Healing powers were also attributed to stones. They were described in allegorical treatises called lapidaries that also contained information about magical and symbolic meanings of minerals and precious metals.

Polish treatises of the hortus sanitatis type made by Stefan Falimirz, Hieronim Spiczyński and Marcin Siennik also include lapidary sections mentioning 45 substances. About half of them are precious stones, the rest being metals and even inorganic substances such as roof tiles.

Herbarium Or the Description of Domestic, Foreign and Overseas Herbs (1568) by Marcin SiennikPolish History Museum

The list includes the bezoar, to which Siennik refers as the “poison stone.” It “ranks first among all other remedies against venom and poison.” In fact, it was not a stone but a hardened mass of hair found in goat intestines.

Credits: Story

Text by Aleksandra Jakóbczyk-Gola, Katarzyna Krzak-Weiss, Tomasz Kandziora

Project financed by the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw

Credits: All media
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