The Several Sages: The Late Middle English Herbal in its Genre, Manuscript and Printed Context

The Several Sages: The Late Middle English Herbal in its Genre, Manuscript and Printed Context

By T.J.E. de Schepper

Master’s Thesis, Utrect University, 2011

Introduction: Natural lore can be transmitted in either of two ways: orally, with possible recourse to the plants themselves, and written down, creating a tradition at some remove from the original study object. When dealing with the plant medicine most scholars seem content with the latter, taking the texts as the starting points of their investigations, imposing on them criteria that serve to prove their point. In the history of herbal literature problems involved with the definition of terms have led to the proliferation of opposing views on the genre, backed up by an equally selective use of sources. After the true humanist fashion the Middle Ages are generally seen as a low tide in all sciences. Speaking of a thousand years of plant knowledge a botanist may dismiss the era as ‘degenerate’, a historian of science can call attention to the ‘infeasibility’ of herbal recipes, while a sociologist will deplore the decline of oral lore in mediaeval society. Connoisseurs of art qualify illustrations in mediaeval herbals  as ‘inadequate’, whereas the literary scholar is scornful of scribes and their ‘careless copying.’ In all accounts the valuation of the genre is determined by its definition, in turn chosen to corroborate a pre-determined conviction. The texts themselves are cited as support, the weight of their words subservient to the cause of scholarly study for which they can be used.

Contrary to the belief of some, however, the herbal does not commence in literary times. It started when man first determined which plants he could eat, which he could use to ease pain, and from which to stay clear. It has been suggested that the observance of nature‘s cycle gave rise to religion as well as literature. Seen from this vantage point the rise of herbalism and its further course in later literary texts can be better reconstructed than by imposing on it a modernist theory. In this manner it may be possible to define the essence of a herbal proper, in contrast to its related genres. A preliminary attempt was made by Cockayne in distinguishing leechdoms (remedies for illnesses), wortcunning (herbal lore) and starcraft (astrology). This is a crucial division, because it separates recipes ordered by affliction from those listed per plant and those influenced by the stars. The first would have been useful to a doctor who could purchase the necessary herbs in a store, since the description of how to gather them in nature is generally only given in the second. The above distinction is maintained and elaborated in the reference work of Keiser by setting apart herbals, medicinal tracts, remedybooks or leechdoms, and charms; encyclopaedias are a different branch altogether, as are astrology, agriculture and culinary recipes. In later texts it is necessary too to note tensions with alchemy, chemistry (distillation) as well as homeopathy (oils).

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Utrecht

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