1526: The Grete Herball: a tendril of ancient herbal traditions reaching into 16th century England.


A Paper-Bound Time Machine.
Published initially in 1526 by Peter Treveris, the
Grete Herball is a translation of a much earlier French herbal; Livre des Simple Medicines, which was already over one hundred years old when Peter Treveris translated it into English.

The French herbal was itself a translation of an even earlier work from the 12th century;
Circa Instans, a work from the Salerno tradition combining Western (i.e. Greek)-based herbal lore with incoming Arabic herbal knowledge.

Circa Instans was written by an Italian medical practitioner, Matthaeus Platearius and is itself based largely upon a work called De Gradibus Simplicium. This work was written by a Tunisian doctor known as Constantine the African.

Based in the medical hotbed of Salerno in Italy, Constantine was a medical professor who translated many works of Arabic origin into Latin, which had a huge influence on subsequent medical practice and literature. Constantine’s
De Gradibus Simplicium is an example of this, being itself a translation of a 10th century Arabic work, de Gradibus by a Tunisia-based Muslim physician known as Ibn Al Jazzar. This in turn, contained much herbal lore originally found in Dioscorides’ work.

Despite its date then, this is effectively a pre-medieval herbal brought back to life hundreds of years after its original time. It gives us a great insight into the language of Middle English botany in all its diasporic freedom.

Its description of Arum is in wonderfully archaic English.
It is called De Iaro. Cucko’we Pyntell, Arus. Calfs foot. It is hot and dry in the degree. It is also named aron. Some call it priestes hode. For it hath as it were a cape and a tug in it lyke a serpentyne of dragos, but serpentyne is longer. It groweth in moyst places and dry on hyis, under hedges and may be gathered in winter and somer.

It hath greate vertue in the leaves, but moe in its rote, but yet it hath more vertu in the knottes that be about the rote. It is gathered and clouden in middes and dyed.

Arums Medical Uses.
The medical uses for Arum in the
Grete Herball mostly mirror earlier works such as those of Dioscorides, but two are worth repeating.
For emozroydes [haemorrhoids]:
For emozrodes or pyles all evil of the fundiment, seeth this herbe and bathe y Paciet in the same to y navel, Dr bynde the herbes hote in a clothe and let him sit thereon.’

To bring on the menses:
To cause menstrues to flewe out the iuyce of this herbe into the conduyte with an instrument yzo pze for it oz medle it with the medecine called benet and than bled, oz with cotton wette therein and to minisstered.’

The First Illustrated Plant Guide in England (but not very good),
The Grete Herbal was also the first illustrated book on plants to be printed in England and contained 477 woodcuts. Unfortunately, this wasn’t as useful as it might sound. 70 of these were not actually of plants at all. Those that were, were often very poor copies of illustrations found in the earlier French, German and other early herbals and manuscripts on which this book was based. There are numerous discrepancies, some of which are pointed out by the printer, while elsewhere, the same illustration is used to identify a number of different species (albeit similar looking ones such as rice and wheat, though here is exactly where one would want accurate drawings). Useful illustrations are found for clover, rose, strawberry and water lilly. Just those ones for which pictures are probably not really needed.

The Same Book, evolving into a Different Book.
This stream of ideas found in this book, with its curious mixture of botany, myths, fables and factual herbal instruction, flows as a direct lineage from Dioscorides himself, meandering through the Arabic herbal traditions, whirlpooling back to Europe and finally disappearing in the Medieval period before resurfacing in the modern ages of the Elizabethan era.

Read more on the iPad book here: http://tinyurl.com/wildarumipad
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