A is for Arum in the first ever encyclopaedia.


Arum has its place in the first ever encyclopaedia. Known as the Naturalis Historia it was written by a Roman known as Pliny the Elder in around 77 CE. It is the only one of his works to have survived to the present day.

Pliny’s encyclopaedia spanned 40 volumes covering everything which was known about everything which was known. What makes Pliny the Elder such an amazing chap was that the entire work was written in the evenings when Pliny arrived home after his day job of administrating for the Roman Emperor. This must have involved longer hours and more stress than the average office management job does today, yet Pliny still found time and energy to spend his evenings writing and researching, creating volume after volume of his steadily growing magnus opus. What’s even more amazing is that he wrote the entire work by hand on parchment. Presumably by the light of just his oil lamps. I guess he did a bit more at the weekends but either way, his diligence is heroic and illustrates just how much more people achieved in the days before the Internet and TV.

Pliny’s encyclopaedia contained radical new concepts such as an index, it referenced its sources (a habit which was studiously ignored by most later herbals) and was written in a simple and accessible fashion to allow all to understand and benefit from its contents.

Arum has a number of entries in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia and he includes a large number of uses for the plant, drawn from a wide range of courses. The main section is in Book XXIV, Chapter 92, entitled The Aon: Thirteen Remedies. Pliny mentions here that Arum can be boiled in milk and used for cloudiness of the eyes, internal ulcerations and inflammation of the tonsils. It is recommended here for freckles, foreshadowing its use two thousand years later by the French as a skin cosmetic. Pliny quotes other sources as stating that Arum is good for difficulty in breathing and general conditions of the lungs and coughs, and restates its use as a facilitator of birth delivery for all animals. He also reaffirms the belief in Arum’s efficacy against serpents and snake bite.

Interestingly, he writes that already there is disagreement about whether Arum is one plant or many, on account of the different variations found around Europe, all quite similar but with noticeable differences. It is already known as ‘Aron’, ‘Dracunculus’ and ‘Dracontium’, and the Arum which Pliny mostly discusses is not the British Arum but the Egyptian Arum: a plant now known as Arum colocasia or Taro. This is a notable example of plant observation (along with that from Egypt) which was subsequently forgotten in the later herbals.

For more information, see the online version of Pliny’s works:
http://bit.ly/Yh9Aud as well as the wiki page on his encyclopaedia at http://bit.ly/12nLyDL and a BBC podcast at http://bbc.in/dmyfUi

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

Arum Names as seen by the web #1: Aaron


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