The Working of Herbs, Part 3: Herb Qualities and Indications

By Anne Stobart

In my previous posts on the Working of Herbs (Part 1 and Part 2) I flagged up some problems in finding out how medicinal herbs might really work, or finding reliable sources on herbal ‘efficacy’. I set out to try to establish a protocol, or way of thinking about this issue by picking a specific medicinal recipe. My choice was a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throws’ (likely for pains after childbirth). The recipe contains hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm. In this post I aim to get an overview of how these herbs might have been viewed at the time that the recipe was being copied, in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Sources for past information on herbal qualities and  indications

Last time I mentioned a useful but dated source in Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal.[1] However, we can also look directly at past material written on medicinal plants, found in herbals, pharmacopoeia or medical advice books, as starting points in providing contemporary indications for medicinal use. There are quite a few 17th/18th century printed sources. My choice of sources is largely pragmatic, based on comprehensiveness and ease of access – especially sources that have indexes which are easy to use, or can be found in a text format which is readily searchable. Here I give selected details from two sources published before and after the likely compilation and recording of this later seventeenth-century recipe. Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians reflects views of medical therapeutics from the early 17th century while John Quincy’ Pharmacopoeia Officinalis was first published 1718. I started to use John Quincy’s book frequently as I am lucky to own

Quincy, John. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed.  London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).
Figure 1. John Quincy. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).

a hard copy of the 8th edition (much-thumbed) – it has both a Latin and common name index for the many items in the materia medica. Descriptions of these herbs often give both their qualities and indications for a range of conditions.[2]

According to Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory (1649, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – Help coughs, shortnesse of breath, wheezing, distillations upon the Lungues, it is of a cleansing quality, kill wormes in the body, amends the whol color of the body, helps the dropsie and spleen, sore throats and noise in the ears (41)
  • Wild Mint – [Of garden mints ] hot and dry in the third degree, [Of water mint and horse mint] ease pains of the belly, head-ach and vomiting, gravel in the kidnies, and stone. (45)
  • Groundsel – Groundsel, cold and moist according to Tragus, helps the Chollick, and pains or gripins in the belly, helps such as cannot make water, cleanseth the reins, purgeth Choller and sharp humors (32)
  • Pennyroyal – Penyroyal, hot and dry in the third degree, provokes urine, breaks the stone in the reins, … strengthens womens backs, provokes the terms, easeth their labour in child-bed, brings away the after-birth, staies vomiting, strengthens the brain, (yea the very smell of it) breaks wind and helps the vertigo (49-50)
  • Balm – Bawm, is hot and dry; inwardly, it is an excellent remedy for a cold and moist stomach, cheers the heart, refresheth the mind, takes away grief, sorrow, and care, instead of which it produceth joy and mirth (45)

According to Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – (Balsamic section), a warm and detergent herb, ‘good for anything’ especially coughs and lung disorders (143)
  • Wild Mint – [mentha] (Diaphoretic section) warm and aperient – reckoned by some to promote menses and urine (176)
  • Groundsel – [Carduncellus] (Emetic section) a good and safe vomit (187)
  • Pennyroyal [Pulegium] – (Nervous simples section) warm and chief virtue is ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’ (89)
  • Balm [Melissa] (Diaphoretics section) of fine cordial flavour but weak and soon fades (177)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) 

Further sources could be consulted but, overall, these two sources identify four of the herbs in the recipe for after throws (hyssop, wild mint, pennyroyal (Figure 2) and balm (Figure 3))  as having qualities of heating and drying. One herb (groundsel) is regarded as cold and moist, a purging remedy and good for ‘pains or gripins in the belly’ while another (wild mint) can also ‘ease pains in the belly’. Pennyroyal is specifically indicated for bringing away the afterbirth and ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’. Hyssop is regarded as ‘cleansing’ and ‘good for anything’. Other specific indications for these herbs include lung complaints (hyssop) and grief (balm). A check of some other texts with seventeenth-century childbirth-related recipes reveals that hyssop was also an  ingredient in other remedies with titles such as ‘For a woman traveling with child’ and ‘An approved medicine to bring away a dead child’.[3]

Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

But was this recipe used?

It does appear that some of the herbs in this recipe were considered by contemporary sources to have relevance in various complaints related to childbirth. And I have found that this particular recipe for ‘after throws’ was repeated at least five times in the recipe collections of one household (more on this in a later post!) so it is possible that it was actually used, or at least was thought to have some ‘efficacy’. However, we cannot assume that the past view of these herbs matches the likely effects based on today’s understanding. In my next post I will look at how these herbs are understood in the present day, and consider how herbal monographs may be useful in this endeavour to find out what the herbs can do.

Notes

[1] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses (First 1931 ed. London: Penguin, 1980).

[2] ‘Qualities’ can be thought of as the properties of herbs and  ‘indications’ are suggested uses. Sources used are: Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physicians in London (London: Peter Cole, 1649); John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730). These texts are on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and can be accessed through the Wellcome Library website (membership is free).

[3] For example, see A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653, pp. 48, 91); W. J., Dr Lowers and Several Other Eminent Physicians Receipts Containing the Best and Safest Method for Curing Most Dieases in Humane Bodies (London: John Nutt, 1700, p.37).

 


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