Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.


5 thoughts on “Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration”

  1. Hello Annie, such a good explanation/ article. Would you be willing to let me publish it in Herbs magazine! I would like to subscribe as well and also to list organisation in a collation of herb-related organisations etc
    Barbara segall

  2. Hi Barbara, Glad this article about herbal history research is helpful. I am sure the Recipes Project editors would be keen for the article to be further spread through Herbs magazine. Looking forward to further links which we can develop with Herb Society members. Best wishes, Anne

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