Gli Erbari, tra medicina e botanica

Jules Janick [Department of Horticulture & Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, 625 Agriculture Mall Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2010, USA]

The prehistoric discovery that certain plants cause harm and others have curative powers is the origin of the healing professions and its practitioners (priest, physician, and apothecary), as well as professions devoted to plants (botany and horticulture). The description of plants and their properties and virtues (termed herbals in the 16th century) became an invaluable resource for the physician and apothecary. The earliest medico-botanical treatises date to antiquity. A Sumerian tablet from about 2100 BCE (before current era) contains a dozen prescriptions and proscribes plant sources. In China, the Pen T’Sao Ching, assumed to be authored by the legendary Emperor Shen Nung in “2700 BCE,” but probably written in the first century, contains about 100 herbal remedies. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical treatise from ancient Egypt dates to 1550 BCE but contains material from 5 to 20 centuries earlier. In Greece, the great botanical treatise Enquiry into Plants of Theophrastus, devotes book IX to the medicinal value of herbs. The herbal De Materia Medica by Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba, a Roman army physician, written in the year 65, the most famous ever written, was slavishly referred to, copied, and commented on for 1500 years. The great epoch of printed herbals appeared in the 16th century of which the most notable are: Das Buch zu Distillieren (1500) by Hieronymus Brunschwig; Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1530, 1532, 1536) by Otto Brunfel; Kreüter Buch (1542) by Hieronymus Bock; De Historias Stirpium (1542) of Leonhart Fuchs; New Herball (1551, 1562, 1568) by William Turner; Commentarii “on Dioscorides” (1544) by Pier Andrea Mattioli; Crôÿdeboeck (1554) by Rembert Dodoens; and the Herball (1597) by John Gerard. Botany and medicine were essentially in step until the 17th century when both arts turned scientific and, at this juncture, botanical works would essentially ignore medicinal uses while medical works were devoid of plant lore. Yet, the medicinal use of herbs continues as an alternate form of medicine and remains popular in various forms to the present day despite the questionable efficacy of many popular herbs and the reliance of many herbal recommendations on superstition and astrology. The fact that most drugs were originally plant-based has encouraged a new look at the medicinal properties of plants.

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Janick, J. (2006) 'Gli Erbari, tra medicina e botanica', Italus Hortus, 13(4), pp. 3-16.