Tracing the history of European herbology

In all cultures, the origins of herbal medicine are lost in the mists of time. There is little doubt that humans used herbs for healing well before anything could be written about them. At some point in an advancing culture, written documents become the repository for knowledge that had been passed on from one generation to the next. Among the earliest such documents are those describing the religious beliefs of the people and those describing the medical practices.

Many authorities recognize Hippocrates (460-375 B.C.) as the "father of medicine" for the European tradition. He had little interest in the use of herbs. The primary focus of the Hippocratic School of Medicine was diet and nutrition and a reliance on calm, moderate living. These are the same foundations that herbalists such as Künzle put forth as the basis for healing (see Chapter 4).

A summation of the Hippocratic approach was presented by Erwin Ackerknecht, in his 1968 book (revised from the 1955 edition) A Short History of Medicine, as relayed below. Naturopathic physicians today will recognize the opening description as the one adopted in the definition of their profession. Reference is then made to the conditions of apepsis and pepsis, referring, basically, to inability to properly digest (apepsis) or ability to properly digest (pepsis), which is likened to cooking of the food in the stomach, relying on an innate heat. To students of Asian medicine, this is a near perfect echo of teachings from India and China about the source of disease and the resolution of disease via invigorating this digestive fire and promoting the healthy function of the digestive system.

The treatment of the Hippocratic physician reflected his fundamental approach. It was the treatment of an individual, not a disease, and the treatment of the whole body, not any part of it. Treatment was based on the fundamental assumption that nature, physis, had a strong healing force and tendency of its own, and that the main role of the physician was to assist nature in this healing process, rather than to direct it arbitrarily. Health was a state of harmonic mixture of the humors, and disease was a state of faulty mixture. The disordered humors were in a state of apepsis, and nature itself tried to re-establish balance through a process of pepsis or coction through the so-called innate heat. This coction-which simply means "cooking"-usually ended with a crisis on a "critical day," when the disease matter, the end product of coction, was eliminated. Sometimes the disease petered out slowly in lysis, instead of crisis. The main ally of the physician in assisting nature in this process was diet. More violent means of elimination, such as purging, vomiting, and bloodletting, were seldom used by the Hippocratics. Only if diet failed were drugs used, and surgery was a last resort.

The great philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was the son of a medical man and a medical man himself, but his main influence on the development of European medicine was through his student, Theophrastus (380-287 B.C.), called the "father of botany." He was the first known author in Europe (and the rest of the world) of a classification system for plants with accompanying comments about their medicinal properties. He described about 450 different medicinal plants. However, this text has not come down through history, and is only noted in later commentaries.

The first document of herbal medicine to attain the status of a medical classic in the European tradition was by Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.). Known as Materia Medica, a fifth century reproduction still exists, complete with botanical illustrations that were apparently added to the original text (carefully preserved in Vienna). Dioscorides was a surgeon accompanying the armies of Nero. He traveled far, collected much information, and gained considerable medical experience as he went. His work was later adopted by Muslim physicians, leading to the development of Unani medicine (Greek medicine as retained in the Islamic tradition).

Dioscorides had compiled herb knowledge for 600 plants. His comments on the use of herbs are sometimes relayed today to provide evidence that one or more of the current uses of herbs is the same as it had been for many centuries. The book's illustrations were considered the only authoritative ones for European medicinal plants for over 1,000 years. The work was translated to English in 1655, and continued to be the primary reference on European herbs, though other herbals developed from this basic work became better known because they provided current knowledge and the idiom of the times.

Greek medicine continued to develop for several decades after Dioscorides, but it eventually began to stagnate. The last notable contributor was Galen (130-201 A.D.), who was born in Pergamum, the site of the temple of Ascelpius (God of Healing). He was influenced by the developing Christianity, mentioning both Moses and Christ in his writings, and believing that the Creator endowed every organ with a purpose. He had determined a route by which nutrient substances were transferred to the liver, transformed there to blood, and then circulated to the rest of the body. Unlike Hippocratic physicians, he believed in more active therapies to change the course of disease, including drawing blood and inducing laxative or diuretic action. He liked complex herbal formulas, which were later referred to as Galenicals (a term still sometimes used today). The formulas were designed to balance the different qualities of the herbs so as to produce an effect that would properly restore the body humors to harmony. His talents were so great that he was made court physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

During the "dark ages" that followed the collapse of the formerly well-organized and powerful Greco-Roman society, knowledge of herbs and medicine was preserved in two places. In Europe, it was retained by Christian monasteries (which also stored knowledge of other fields of human inquiry), and following the development of Islam, it was retained in the Arab and Persian regions. In France, the school at the Cathedral of Chartres was an important center for medical studies around 1000 A.D. Monasteries not only retained libraries of medical books, but also were involved in maintaining herbal gardens that served as a source of medicine for the monks and their visiting patients. Monastic medicine was virtually halted in 1130, however, when its practice was forbidden because it was taking up too much time, but other clergy, not confined to monasteries, continued the work. Avicenna (980-1063), in what is today Iran, was the main proponent and developer of Greek medicine, and his Canon of Medicine influenced European doctors for centuries afterward. This Unani medicine, via Avicenna's book, was brought to Europe just as monastic medicine was being shut down.

After the printing of books became standard practice during the Renaissance period, each country eventually had its own herbal publications in its own language. The Herbal, printed in 1530 by the German Otto Brunfels, is often singled out as marking the beginning of the new era in widely published national herbals. The Italian Mattioli wrote Commentaries on the Six Books of Dioscorides in 1544, and included improved information about the plant identities and added descriptions of many more plants that had become used as medicines. In England, the beginning of this period was marked by publication of New Herbal in 1551 by William Turner.

Some of the books produced around this time attained high standing, such as that of English herbalist John Gerarde (1545-1612), who published his General History of Plants in 1597, followed by a revised edition published posthumously in 1633. This book included 2,800 plants, serving as a vast compendium of European herbology. The revision of Gerarde's book was illustrated with the artistic work of Jacob Dietrich (1520-1590), who had produced the German language book Neuw Kreuterbuch (New Herbal) in 1588. Like the work of Dioscorides, the herbals of the 16th century became standards that persisted in their influence, at least until another watershed change took place in the rapid medical evolution and explosion in popular publishing during the 20th century.

Johann Künzle and His Contemporaries

Dietrich's book was the primary reference work for Künzle, who studied it in detail as an adjunct to what he had learned from his contemporaries and immediate predecessors. Künzle then became one of the leading herbal authorities in Europe for the 20th century, helping usher in the modern era of herbalism as an alternative to modern medicine.

At age 17, Künzle attended a foundation school (high school) at Einsiedeln, where one of his professors was Father Ludwig. In his book Father Künzle writes: "For my whole life I shall be grateful to the deceased Father Ludwig because on our afternoon walks he explained to us everything about the herbs we showed him....When later Father Kneipp called attention to the healing powers of herbs, it was easy for me to find them." Thus, the herb knowledge that Künzle began to accumulate early in life was passed on to him by the Catholic professors (Father Kneipp also became famous throughout Europe and is still mentioned today, see below). No doubt, the information they had to offer, which Ludwig had acquired from early 19th-century sources, was largely a reflection of what both Dietrich and Gerarde had accumulated in the 16th century and published for succeeding generations to learn from. But, the focus of herbal interest for these 19th-century priests was the local plants in central Europe which they could observe and collect. In the introduction to the republished Herbs and Weeds in 1975, the editor notes of Künzle that: "Through the profound and fervent study of the old and best books of Detrich Jacobs [sic], as well as through personal research, experiments in the laboratory, and therapeutic experiments, he became a medical chemist [pharmacist] of immense success."

Soon after Herbs and Weeds was published in 1911, an herb enthusiast in England, Maude Grieve, began compiling detailed monographs on herbs. These were eventually gathered into A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, with the information carefully checked by the book's editor. Grieve originally had a personal interest in growing plants, but eventually dug through several English language herbal guides to produce a comprehensive presentation of accumulated herbal knowledge. Quoting directly from numerous past authorities, she especially made reference to the earlier English writers, mainly Gerarde and Culpeper. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was not an academic; he wrote in a popular style that was appreciated at the time. Like Künzle, he thought that proper diet, moderate exercise, and other common sense healthful practices, along with the use of herbs, were important to avoiding serious disease. A Modern Herbal was republished in 1971, and became one of the key guides for the burgeoning new interest in herbs that began about that time.

In 1945, the year of Künzle's death, his students produced a grand new work on herbs, Comprehensive Guide to Herbal Healing (Das Grosse Karuterheilbuch). Compared to Künzle's earlier teachings in Herbs and Weeds, this text revealed a more sophisticated approach and it is largely academic in nature. The first part of the book details human anatomy and physiology. The presentation is the same as that of standard medicine, but simplified to focus on the aspects of interest to the new herbal practitioners, who would now be botanical specialists interested in herbs as modern pharmacy. The book then presents information about the botanical identity, chemical constituents, and other defining features of the plants. The diagnostic aspects and treatment of specific diseases are then outlined. Each of the herbs get a brief description of medical applications. Not only were the medical subjects all carefully outlined, but, unlike Künzle's earlier work, the main subjects of interest to herbalists were all carefully alphabetized: disease names and plant names. One section of the book (The healing method of herbal Priest Künzle), not attributed to a particular author, appears to be a direct recitation of Künzle's philosophy of disease causation and treatment, perhaps taken from notes recorded by his students during numerous lectures. The table of contents gives a good overview of the subject matter; the chapters on diseases and plant descriptions in alphabetic order were said to follow Künzle's presentations.

Biography: Priest Künzle's way toward the suffering person
The Building blocks of the body: the organs and their functions
History of plant healing
Ingredients of the healing plants
     The healing method of herbal priest Künzle: the development and simple healing of disease:
     Most of the problems develop after a cold
     Different kinds of uric acid deposits
     The methods of herbal healing
     Is fever dangerous?
     Diseases of the respiratory organs
     Lung diseases
     The weak heart
     Intestinal disturbances
     Where do so many stomach disorders come from?
     Blood is a very special essence
     Healthy and unhealthy sweating
     Rheumatoid pain
     Sleep and sleeplessness
     Care of teeth care and teeth diseases
     Professions and their proneness to certain diseases
     Pediatric diseases
     A little bit of soul medicine
Diseases and their treatment: prescriptions of herbal healing in alphabetic order
The description of the plants in alphabetic order
The healthy care of family and home
Nature: air, light, sunshine, cleanliness, healthy baths, gymnastic, walking in the forest…
The sick bed and how to take care of the sick
Diet for sick days
Useful hints for the collection drying storing and use of healing herbs

This large and detailed book, unlike the small and folksy Herbs and Weeds, failed to capture the imagination of the people, though it remains a well-known text of European herbal medicine, still available today. It has since been largely superceded by new texts by modern authors reporting on research developments during the past thirty years.

Modern Herbal Knowledge from this European Tradition

For America, Grieve's book, being in English and including most of the herbs that were available on the international herb market, eventually became the one authoritative guide coming from Europe to answer the demands for herbal knowledge. The old British book was made available in a new two volume set during the 1970s, when interest in herbs was accelerating, thanks to the efforts of a publisher (Dover) that has pursued the republication of older books and has an extensive listing of health titles. Also during the 1970s, books by some American herbalists, such as Jethro Kloss (who wrote Back To Eden in the 1930s) and the contemporary popular teachers John Christopher and John Lust, presented information and ideas based on their personal experience with herbs. They passed on knowledge that they acquired locally, without much reference to the main tradition that had been preserved in historic European books. But, for detailed knowledge of the herbs they discussed, many Americans simply turned to Grieve's Modern Herbal, which quoted extensively from the European tradition. Künzle's two books remained unknown in America (the larger volume was never translated to English).

Herb knowledge is now readily obtained from numerous sources, including both professional and lay publications and on a plethora of internet sites. Those interested in the practical application of the herbal knowledge often can obtain an orientation and context for their herb use from an inspirational figure who has captured the popular attention through untiring work culminating in a written record. In Europe, Künzle is still mentioned in this context.

Both Grieve and Künzle had an impact on the herb industry in their respective countries. Of Grieve, it was said that "During the War (1914-1918), when there was a shortage of medicinal plants because they could no longer be imported from abroad, Mrs. Grieve made practical use of her knowledge and trained pupils in the work of drying and preparing herbs for the chemists' [pharmacists'] market. She did a great deal to revive the herb industry in England." Of Father Künzle, who virtually single-handedly stimulated the growth of a major herbal industry in Switzerland, it was said that "he was considered one of the greatest benefactors in Switzerland."

The revival of interest in herbal remedies eventually led to a concern about the safety and efficacy of the herbs. In Europe, where Germany was the largest source of herbal products, a concerted effort was made to evaluate the herbs. In 1976, the West German government defined herbal remedies as belonging to the same classification as drugs. The Federal Health Agency formed a commission for evaluating the herbs, which came to be known as the Commission E. A series of 300 herb monographs were produced and published in German during the period 1984-1991. These monographs were later translated to English and published by the American Botanical Council in 1998 as The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. At the same time as these monographs were translated and compiled into a single guidebook, an effort was made to greatly expand and update the information that had been presented in the all too brief monographs, as well as to add some herbs that had not yet received monographs. This work was published as Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs, also by the American Botanical Council, in 2000.

The information about the 27 herbs outlined in this book in Chapter 8 was compiled from a search of several herb guides, but mainly the ones described here, such as the earlier books A Modern Herbal and Herbs and Weeds, and the recent Complete German Commission E Monographs and Herbal Medicine. Historical information was obtained also from Health Plants of the World and herb safety checks were made by searching the PubMed web site, which carries titles and abstracts from hundreds of medical journals worldwide.

Contributions of Herbalist Priests in Central Europe

Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) of Bavaria, is recognized as one of the leading contributors to the modern field of natural healing. He advocated exposure to nature: sunlight, baths, fresh air, and dips in cold water, eating natural foods (rather than processed foods), and having a positive mental attitude, as a means of recovering health, and this is an origin of the "spa" movement in central Europe that remains vibrant today. He became convinced of the efficacy of this approach when, at the age of about 21, he suffered from tuberculosis and cured himself by these methods-particularly the "water therapy"-which he was said to have found described in the Vatican archives, though it may have been from another church library. After becoming a priest, he began making recommendations for sick parishioners.

Kneipp had a strong influence on the development of naturopathy and herbal therapeutics in America. In 1892, one of those who sought out Father Kneipp's help was Benedict Lust, a German who had immigrated to America, but then returned home after contracting tuberculosis. He was cured using Kneipp's method of water therapy (along with healthy diet and herbs) and became convinced of its general usefulness. He returned to America to promote "Kneippism," starting schools, societies, magazines, health food stores, and sanitariums. Lust utilized the name naturopathy to describe the basic approach, and founded the American Naturopathic Association and the American School of Naturopathy.

Künzle had learned from Kneipp as well as from other priest-herbalists (such as Father Ludwig, mentioned in his autobiography) and his work stimulated considerable interest in herbalism in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. In turn, Kneipp and Künzle both influenced the Austrian Hermann-Josef Weidinger (1918-2004). He had studied European herbalism in his youth and traveled to China as a missionary, where he lived from 1938 to 1953, and learned of their herbal system from a Buddhist monk and also while working with an army doctor. He returned from China due to illness and continued his work as an herbalist, writing numerous books on natural health care. Until recently, he and 37 assistants prepared and prescribed herbal remedies in Karlstein, Austria, at the Paracelsus House Nature Cure Center.

One of his favorite remedies was elderberry juice. He pointed out that "Elderberry cleanses the digestive system and promotes healthy elimination. This is most essential to good health." Father Weidinger believed that elderberry protects the body from serious diseases, and observed: "Elderberry reduces inflammation and relieves the body of impurities. In this manner it also balances the emotions." Weidinger employed concentrated elderberry juice as a mainstay in his herbal cleansing and healing programs. To complete this story of the history of the European herbal tradition, it is worth noting that the first recorded medicinal use of elderberries was by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. The Romans believed that anyone who cultivated the elderberry would die of old age instead of sickness.