My primary motivation for starting this blog was to encourage people to research their cultural folkways. Everyone will have a different starting point. I grew up in a poor rural area in a family with a strong connection to their traditions. If your family didn’t have established traditional practices like mine, you might be starting with just a general idea about where your people came from. You should consider yourself lucky if you know that much. Many people in the world had that taken away from them.
This work is going to involve some unlearning on your part. I remember when I started my anthropology classes in college. I was sitting in a meeting of people who were going to work on a history project together. They knew I was friendly with a certain herbal author who wrote historical anecdotes in their books. I spent an uncomfortable afternoon listening to them run through all the errors in one, as examples of mistakes we wanted to avoid.
It was irritating, but it wasn’t paradigm changing for me because I wasn’t invested in that truth. I already knew the history in most popular herbal books was invented. Often, it’s simply repeated from some, and sometimes authors purposefully omit or invent stories to support their viewpoint.
When I began attending herbal conferences, I bit my tongue about the way the history of herbalism was taught. I regret that now, but I wanted to make friends. Some people were teaching the male dominated version of medical history handed down through academia and many others were teaching some neopagan infused feminist fairy-tale.
Everyone was neglecting the wealth of knowledge that can be gleaned from a survey of medical texts and manuscripts written by women in various museum collections all over the world.
When I went to Goddard, every faculty member I worked with pushed me to question the author’s opinion about what I read. I often find myself stuck in between these two professional worlds. The transcription projects I work on are important to me. Those manuscripts represent millennia of hands-on experience that should not be allowed to just fade away.
However, the reality is that they directly contradict a lot of stories thrown around in the Herbal Community™. I guess I am just old and crochety enough that I just don’t care if sticking to the research standard that is demanded of me in my historical research is going to make me unpopular with those people. So here is my advice to people who want to discover their story.
Learning to recognize biases in presentation and translation is important. History has been subject to revisionism by the patriarchy, people with nationalistic motives, second-wave feminists, and most recently neopagans. The documentation of history has always been in the hands of the learned elite who colluded with Power to make their culture seem superior or be on a moral high ground.
Look for those hidden agendas in things you read. For example, if you see someone writing about witch doctors in Indigenous North American cultures understand that person is using a word that is not relevant to that culture.
Question things that are too heavily gendered. The ‘his’story versus ‘her’story debate is nonsense because none of it is accurate and it ignores the contributions of people who didn’t fit in that gender binary. History books are often mired in nationalistic/patriarchal nonsense while modern “herstory” is based on a fertility goddess myth invented by the Victorians that might be more rooted in patriarchal nonsense than actual history. It categorizes the stages of women’s lives by their usefulness as breeders and turns them into captive consumers. Just look at the way they turned important gynecological herbs used by professional midwives into love charms and “moon” herbs. When I went to Goddard, every faculty member I worked with pushed me to question every author’s opinion about what I read.
Personally, I wish I had known knew about the of period romantic nationalism that led to the revision of Irish history referred to as “the leprechaunization of Irish prehistory” by a noted Irish archeologist and Celtic fakelore by others when I started researching Gaelic herbal medicine decades ago. It would have saved me a good deal of backtracking.
For what it’s worth, there is no such thing as a uniform “Irish” practice and Irish Druids were invented by the Medieval Irish Catholic church, although I own up to having drank the green Kool-Aid myself at one point.
I had taken too many Celtic Studies workshops and classes before I met my favorite anthropology professor, but she set me straight. I used the word “Celt” once in her presence, at which point she looked over her glasses at me and asked, “Which Celts? The Welsh, the Cornish, the Gallaeci that lived in Iberia, the Gauls that lived in France, the Bretons that lived in Brittany, the Boii tribe that lived in Bohemia and Bavaria, or perhaps you mean the oldest documented group of Celts that spoke Lepontic and lived in the Alps?” She then shook her head and said, “I think you mean the Gaels, dear.”
Use Primary Sources Whenever Possible
I am sure some of you have seen those terrible formulaic plant history paragraphs at the beginning of scientific journal articles. Researchers who write medical journal articles are told writing that brief blurb gives a nod plant medicine as a long-standing tradition and validates their research. I cannot count the times I have read one of those that started with something like, “Dioscórides says in his Materia Medica” and thought to myself, “No, he most certainly did not.”
I suggest reading primary source documents yourself rather than relying on what other people tell you. Some authors copy information from secondary sources that inaccurately cite primary sources. If you aren’t going to read the whole thing, at least fact check quotes. Don’t pass erroneous attributions along to the next person.
To be fair, this was more difficult before the days of digitization, but these days the internet makes it easy to find primary source documents. There are ways around firewalls these days as more people in academia are recognizing that information should be freely available to all. If you need a paper, you can ask the author directly or shoot me a message.
Don’t Rely Too Heavily on Expert Commentary
Don’t assume that just because someone has some letters behind their name that you need to defer to them. I have had PhD-types whom I distill research for argue with me that women were not allowed to teach at the Salernitan medical school and that the Countess of Kent’s medicinal formulas were never published. Nothing personal but a lot of men like to believe the version of history written from their viewpoint.
Let’s use the academic handling of Lady Borlase’s receipt book as an example of the erasure of women’s knowledge. The Borlase receipt book has been digitized and transcribed in a free online collection at the University of Iowa known as Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks. The name of the collection does not even hint at the fact that there are medical receipts in many of their books. A person only familiar with the modern context of the word “cookbook” would not have the slightest clue that they could find this information in that collection.
To top it all off, the article is housed under the title ROBERT GODFREY RECEIPTS, 1665-1799. Robert Godfrey was Lady Borlase’s scribe. It was common during that era for women of the upper class to hire someone to take dictation. There was a lot of debate as to whether women even needed to learn handwriting.
Regardless of who did the writing, the receipts are Alice Borlase’s, so why is the university giving credit for the intellectual property of the woman to her secretary? Can you imagine the uproar that I could create by going back and naming documents written by men after their secretaries?
It has also been published with commentary by David Schoonover. Schoonover’s commentary is condescending. He clearly illustrates that he has negative opinions about the medical advice recorded in the manuscript. I would take that more seriously if he were correct about other things. I don’t know what his academic specialty is, but nothing he wrote about early modern medicine, especially the legal status and scope of practice of the apothecary, was accurate.
Another example I have come across in my research is the commentary on the translations on the CELT database. In the lead up to one translation they say that there is no reference found to yarrow in the Latin version of the medicinal work and therefore conclude it is a “uniquely Irish herb.”
That’s just not true. Pliny wrote that yarrow was the herb Homer wrote about in the Iliad. He called it herbis militaris. Archaeologists found yarrow amongst the medical supplies of a Roman ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany. The linguist who wrote that was clearly not grounded in that history, and probably should have kept their commentary focused on what they knew.
Use Reference Management Software
You are not going to remember everything you read. Keeping your research notes available in a way that can be searched quickly when you are too tired to remember, is useful. I use Zotero because it is free Opensource software that you can download to your computer.
Canny, Nicholas P. ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’. The William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 4 (October 1973): 575. https://doi.org/10.2307/1918596.