Discovering Yourstory

My original motivation for starting this project was to provide resources for people who want to research their personal cultural folkways. Everyone will have a different starting point.

I grew up in a poor rural area in a family that still held strong associations with their traditions.  If your family didn’t follow a lot of 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.  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 that the “history” in most herbal books is terrible.   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 and often feel the need to mask in social circles to do that.   No one likes the well-actually girl.

Most presenters who even gave a nod to historical practice were teaching the same male-dominated version of medical history handed down from the ivory tower, while others were teaching a 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. 

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 would not have written about this before I got old and crotchety enough that I don’t care about fitting in anymore.

Question Everything

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 was placed on a moral high ground.

Look for those contextual errors 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 inaccurate and 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.  If you have never considered the way the Maiden Mother Crone mythology categorizes the stages of women’s lives by their usefulness as breeders, it is worth thinking about.   What is more irritating is how Victorian revisionism turned important gynecological herbs used by professional midwives into love charms and frivolity. 

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.

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 a brief blurb gives a nod to 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.” 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 people with more letters than me, argue with me that women were not allowed to teach at the Salernitan medical school and various women’s treatises on health were never published. Nothing personal but a lot of men are really invested in the version of history written from their viewpoint.

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 mentioned 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 plant 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 where it stores things on your harddrive. Just remember to back that storage file up to the cloud every so often.

Canny, Nicholas P. ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’. The William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 4 (October 1973): 575.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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