Who were the First “Herbalists”?

I am fascinated with the origins of terms. A search for the original meaning of a term will draw me down the research rabbit hole more quickly than any other topic, though.  It has to do with feeling like no matter how many times history has been revised to meet someone’s agenda, the original meaning of the term is significant.

The capacity to search large databases for words makes combing through history for obscure terms much easier. There was a time when my research would not have been possible without flying all over the world and hiring a couple of assistants.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to narrow down where the English word “herbalist” came from. To hear some people, talk, you would think the word is as old as the practice of plant medicine. This just doesn’t line up with what I have learned.

I have read many, many herbals published in the 1500s and the 1600s, yet I had never seen the word until I read books published much later. I also see it erroneously used to anglicize cultural terms for various ritual healing specialists far too often. I wanted to be clear on what practice the title aligns with, so I did some sleuthing, and so far, this is what I have found.

Early Middle Ages 1066- 1300 

A good place to start a search into the etymology of an English word is the University of Michigan’s Middle English Compendium, where we can find the following words relating to herbs:

Herbe, sb. herb, Voc.; eerbe, W2; hairbis, pl., S3; herbes, C2; erbez, S2; eerbis, W2. — OF. herbe; Lat. herba.

Herbere, sb. garden of herbs, S3; herber, PP, CM; erber, PP; erberes, pl., S3.

Hērber n.(2) Additional spellings: herber A collector and/or seller of herbs

I found the words herberwe and herbergeri which referred to a type of lodging and an herbergeour was someone who provided said lodging. I’ve yet to find the word herbalist though.  I am always keeping an eye out though. The title herbwife is not listed in any dictionary of Middle English, either. That word is likely the result of some 17th-century revisionism. I did find alewife, though.

Late Middle Ages 1300–1500
During this period there were three guilds of professional medical practitioners all of whom used mostly herbal remedies along with incorporating a few mineral substances.

Physicians: The Arte of Physick was used to describe the practice of humoral medicine and so physician was honorific given to mostly upper-class men who studied this practice at medical schools. They examined, diagnosed, and prescribed, but they weren’t getting their hands dirty with the actual preparation of medicines. That was left to family members, or those in service to the family, to procure those items from an apothecary or to make them in the home. Caring for the ill also occurred in the home.

There is documentation that physicians sometimes didn’t even see their patients but would consult with them via correspondence. Their services were prohibitively expensive. The rich even sometimes acted as their patrons. The Irish medical families often exclusively provided care to a particular king or chieftain’s family.

University physicians were sometimes not really engaged much in healthcare at all. They were the intellectual elite teaching at Oxford or Eton and writing large materia medica tomes we call herbals.

On the 23rd of September in 1518 King Henry VIII granted a petition to a group of physicians, led by A. Thomas Linacre, establishing a college of physicians in London. In 1523, the English parliament recognized members of the group throughout England. Later in the 17th century this group began calling itself the Royal College of Physicians and set up schools in London and Edinburgh. Groups like the Fraternity of Physicians of Trinity Hall at Trinity College in Dublin petitioned for this distinction and became King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland under Charles II.

Apothecaries Members of the Pepperers’ Guild and Spicers’ Guild were incorporated as the Worshipful Company of Grocers in 1428. Some of these tradespeople began to specialize in compounding medicinal preparations and became known as spicer-apothecaries. The apothecaries then broke away from that group in 1617 to form the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries.

Morel, Pierre, The expert doctors dispensatory… 1657

An apothecary owned a shop that sold both bulk herbs and spices and prepared medicines for physicians and consumers. They were trained through a combination of study and apprenticeship and compounded medicines using both herbs and chemical ingredients. The years a person spent working in a family apothecary shop counted towards their apprenticeship by the Society, so women could become members. While they could not own property unless they were widows, many inherited their shops. Susan Reeve Lyon is one whose name we know because she was hassled by the College of Physicians for selling herbs to a Dutch physician who was not recognized by them.[1]

From a practical point of view, this is the practitioner that most of the upper and middle class consulted regularly. Apothecaries extended their practice to dispensing medical advice to customers of their shops, but it was against medical regulations for them see patients like physicians did until the Apothecaries Acts were passed in Ireland (1791) and England (1815). This is why you read of people calling the apothecary in Jane Austen novels, by that time it was legal, and they were less expensive than physicians.

The third guild professional was known as a chirurgeon or barber-surgeon. This branch of medicinal practice evolved during the early Middle Ages when the monastery hospitals were providing healthcare. Barber Surgeons would perform surgical procedures that clergy were unable to perform due to religious restrictions on clergy shedding blood by the pope.

Later chirurgeons did the same thing for physicians and apothecaries who just didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They were trained via apprenticeship but received a fair education usually gleaned in the workplace. Herbalist John Gerard started in the Barber-Surgeon’s Company by apprenticing with a ship doctor.  Hannah Woolley, a chirurgeon who wrote several physick manuals in the late 1600’s, began her learning as a maid in Anne, Lady Maynard’s still room.

These titles were by no means the only terms used. Many times, older titles passed down through the generations persisted. In 1470 we read about the apothecary Raaf Sewkeworth as the herbare of Oxenford.

There were also physicians who were what they called Royal Licentiates, meaning that they were granted a license to practice medicine by some sort of decree. Charles II handed a lot of those out to “chymical physicians” after the Restoration. What’s of note here is that with all these different titles used by someone who practiced medicine, the term herbalist still isn’t one of them.

Medical Colleges and Their Herbals 1500–1700

During the early modern period, the Europeans established huge botanical gardens (hortus botanicus) where they taught botany. As botany and medicine were nearly synonymous during this era, most had a dedicated area called the hortis medicus for the growing and study of medicinal plants.

Professor Luca Ghini established the first of these in Pisa in 1543 and the expansive Università di Pisa Herbarium at Bologna a few years later. Orto Botanico di Padova was established by the Benedictine monks of St. Justina in 1545. It is the oldest university botanical garden that still stands in the same spot it was founded, today. The University of Pisa Orto Botanico was moved in 1591. The Universität Leipzig’s botanical garden was officially dedicated in a spot where there had been a garden in 1580 and six years later the Botanischer Garten Jena was established.

There was a bit of competition to see who could get the new plants first because the medical schools with the best gardens would attract students from all over Europe. Henri IV of Navarre founded the Jardin des plantes de Montpellier in 1595 because French students were going to Italy to study medicine at Orto Botanico di Padova. The professor in charge of this Montpellier, Guillaume Rondelet, was the teacher of Matthias de l’Obel, Jean Bauhin, Felix Platter, Leonhardt Fuchs, Conrad Gesner, Laurent Joubert, and Charles de L’Écluse (Clusius). That list should astound most students of medical history.

Not all notable physic gardens were associated with universities. Some were private botanical gardens like Conrad Gessner’s Alter Botanischer Garten in Zurick. Carolus Clusius was tasked with starting an imperial physick garden in Vienna before moving on to establish the hortus botanicus near the University of Leiden in 1577. Jardin des Simples established by Jean Robin in 1597, was the first garden used by the University of Paris. Most plants from this garden were moved to Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales (Jardin de Roi) beginning in 1624 and Robin’s son Vespasian presided there as their botanical lecturer until 1662 when he passed.

Britain and Ireland were always just a bit behind the continent. The Royal College of Physicians of London established a small teaching garden in 1614, but it wasn’t until 1670 that the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh was established near Holyrood Palace, as a teaching garden for the Edinburgh branch of the Royal College of Physicians. It was around this time that Kew Park, the forerunner to the Kew Gardens was begun, as a private garden.  In Ireland, the Trinity College Physic Garden was established in 1687.

Some of the earliest “herbals” were written by these teachers. They contained both a botanical description and a brief explanation of the known medical uses of the plants in their gardens, modeling them after Dioscorides De materia medica.

There is an old belief amongst plant historians that the word “herbalist” was first used sometimes shortly after Rembert Dodoens’ death in 1585, to describe his work as a botanist. Given the date of origin of the term 1585 stated in this modern dictionary entry below, it seems plausible.

I have questions about that, though. If the title were truly in use during this time, one would surely have found it used in the lengthy history of herbal works that Thomas Johnson included in the introduction of his 1633 edit of Gerard’s Herbal. Gerard never referred to himself as an herbalist either.

There is a document (1604) granting Gerard the lease of a garden by James I which described him as ‘herbarist’ to the queen consort, but it seems to be referring to his role as the supervisor of the garden.[2] In 1657, the botanist Willam Coles also called himself an herbarist, but if you read the text, that term refers to his role as a published botanist.

I finally came upon the specific term in Samuel Johnson’s 1768 dictionary. Johnson defined the word herbalist as “a man skilled in herbs,” herbarist as “one skilled in herbs” and herbwoman as a “woman that fells herbs.” I might be into using the term herbarist just because it seems to be gender-neutral. But I also question what being “skilled in herbs” entails? It does not immediately imply medical practice because of course all physicians at this time used plant medicine. The 1828 Webster’s dictionary definition of herbalist as “A person skilled in plants; one who makes collections of plants” seems to still be referring to botanists and their herbariums.

Herb Doctors V “Mineral Physicians”

As technologies improved, the practitioners of medicine increasingly incorporated mineral substances in their Materia Medica. This certainly wasn’t a new idea. The Egyptians used rocks now known to contain copper such as malachite to address abdominal complaints and Pliny wrote about the powder “molochotis” to clean wounds. Paracelsus and his acolytes popularized the use of many mineral medicines as purgatives and popularized mercury as a medicine. The chymical physicians of the Restoration were often at odds with the Royal College of Physicians who practiced humoral medicine.

It was the father of “heroic” medicine movement in the United States, Benjamin Rush (1745- 1814) who truly popularized the use of mineral preparations over plant medicines in the US.  Rush, like most physicians of his time, studied with physicians who had trained in Europe. Many attended the medical school at the University of Edinburgh which was one of the best in the English-speaking world where professors like William Cullen and Thomas Sydenham taught. Although these professors urged caution with the use of calomel, Rush promoted the use of large “heroic” doses and lots of bloodletting. Those who followed this path were called mineral doctors or heroic physicians.

In response, various schools of botanical medicine popped up as pushback against these methods.  Samuel Thomson spearheaded his Thomsonian movement while Wooster Beach’s apprentice Thomas Morrow organized his “Beachites” into the Eclectic Medical Institute. In London, Oliver Phelps Brown published the first version of The Complete Herbalist in 1865 to inform “herbal physicians.” In England you saw the establishment of the National Association of Medical Herbalists (1864) and the Society of United Medical Herbalists of Great Britain (1877).[3]

This led to the word being used to describe all practitioners who primarily used an herbal materia medica. Occasionally I have come across documents from the 1900s that refer to folk practitioners as herbalists. My favorite might be a description of Biddy Early from the Schools’ Collection.

“Whether she was a skilled herbalist or a witch or whether she worked by means of coincidences is not definitely known, but she certain existed and many strange and mysterious doings are laid at her door.”

Patrick Flanagan, Co. Offaly (1938)

The self-proclaimed elders of the mid 20th-century herbal revival took on this title and associated it with a lot of fanciful history. Fact-checking was sorely neglected at this time.

I prefer not to call myself an herbalist. The origin of the word is tied up in the muck that is colonialism. The first “herbalists” were white European men who wrote about new world plants without having a clear context of their native use and who seemingly had no ethical compunctions as to how the plants, or knowledge of them, were obtained.

They also helped to reinforce negative attitudes towards Indigenous people that paved the way for the brutal colonization of many sovereign peoples. The English authors who wrote about Irish use of herbs spoke of the “meere Irish” as savages who were barely even human.[4]  

I prefer to align myself with those who grew cunning in their use of Physick Herbs while using plant remedies to help their families and communities. This is why I write about domestic medicine.


[1] Woolf, Judith. ‘Women’s Business: 17th-Century Female Pharmacists’. Science History Institute, 10 October 2009. https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/womens-business-17th-century-female-pharmacists.
[2] Stephen, Leslie, ed. ‘Gerard, John (1545-1612)’. In Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. Vol. Volume 21. London: Elder Smith & Co., 1890. Wikisource.
[3] Brown, P S. ‘The Vicissitudes of Herbalism in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Britain’. Medical History 29, no. 1 (January 1985): 71–92. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025727300043751.
[4] Stanihurst, Richard. ‘The Disposition and Maners of the Meere Irish, Commonlie Called the Wild Irish’. In A Treatise Conteining a Plaine and Perfect Description of Ireland [Selections]. From The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, edited by Holinshead, Raphael. London, England: Printed by Henry Denham, at the expenses of Iohn Harison, George Bishop, Rafe Newberie, Henrie Denham, and Thomas Woodcocke, 1586. http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/sceti/printedbooksNew/index.cfm?TextID=holinshed_ireland&PagePosition=5.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

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