Who were the first “herbalists”?

I am fascinated with the origins of terms. I don’t really know why.  A search for the original meaning of a term will draw me down the research rabbit hole more quickly than any other topic.  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 may help lead you to a truth.

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 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 1500’s and the 1600’s, yet I had never seen the word until I read books published much later. 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 

The best place to start a search into the etmyology 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.

For what it is worth the word herbwife is not listed in any dictionary of Middle English, either. that word is 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– Physick or physic was the word commonly used to describe the practice of medicine and so physician was the name 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 or caring for the ill. That was left to, women family members or servants.  Nor did they sell medicines. That was the apothecaries’ role.

University trained physicians were sometimes not really engaged much in healthcare at all. They were the intellectual elite teaching at medical schools and writing herbals. Their services were prohibitively expensive to all but the very rich, who sometimes acted as their patrons. The Irish medical families often only provided care to a king or chieftains family. There is documentation that physicians sometimes didn’t even see their patients but would consult with them via correspondence.

Apothecaries Members of the Pepperers’ Guild and Spicers’ Guilds 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 to physicians and to consumers. They were trained through a combination of study and apprenticeship and compounded medicines using both herbs and alchemical preparations. 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.)

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 they 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 with 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.

This system reinforced the need for domestic medicine because it meant that a person could consult a physician or an apothecary but someone at home had to carry through with the actual process of preparing and administering the preparations they purchased. Shockingly, most men didn’t step up to the task.

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. Nicholas Culpeper was a rogue physician. He often butted heads with the apothecaries because he never formally joined them. He also ran afoul of the physicians for taking in patients and publishing English versions of their Latin texts. If you haven’t read his translation of the London Dispensatory (1649), it’s worth it just for the snark

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 the 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.

Renaissance Physicians and Their Herbals 1500–1700

On the 23rd of September in 1518 King Henry the 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 groups in 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. The Royal College of Physicians in London were exhausting in terms of their legal prosecution of the other practitioners, but outside of London their influence dwindled.

There is an old belief amongst plant historians that the word “herbalist” was first used sometimes shortly after the herbalist Rembert Dodoens’ death in 1585, to describe his work as a botanist. Given the date of origin of the term 1585 stated in a 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 seems to be referring to his role as a published botanist. He called himself a “simpler” when talking about his medicine making.

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?

By 1820, hundreds of plants had been carried back to Europe from the colonized Americas. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh moved to Inverleigh and continued to amass its huge herbarium and many botanists took on the additional task of writing huge texts detailing their studies of the plants they collected.  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 against “Mineral Physicians”

As technologies improved, the practitioners of medicine began to incorporate 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 had introduced 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 were very much into phlebotomy.

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.

It should be mentioned here that bloodletting was not just something professionals did. There is documentation of bloodletting as a cure in folk accounts as well. Rush took it to an extreme and his preference for “inert” mineral medicines created a schism in the medical world that still exists today.

Shortly thereafter you saw various schools of botanical medicine pop 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. 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]

Despite claims that herbalism was a separate tradition, it was really a word that didn’t pop up until the turn of the 20th century to be used by professional medical practitioners. It honestly wasn’t until the self-proclaimed elders of the herbal revival started using it that the word truly took on its own life outside of the fields of botany and professional medicine.

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 Europeans 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, was obtained.

They also helped to reinforce negative attitudes towards Indigenous people that paved the way for 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 folks 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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