Foundations Of Herbal Medicine

Part I – Women, Herbs And Traditional Healing

Donna Easto,
C.H., H.C., M.H., Certified Herbal Consultant

The early history of herbal medicine is undeniably the story of women healers. Their stories are often passed over or told in the context of duty to family and community, rather than their expertise in the healing arts.  Just the other day, I picked up a book published in 1997, which opened with “The History of Natural Health.”  Of the thirty-eight “pioneers of herbal medicine” listed, only four were women – in a list spanning from 377 BCE to 1994!  In most cultures, it was women who possessed and passed down herbal therapeutics in everyday practice.  Over the next weeks, we’ll look at the basics of botanical medicine for women, but first, let’s consider a few of the remarkable women who were pioneers of herbal medicine. 

Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt established three medical schools during her reign (1503-1482 BCE).  Yet another Egyptian Queen, Mentuhetep, was buried with jars and vessels filled with tinctured and dried herbs.  We have Queen Polydamna to thank for the discovery of the sedative properties of the opium poppy. This lady shared her herbal wisdom with Helen of Troy.

In Athens, a fresco depicts physician Aspasia in the company of Socrates, Plato and Sophocles. Life wasn’t always fair for this famous healer.  It took an uprising of her female patients threatening to commit suicide that cleared the way for women to practice medicine in Greece openly. 

Rome housed many eminent women physicians, including Octavia, Fabiola and Margareta (an army surgeon).  They may have practiced freely, but Rome’s male overlords were not supportive.  Pliny the Elder stated that women should practice secretly so that no one would know they existed – even after death. 

In the Middle Ages, the establishment of male-dominated European universities and medical schools found women healers threatened by hostility from both physicians and the church.  They risked hefty fines, beatings, exile and excommunication if discovered practicing herbalism, midwifery, or nursing.  In 1322,  Jaqueline Felicie of Paris was charged with illegally practicing medicine. Found guilty, she was banned from practicing, threatened with excommunication, and fined 60 Parisian pounds. The prosecution’s case, based upon her absence of formal training at a university, did not test her medical knowledge. The court ruled that only a man could understand the subject of medicine. This decision barred French women from academic study in medicine and obtaining licenses until the 19th-century.

In the last four centuries of the Middle Ages, not content to simply ban women from medical practice, female healers became the target of witch-hunting. Countless numbers endured horrific punishments, even execution. 

Before Europeans arrived in North America, women traditional healers successfully tended to as many as 90 to 112 million people.  In addition to employing effective botanical treatments for the body, traditional healing honours the patient’s mind and spirit.  It involves faith in the healer and trust in Mother Earth’s power to restore balance and provide medicine.  

The colonization process banned people from practicing their healing arts and caused the loss of precious land that hosted medicinal plants. Forced to abandon cultural practices and nature-based modalities, many began to move away from traditional medicine.  

The sacred relationship between the healer, the Earth, and the person seeking relief is even more critical now.  Today, skilled herbalists from many cultures play a pivotal role in supporting herbal medicine’s resurgence and calling for the inclusion of traditional healing practices in present-day medicine. 

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