Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Part One: History of Medicinal Herbs

Part One: History of Medicinal Herbs

by Madeline Martin and Eliza Knight

Hi, everyone! Madeline Martin and Eliza Knight here! We’re sorry you weren’t able to attend our History of Medicinal Herbs class at the Historical Romance Retreat in Spokane, WA this year. There was so much interest in this class that we wanted to do a blog post here so everyone can enjoy. But there is so much to share, we’ve decided to break it down into four fun parts! Check back weekly!

Please note several things:
  1. We aren’t doctors, we aren’t even healers. Pretty much, we’re authors who make stuff up for a living and enjoy researching historical tidbits to share (especially the crazy ones). Do not try any of these herbs without consulting a doctor first.
  2. Yes, there is WAY more information about all the herbs we’re going to mention, and there are WAY more herbs than we list. However, it was an hour long class, and there really are only so many appropriate memes.
  3. We focused mainly on herbs we had on hand to do a fun show-and-tell with. Obviously being online you can’t see, touch, or smell these herbs. For that, we are humbly sorry (except we really feel we are owed a huge thanks on your part regarding the valerian root – just saying)

This is the voice of Eliza Knight (yes, I totally just did that with my hands cupped around my mouth, because I’m a dork like that). I have always been fascinated by healing herbs and ways to heal the body naturally. It’s amazing how many things we did back in the day, that we still do now (and also a lot we figured out were a bad idea!) Because that is a part of my “real life,” I have added it to many of my books. Several of my heroines are able to use healing herbs to help people, and some use them as poisons. My favorite two herbal heroines are Shona from HIGHLANDER’S TOUCH and Julianna from THE HIGHLAND WARRIOR’S BRIDE. Shona is a healer, and is often called to the castle and village to help people, but she has also been nicknamed the Witch of the Wood, since people were so suspicious of women who could heal with herbs. Julianna, uses her herbal knowledge for good & bad. She’s a warrior, and uses poisons on her weapons.

So, for Madeline Martin (yeah, I totally just referred to myself in third person to keep this from getting confusing) – I decided I would write a female healer as they’ve always fascinated me. Celia (from Enchantment of a Highlander) was not only a healer, but a survivor of the North Berwick Witch Trials (it’s sad and fascinating and the history dork in me demands you look it up). In order to write a healer though, I wanted to have the full experience of what she might go through, so I decided to start doing all natural bath and body products. It opened the door to this incredible interest and now all you nice folks will be subjected to our findings. J

We can’t get into historical medicine and NOT talk about the crazy things they did/believed back then. Here are just a few (feel free to share more in the comments – no one can ever have enough conversational fodder with these kinds of things!)

  • Mercury was used for everything. They rubbed on scrapes, drank it for good health, and even certain parts of the skin were soaked in it. For those of you who might not know, mercury is super poisonous and would eventually kill you. Bonus, it DID help reduce the spread STDs. Silver lining (hahaha pun intended)
  • Trepanning was the act of intentionally putting a hole in someone’s head. Yeah, intentionally. This was meant to relieve intense migraines and also cure people who were suffering from demon possession (this was oftentimes epilepsy, but the doctors weren’t on the up and up then, so….yeah). It often wasn’t the hole in the head who would kill their victims, but the fractured skull which oftentimes resulted in the creation of the hole, or the infections that happened as a result of poorly washed utensils. (we need another history mess up, like we need a solid trepanning, yet on we press!)
  • Pee was used…a LOT. Pee, especially from a pregnant woman, was bathed in, used for soaking and...yes...even drank. There is no scientific evidence this would ever have helped. However, Romans did swish with pee to whiten their teeth, and it actually has been scientifically proven to work. (I’ll still with tooth strips, thank you very much)
  • Pills were encased with gold for the high nobles and incredibly wealthy, so any effectiveness of the pill would never even have helped. Then again, some of the cures could kill you then, so in some cases, this might have saved them from the cure.
  • Blood letting was to balance the four humours, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile as it was believe illness was an offsetting of these, and bleeding would put it all back in harmony.
  • Animal dung was also used…A LOT. Dung was used in poultices (I’m sure that smelled great) and on skin in balms/oils. One of the more interesting finds was how in ancient Egypt, crocodile dung smeared inside the hollowed out half of a lemon for contraception. In truth, the half a lemon would have been a great diaphragm and the citric acid would have acted as a spermicide, but I’m sure the dung was great for….abstinence? Yeast infection? I wouldn’t recommend it.  
  • It was thought that plants made to look like certain body parts were intended by nature to be used on those body parts. For example, skullcap was used for headaches since they looked like little shrunken heads with wispy hairs.
  • Corpse medicine – yep, this was made from dead bodies. Powdered, dried, ground, etc bones/skin/hair from certain dead people (depending on how they were or how they died) were used in medicines to help with issues. The more notable the person, the more effective their dehydrated parts. Bone tea anyone?

Different ways herbs were used (and are actually still used today):
  • Tincture – this was an alcoholic extraction of herbs with sometimes as high as a 90% alcohol content (though usually it was more like 25-60%). Vinegar was also used with this. It’s made to hit the bloodstream and was usually sweetened with honey to make it more palatable (especially if it was made with vinegar – YUCK!)
  • Poultice – this was a soft, moist bag of heated herbs put in a cloth and set on the skin to to help with cuts/lacerations.
  • Enemas – much the same as a tincture, it was inserted into the rectum. In fact, in the households of nobles and royals, there was a person whose job it was to administer enemas given their diets rich in meat and facts and little fiber. 
  • Essential oil – these were oils pulled from the plant. This came from all parts of the plans and could have different healing properties depending on what it was (leaves, flowers, roots, stems, and even seeds) and was either put in teas, breathed in, put in balms, etc. If placed directly on the skin, essential oils usually need some sort of a carrier oil as some of the stronger oils can actually burn your skin.
  • Tea – They didn’t have tea bags back in the day, so this was a raw blend of loose leaf.
  • Balm/Salve – While we use beeswax for this now and other melted butters (cocoa butter, shea butter, etc) people in history would use what was available. Like lard. Yum.
  • Pills – Considering these were encased in gold, these might have done some good for you…maybe.
  • Eaten/Chewed – Mint leaves were chewed before meeting with some kings. It’s good to be king. 

Subscribe to our newsletters for two awesome recipes! Mid-October, we will send out the healing balm recipe, and in mid-November, we will sent out a pet paw ointment recipe for the coming winter!

Eliza Knight & Madeline Martin at the Historical Romance Retreat 


Madeline Martin is a USA TODAY Bestselling author of Scottish set historical romance novels. She lives a glitter-filled life in Jacksonville, Florida with her two daughters (known collectively as the minions) and a man so wonderful he's been dubbed Mr. Awesome. All shenanigans are detailed regularly on Twitter and on Facebook.

Madeline loves animals in sweaters, cat videos, wine and Nutella. Check out her FB page on any given Friday to see what great new book she's giving away by one of her fellow authors. 

She also loves connecting with her readers, so feel free to follow her on any one of her social media platforms, or send her a message :) 

FB page: https://www.facebook.com/MadelineMartinAuthor/
Twitter: @MadelineMMartin


Eliza Knight is an award-winning and USA Today bestselling indie author of over fifty sizzling historical romance and erotic romance. Under the name E. Knight, she pens rip-your-heart-out historical fiction. While not reading, writing or researching for her latest book, she chases after her three children. In her spare time (if there is such a thing…) she likes daydreaming, wine-tasting, traveling, hiking, staring at the stars, watching movies, shopping and visiting with family and friends. She lives atop a small mountain with her own knight in shining armor, three princesses and two very naughty puppies.

Twitter: @ElizaKnight
Instagram: @ElizaKnightFiction


heather said...

Fabulous! I love all this information, and you two are hilarious! Thank you : )

Darlene Michel said...

This was great!!! So interesting! Going to check out the witch trials now!thanks you guys!

Madeline Martin said...

Thank you so much, ladies! We're so glad you enjoyed our out-of-workshop workshop!! <3 :) And Darlene - the witch trials really are fascinating!!

Midniteiz said...

This is so interesting! Thank you both for sharing!

Patti Wissore said...

This is one class I would have loved! I'm actually making shower bombs this week!