Middle Ages Use of Aromatics and Quacks

In the twelfth century, the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was authorized by the Church to publish her visions on medicine (Causae et Curae), dealing with the causes and remedies for illness (Brunn and Epiney-Burgard, 1989). The foul smell of refuse in European towns in the seventeenth century was thought to be the major cause of disease, including the plague (Classen et al., 1994), and aromatics were used for both preventing and in some cases curing diseases; herbs such as rosemary were in great demand and sold for exorbitant prices as a prophylactic against the plague (Wilson, 1925). People forced to live near victims of the plague would carry a pomander, which contained a mixture of aromatic plant extracts. Medical practitioners carried a small cassolette or "perfume box" on the top of their walking sticks, when visiting contagious patients, which was filled with aromatics (Rimmel, 1865). Some physicians wore a device filled with herbs and spices over their nose when they examined plague patients (Wilson, 1925). These became known as "beaks" and it is from this that the term "quack" developed.

Apothecaries were originally wholesale merchants and spice importers, and in 1617 the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was formed, under the control of the London Royal College of Physicians, which produced an "official" pharmacopoeia specifying the drugs the apothecaries were allowed to dispense. The term "perfumer" occurs in some places instead of "apothecary" (Rimmel, 1865).

John Gerard (1545-1612) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) were two of the better-known apothecaries of their time. Nicholas Culpeper combined healing herbs with astrology as he believed that each plant, like each part of the body, and each disease, was governed or under the influence of one of the planets: rosemary was believed to be ruled by the Sun, lavender by Mercury, and spearmint by Venus. Culpeper also adhered to the Doctrine of Signatures, introduced by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century, and mythology played a role in many of the descriptive virtues in Culpeper's herbal. This astrological tradition is carried through by many aromatherapists today, together with other innovations such as ying and yang, crystals, and colors.

Culpeper's simple or distilled waters and oils (equivalent to the present hydrosols) were prepared by the distillation of herbs in water in a pewter still, and then fractionating them to separate out the essential or "chymical" oil from the scented plants. The plant waters were the weakest of the herbal preparations and were not regarded as being beneficial. Individual plants such as rose or elderflower were used to make the corresponding waters, or else mixtures of herbs were used to make compound waters (Culpeper, 1826/1981; Tobyn, 1997). Essential oils of single herbs were regarded by Culpeper as too strong to be taken alone, due to their vehement heat and burning, but had to be mixed with other medicinal preparations. Two or three drops were used in this way at a time. Culpeper mentioned the oils of wormwood, hyssop, marjoram, the mints, oregano, pennyroyal, rosemary, rue, sage, thyme, chamomile, lavender, orange, and lemon. Spike lavender, not Lavandula angustifolia, is used in aromatherapy nowadays. Herbs such as dried wormwood and rosemary were also steeped in wine and set in the sun for 30-40 days to make a "physical wine." The "herbal extracts" mentioned in the herbals were mostly water soluble and at best, alcoholic extracts, none of which are equivalent to essential oils, which contain many potent chemical components are not found in essential oils.

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