Updated 12 March 2013

A brief history of herbs

Plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years. Find out more about their fascinating history.

The ancient European, Indian (or Ayurvedic) and the Chinese medicinal systems, although vastly different, all believed that imbalance in the human body is the cause of all illness. Therefore all these systems essentially work to restore balance after which good health will follow.

Plants were the only medicines used before 500 B.C. During this time, it was believed that plants had both ritual magic powers and medicinal qualities. After 500 B.C., starting with the age of Hippocrates, illness was gradually seen as a natural human condition and started to shed its supernatural qualities.

During the explosion of world trade in the fourteenth century, herbal remedies and herbs were exchanged between the Chinese, the Muslims, the Indians and the Europeans. New herbs like ginger, cardamon and cinnamon began appearing in Europe. While European herbs like sage were traded in the Far East.

Between the twelfth and eighteenth century, various epidemics and plagues ravaged Europe. European medicine proved unable to combat these fatal diseases.

When the Spanish and the Portugese landed in central and South America, potent herbal remedies were discovered and exported to Europe. These herbs were used to treat smallpox, malaria and syphilis. Homeopathy and herbal medicine became very popular for this reason.

The age of western medicine
Before the sixteenth century, most of the mainstream medical systems were based on the idea that one should work with nature and that the body's own healing capacity could be strengthened and complimented by the right herbs.

All the old medical systems had, at their centre, a belief in a primal energy that sustained life and health. The Chinese called it "qi," while the Indians referred to it as "prana". Western herbalists called it the "vital force". When modern medicine took over in the nineteenth century, these concepts were dismissed as remnants of the superstition and ignorance of earlier healing practices.

The age of western medicine had dawned and had overshadowed traditional practices in China and India. When the British colonized India, Ayurvedic medicine was labelled "inferior" and was subsequently squashed and replaced by western medicine. China was less influenced by the west medical ideas. In most European countries and the US it became illegal to practice herbal medicine without an official qualification.


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