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EXCELLENT herbs had our fathers of old -
Excellent herbs to ease their pain -
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane -
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you-
Cowslip, Melitot, Rose of the Sun,
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old -
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars -
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes -
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) -
Who but Venus should govern the Rose ?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak ?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

(from) Our Fathers of Old Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

Herbalism is a form of traditional medicine which relies on using the naturally occuring properties of plants (herbs) to treat patients. One who practices herbalism for a living is called a herbalist, but some herbal knowledge could be expected of pretty much anyone, especially housewives. Wise women and cunning men should also be highly skilled in this.

Depending on the setting this may be the core of traditional medicine, part of a suite of techniques or merely a source of quack remedies.

Historically the use of plant based therapies goes back to the dawn of time and was a normal part of medicine prior to the development of modern synthetic chemistry … and even in the synthetic era, many pharmaceutical companies are searching the biotae of the world for drugs that can be extracted or copied from natural sources1. In a future where wet biotechnology is the norm, pharm crops may be specifically developed to express useful compounds in fruit or other parts. In an after the end setting, herbalists may use the feral descendants of pharm crops in their practice. Herbalistic knowledge, if recorded (which it often hasn't been) would reside in a book known as a herbal - this could be a simple text, an illustrated work or even a hortus siccus. Content would likely include a description (picture and sample optional), where and when the herb was best found, how it might be harvested and prepared and what its applications might be. This might include explanations based on astrology, the Doctrine of signatures, myth, legend, scripture or historical authority. Some of the best might well be annotated by a known master, giving guidance on when and how they had used the herb successfully.

Herbalistic preparations may be delivered in pretty much any conformation known to man, from compresses to enemas depending on the application and requirement … they are not, however, safely injectable.

An indicative list of such preparations would include:

  • Tincture: Prepared by steeping chopped herbs in alcoholic spirits2.
  • Herbal Wine: Prepared by steeping chopped herbs in (usually white) wine.
  • Maceration: Roughly chopped herbs applied directly to the patient.
  • Lozenge or pill: Finely chopped or powdered herbs formed into a capsule.
  • Salve or ointment: Finely chopped herbs mixed into a cream made from oil and/or wax and rubbed on to the patient.
  • Tea or infusion: Prepared by boiling herbs in water.
  • Decoction: Prepared by steeping chopped herbs in water and then simmering until the volume of the steep is reduced by a set proportion (generally 1/3 to 2/3).
  • Pastille: Either something very like a lozenge, or a tablet of dried herbs that is burned and the smoke inhaled.
  • Cordial or syrup: Herbs suspended in a viscous, sugary preparation, typically made from fruit juice, often prepared in a similar way to a decoction.

Other preparations, created by solvent extraction, steam distillation and more involved practices and known as (essential) oils, attars and absolutes also exist but are somewhat marginal to what is properly understood as herbalism. Of course, such things come into play where an overlap occurs with other practices such as aromatherapy. Interestingly, many herbaria specify bronze or copper vessels for preparations and modern analysis suggests that at least some of the effect that may have been observed from these materia actually result from the effects of toxic copper salts leached from the vessels.

Many modern liqueurs are also descended from herbal preparations - in many cases mixing aspects of the cordial and the tincture.

Herbalism may also stray into alchemy in the sub-art of spyragic. In a setting which uses such things, herbalism may be a necessary adjunct to healing magic.



Game and Story Use

  • The science of ethnobotany concerns studying herbalistic practices to identify drugs suitable for full medicalisation.
  • Herbal medicine is likely to be normal any time before the mid 19th century.
  • A GM who wants herbalism to play a big part in their campaign would be well advised to prepare a library of herbs for PC herbalists, together with their effects, where they are found and how they are prepared. Such writers could consult works like Culpepper's, or a modern herbal … or just make it up.
    • Effects should suit the desired power level of herbalism in the campaign.
    • You then have a free pass to add herbs as you make them up - the PC's knowledge was never total and he or she can always "discover" a new herb … maybe even one that only grows in the area they've just moved to.
  • Given the nature of early book-binding, it would not be completely unusual for a herbalist to re-bind a book with his case-notes interleaved against the text. This could do a great deal for the value (and size) of the volume.
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