What the ancient Greeks can teach us about herbs

 in the Washington Post shared that at a point in the 9th century, someone noticed a problem with all those ancient handwritten texts: The scribes had left their Caps Lock on.
Every character had been rendered in uppercase, or, in the terminology of philologists, majuscule. Suddenly, people who could read found this EXTREMELY ANNOYING and clamored for minuscule script.This shift created a new industry among the quill pushers of the day who would take moldy papyrus works — say, the landmark 1st-century herbal by Dioscorides describing 600 medicinal plants — and render them into manuscripts in the new style.Alain Touwaide, an expert in this field, says this development was an advancement in information technology as momentous as the appearance of digital books in our own time.

Touwaide, with his wife and fellow researcher Emanuela Appetiti, created an organization named the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions 10 years ago whose mission, in part, has been to study the proliferation of manuscripts after this development.

This subject speaks to a deeply important and interesting aspect of garden history: how our forebears relied on a knowledge of herbs (and to a lesser degree, animal products and minerals) to manage maladies and keep themselves healthy.

Years before the institute was formed, Touwaide came to see a problem: Manuscripts were lost or misfiled, and the actual number of copies of a given text was often significantly understated. Now 63, he has haunted dozens of national, university and private libraries over his career in search of missing or hidden manuscripts.

The result is a new book, essentially an inventory of Greek medical manuscripts spanning the Byzantine Empire between the 5th and 15th centuries.

A Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts: From Byzantium to the Renaissance” will not make any bestseller list: It is a list of specific manuscripts that Touwaide and Appetiti, a cultural anthropologist, have tracked down, often by going to the libraries that hold them. One entry alone may have taken them days to pin down, especially if they had to find their way by bus and taxi to visit a monastery on a Greek hilltop somewhere (population: one monk).

The census is an inventory of all known surviving Byzantine medical manuscripts — it lists their titles and locations — and is primarily a tool for other researchers to spread knowledge of horticulture, botany, medicine and literature in the Middle Ages. It took 30 years of concerted effort, Touwaide said, and increases the number of known manuscripts from approximately 1,500 to 2,300, tracked to some 150 locations. Although they were written during the Byzantine Empire, they record texts dating to 5th century B.C.

Among Touwaide and Appetiti’s richest haunts have been the National Library in Paris and the Vatican Library, though Washington has its own riches in such places as the Library of Congress and the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda. The Austrian National Library is extremely proud of having Codex Vindobonensis, the most impressive of the more than 100 manuscript copies of Dioscorides’s seminal work. An early physician, Dioscorides was so good at identifying the therapeutic value of certain plants that his knowledge is still valued today.

This is more than just an exercise in logging historical documents. No two manuscripts of the same text turned out quite the same, and the fascination is in how they differ. Some of the manuscripts were copied by healers who would add their own pharmaceutical notes based on local practice and knowledge.

Comparing the manuscripts, Touwaide could see that the same plant might have different utility based on its location. This is because herbs take on varying chemical properties based on their terroir and because different human populations developed different genetic tolerance or susceptibilities to disease.

The more a given herbal preparation appears between texts, the higher the probability it’s the correct remedy, Touwaide said. The couple have been based in Washington for 17 years but are moving the institute, formerly affiliated with the Smithsonian, to Southern California, where Touwaide now teaches.

Far from quackery, these herbals were lifesavers, and the people who copied the words and illustrations shine through the murkiness of the Dark Ages as heroic figures to Touwaide and Appetiti. “I have admiration for these people but more than that, respect,” Touwaide said. “I’m amazed by what they have done, the exactness of the observations, the accuracy in keeping the information, and all the pain” of copying for long hours by candlelight.

Sometimes they didn’t know the plants firsthand and would wing it. Touwaide likes to show students an image of a cinnamon “tree” that the scribe rendered as a stick of cinnamon with a tuft of leaves on top.

“Alain would show this to students and they would laugh,” Appetiti said, “but then he asked them if they could describe a pepper plant, and they were, of course, lost.”

Touwaide said that in contrast to the learning embodied in these manuscripts, “we live in an age of inflation of information and deflation of knowledge.”

Another lesson from these texts is that there was little or no separation between medicine and diet, a link that is at best tenuous in the West today.

I asked them if they were stranded on a small island, what plants they would extract from antiquity to keep themselves healthy. At the top of the list would be rosemary, oregano, garlic, lavender and onions. But they would also seek out a pomegranate tree. The fruit “has a lot of properties,” Appetiti said.

Touwaide would also want those biblical gifts of frankincense and myrrh, derived from tree gum resins. “They are the antibiotics of history,” he said. “But I would need to find a merchant.”

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