The Demise of Natural Cures

The Study of Plant & Animal Life and the Demise of Natural Cures: While the Irish were busy getting out of Ireland sophisticated people in Europe got involved in more of country life. They began the study of plants and animals. Earlier classification of plant and animal life was according to its usefulness.  European Botanist embarked on an ambitious attempt to classify the whole plant world in order. The listed them according to their structural characteristics. Most of the classifications were ‘artificial’ in the sense that they arbitrarily concentrated on external visible features e.g. leaves, or fruit or flower, instead of attempting a natural classification based on the overall similarities between plants. In Zoology a form of classification had already been initiated by Aristotle many years earlier. All this led people away from using plants for natural cures. Furthermore, traditional husbandry tended to be regarded as archaic. Prior to this Piseog was rife in Rural and Urban England, but was now challenged by Science. This was further helped by Protestantism because most of the earlier natural beliefs dated back to Roman Catholicism or paganism. Such things as Holly, hung up at Christmas were regarded as paganism.  The introduction of Latin names for animal and plant species further widened the gap between the popular and learned way of looking at things. ‘Those who wish to remain ignorant of the Latin names’ said John Berkenhout in 1789 ‘Have no business with the study of botany’. The conviction that animals and vegetation had religious or symbolic meaning for men had no longer the support of the intellectuals. The educated were now coming to believe that the natural world had its own independent existence and was to be perceived accordingly. This was a return to the separation of human society from nature which had been pioneered by Ancient Greek Atomists Leucippus and Democritus.

The citified Englishman along with his/her European counterparts became exceptionally carnivorous in comparison to the vegetable eating people of the East ref: William Arnold Common Expositor (1948). This was particularly so in England where the ratio of domestic beasts per acre and per man were higher than any other country with the exception of the Netherlands ref: Andrew Willet, Hexapla in Genesis (Cambridge 1605). From the 16th to the 18th century, accordingly, the roast beef of England was a National Symbol – History of Robins. Meanwhile, Science and Economics had a major influence on the situation. Followed on from this was the classification of both plant and animal life. The animals that may be eaten and not eaten were classified. The most acceptable to the elite Englishman was vegetarian feeding on grass, berries, whereas the carnivorous tended to be rejected. The eating of the horse became acceptable in France but was a no, for the British.  Pets were taboo as were frogs, snails, mushrooms and oysters as they grew and developed from the excrement of the earth. The behaviour of the French and the Italians towards these commodities was an enduring subject of contemptuous comment. The sleeping with animals was defined. Privileged species were classified as: Horse, Hawk, Dog, Cat, Robin. The pet was allowed into the house, was given a personal name and were not eaten. According to Keith Thomas, it was against this background of pet keeping that “we should view the growing tendency in the early modern period for scientists and intellectuals to break down the rigid boundaries between animals and man which earlier theorists had tried to raise”. The ascendancy of man over the natural world was still an aim of most people by 1800, but it was no longer unquestioned matter by urban English society.  By 1851 the majority of the English population lived in either cities or towns. The dialogue now became ‘that a gentleman brought up in a town was more civilized than one reared in the country’. The town according Thomas was the home of learning, manners, taste and sophistication. It was the arena of human fulfilment. Adam had been placed in a garden, and Paradise was associated with flowers and fountains. However, these views to a certain extent were to change, smog, closeness to others, an escape from urban vices, dirt, noise and a rest from strains of business gave a longing for week-end travel to the countryside. Yet those who went to the country of their accord found that a weekend was long enough. ‘That brutal state called a country life’, as the Earl of Shaftesbury termed it, was too boring for urban sophisticates. Yet according to Thomas, ‘the growing rural sentiment reflected authentic longing which would steadily increase, both in volume and intensity, with the spread of cities and the growth of industry. This longing was expressed in an unprecedented volume of writings about nature and the countryside. The use of herbs in English and Irish High society was frowned on. Herbs had generated a vast lore about the healing properties of plants, to be transmitted orally or written down in the herbals which gained wider circulation with the birth of printing and continued to be published through the eighteenth century and beyond. According to Thomas, since 1652 there have been over a hundred editions of Culpeper’s Herbal alone, and it had scores of rivals. The Grete Herbal offered plant remedies for every complaint, superfluous facial hair to ‘stench of the armholes’. Countrywomen planted clary (salvia) for husband’s backaches. Solomon’s seal was recommended for bone fractures, lichen for tuberculosis, bindweed for cancer of the mouth. When cattle had the murrain, the husbandmen cut a hole in the beast’s ear and inserted a root of bearfoot. Whether in his family herbal on the cottage shelf or in the medicinal plants growing in the garden outside, the country-dweller demonstrated his practical knowledge and dependence of the plant world. All country-folk knew where to find plants with which to make ointments, laxatives, purgatives, narcotics or cures for warts and ringworm. By trial and error people identified the dangerous ones; the yew foliage and hemlock after earlier deaths were avoided.  Sir Walter Raleigh is reputed to have given a gift of potatoes to the Queen and the chef, knowing little about potatoes, threw out the actual potatoes and cooked the leaves and stems instead. The dishes were served and the guest became deathly ill. So did the habit of eating a much wider range of plants than we do today. Ultimately Botany and Zoology studies and application ended the role of natural cures in England but they were still very much used in Ireland up to the 1950s’.


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