To hear some people talk, you would think the word is as old as the practice of plant medicine. This just doesn’t line up with what I have learned. I have read almost every herbal published in the 1500’s and the 1600’s, yet I had never seen the word before I read a book written in the 1970’s.
I am one of those who thinks the history of a word matters. I want to be clear on whom I am aligning myself with, so I did some sleuthing and this is what I have found.
EarlyMiddle Ages 1066- 1300
The best place to start a search into the etmyology of an English word is the University of Michigan’s Middle English Compendium, where we can find the following words relating to herbs:
Herbe, sb. herb, Voc.; eerbe, W2; hairbis, pl., S3; herbes, C2; erbez, S2; eerbis, W2. — OF. herbe; Lat. herba.
Herbere, sb. garden of herbs, S3; herber, PP, CM; erber, PP; erberes, pl., S3.
Hērber n.(2) Additional spellings: herber A collector and/or seller of herbs
For what it's worth the word herbwife is not listed in any dictionary of Middle English, either. I think that word is the result of some 17th century revisionism. I did find alewife, though.
I found the words herberwe and herbergeri which referred to a type of lodging and an herbergeour was someone who provided said lodging. I never found anything close to herbalist, though.
Late Middle Ages 1300–1500
During this time period there were three general classes of medical practitioners all of whom used mostly herbal remedies along with incorporating a few mineral substances.
Physicians- Physick or physic was the word commonly used to describe the practice of medicine. Physician was the name given to people who studied this practice. They were usually from the upper classes and trained at medical schools on Greek medical theory in Galen’s Art of Physick. These were general practitioners who examined, diagnosed and prescribed but they weren’t getting their hands dirty with the actual preparation of medicines or caring for the ill. That was generally left to the apothecaries, women family members or servants.
Chirurgeon(Surgeons)- This separate branch of medicinal practice evolved during the time when the monastery hospitals were providing healthcare. Surgeons would perform operations clergy were unable to perform due to the fact that there were religious restrictions on clergy shedding blood.
The first medical corporation in the British Isles was established in Ireland in 1446 when Henry VI established the Guild of St. Mary Magdalene for the barber-surgeons of Dublin. The Worshipful Company of Barbers was incorporated in 1462. Hannah Woolley was one of these practitioners.
Apothecary- Members of the Pepperers’ Guild and Spicers’ Guilds were incorporated as the Worshipful Company of Grocers in 1428. Some of these tradesmen began to specialize in compounding of medicinal preparations and became known as spicer-apothecaries. They were trained through apprenticeship and compounded medicines using both herbs and alchemical preparations. They extended their practice to dispensing medical advice and midwifery. Quite a few were women.
These titles were by no means the set in stone though. In 1470 we read about Raaf Sewkeworth as the herbare of Oxenford, but he seems to be an apothecary rather than a physician.
My point here is that with all of these different names someone who practiced medicine might call themselves, the term herbalist still isn’t one of them.
Renaissance Physicians and Their Herbals 1500–1700
On the 23rd of September in 1518 King Henry the VIII granted a petition to group of physicians, led by A. Thomas Linacre, establishing college of physicians in London. In 1523, the English parliament recognized members of the group throughout England. Later in the 17th century this group began calling itself the Royal College of Physicians.
In 1540, the Worshipful College of Barbers and the London Fellowship of Surgeons merged forming the Company of Barber-Surgeons. It was like that until 1745 when the surgeons petitioned to become the Royal College of Surgeons.
John Gerard originally worked with the Barber-Surgeon’s Company, but seems to have later become involved with the College of Physicians. In 1586 he was appointed curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew which was established by that group. In his introduction to the first edition of his herbal, he calls himself a physician and student of the Science of Physicke.
He never mentions the word herbalist, which is funny because we all call him that now forgetting that he was a physician. There is an old tale amongst plant historians that the word “herbalist” was first used sometimes shortly after the physician and herbalist Rembert Dodoens’ death in 1585, to describe his work as a botanist. Given the date of origin of the term as 1585 dictionary entry below, it seems plausible.
I question that history though. If the word were truly in use during this time period, one would surely have found it used in the lengthy history of herbal works that Thomas Johnson included in the introduction of his 1633 edit of Gerard’s Herball.
In 1657, the botanist Willam Coles called himself an herbariſt (that’s not a typo, it is how the English language used to indicate the long “s” sound) so that’s getting closer. But if you read the text, that term seems to be referring to his role as a published botanist. He also called himself a “simpler” when talking about his medicine making.
I finally came upon the specific term with it’s modern meaning in Samuel Johnson’s 1768 dictionary. Johnson defined the word herbalist as “a man skilled in herbs,” herbarist as “one skilled in herbs” and and herbwoman as a “woman that fells herbs.”
By 1820, hundreds of plants had been carried back to Europe from the colonized new world. The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh moved to Inverleith and continued to amass its huge herbarium and many botanists took on the additional task of writing huge texts detailing their studies of the plants they collected.
The 1828 Webster’s dictionary definition of herbalist as “A person skilled in plants; one who makes collections of plants” referring to these botanists and their herbariums.
As technologies improved, the practitioners of medicine began to incorporate mineral substances in their Materia Medica. This certainly wasn’t a new idea. The Egyptians used rocks now known to contain copper such as malachite to address abdominal complaints and Pliny wrote about the powder “molochotis” to clean wounds. Paracelsus had introduced the use of many mineral medicines as purgatives.
It was the father of “heroic” medicine movement in the United States, Benjamin Rush (1745- 1814) who truly popularized the use of mineral preparations over plant medicines in the US.
Rush like most physicians of his time studied with physicians who had trained in Europe. Many attended the medical school at the University of Edinburgh which was considered to be one of the best in the English speaking world.
Rush studied with physicians like William Cullen and Thomas Sydenham both of whom taught their students to be cautious with calomel, but Rush was not having that. Instead he promoted the use of “heroic” doses and lots of blood letting. I don’t want to demonize the man though. He was doing what he thought best at the time and he was morally solid. In 1773, he wrote a pamphlet calling out the institution of slavery and insisting that Black people were the intellectual and moral equals of white people.
That’s enough about Rush, although you could write a whole book about the man. Suffice it to say that his preference for “inert” mineral medicines created a schism in the medical world that still exists today.
This era seems to be when the word herbalist truly came into its modern meaning. It became increasingly necessary (in their minds) for mineral physicians to differentiate themselves from practitioners who only used botanical medicines. The Complete Herbalist written by Oliver Phelps Brown in 1879 was written to inform “herbal physicians” as opposed to “mineral physicians.”
I believe that these physicians used the term rather scathingly at first to describe physicians like Cook and Thomson, who were using primarily plant-based medicine, but they were still physicians.
It honestly wasn’t until the “herbal renaissance” of the late twentieth century that the word truly took on it’s own life outside of the fields of botany and professional medicine.
So there you have my short-version history of the word “herbalist.” I don’t know that in the long-run it matters much, but I’ve seen some pretty wild claims as to the title’s “traditional” history. It also explains why I prefer not to call myself an herbalist.
To begin with, I am no man, so Johnson’s very specific gendered definition of that word irritates me. Furthermore, the origin of the word is tied up in the muck that is colonialism. The first “herbalists” were white Europeans who wrote about new world plants without having a clear context of their native use and who seemingly had no ethical compunctions as to how the plants, or knowledge of them, was obtained.
They also helped to reinforce the negative attitudes towards indigenous people. The English who wrote about Irish use of herbs spoke of the “meere Irish” as savages who were barely even human.
I prefer to align myself with the long line of women who grew cunning in their use of Physick Herbs and used it to help their families and communities, so I don’t use the word when referring to myself. It’s just a tiny bit of activism, but it’s important to me.