Mądra Gackowska Katarzyna, Gackowski Marcin, Główczewska Siedlecka Emilia, Siedlecki Zygmunt, Ziółkowska Sylwia.
Medications of medieval monastery medicine. Journal of Education, Health and Sport. 2018;8(9):1667-1674 eISNN 2391-8306. DOI
The journal has had 7 points in Ministry of Science and Higher Education parametric evaluation. Part b item 1223 (26/01/2017).
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© The Authors 2018;
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Received: 02.08.2018. Revised: 18.08.2018. Accepted: 15.09.2018.
Medications of medieval monastery medicine
Katarzyna Mądra-Gackowska1*, Marcin Gackowski2,
Emilia Główczewska Siedlecka1, Zygmunt Siedlecki3, Sylwia Ziółkowska1,4
1Department of Geriatrics, Collegium Medicum of Nicolaus Copernicus University,
2Department of Toxicology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Collegium Medicum of Nicolaus Copernicus
University, Bydgoszcz, Poland
3Department of Neurosurgery, Neurotraumatology and Pediatric Neurosurgery, Collegium
Medicum of Nicolaus Copernicus University, Bydgoszcz, Poland
4Department of Pathophysiology, Collegium Medicum of Nicolaus Copernicus University,
*Corresponding author: Katarzyna Mądra-Gackowska;
Department of Geriatrics, Collegium Medicum of Nicolaus Copernicus University, Bydgoszcz,
ul. Marie-Curie Skłodowskiej 9
Tel. (+48 52) 585 49 00;
Herbal medicine has accompanied man since the dawn of time. For various ailments and
health problems, help was sought in the surrounding nature. Ancient civilizations have greatly
contributed to the development of phytotherapy, identifying and describing numerous species
of medicinal plants. Plant raw materials have become the foundation of medieval medicine. The
revival in herbal medicine has been observed since the sixth century with the emergence of
monasteries, where the gardens in which the medicinal plants were grown were established.
Monastic schools were also established, monks broadened their skills by studying and copying
ancient books, preparing medicines of natural origin according to secret prescriptions used to
heal the sick. Although the Middle Ages are often considered dark ages, many achievements of
the then phytotherapy have been recorded on the pages of history and a man use them to this
Key words: monastic medicines, Middle Ages, monks, herbal medicine
From the very beginning, man has sought for a solution of his health problems in holy
places or in the surrounding nature, and the causes of diseases were seen in the dislikes of gods
and spirits, and the magicians acted as intermediaries. In antiquity many different plant
materials have been known and widely used in medicine. Since the earliest times more and
more curative properties have been learned about plants, moreover, herbal treatment is almost
as old as humanity. Information on the use of plant materials for the treatment of various
diseases by Jews can be found in the Bible, where eighty species of medicinal plants are
mentioned, the best known are: aloe vera, hyssop, or ivy. The relationship between religion and
medicine is also emphasized, when God says: "I am the Lord, your Healer" (Ex 15:26), or the
prophet Ezekiel speaks of trees in the Promised Land: "Their fruit will be used for food and
their leaves for medicine"(Ezek. 47:12)[1,2]. Many ancient intellectuals dealing with medicine
and herbs could be mentioned, the last great figure of ancient times associated with herbal
medicine was Galen. Unfortunately, the period of the early Middle Ages was a stagnation in
the development of medical science. The feudal system contributed to the decline of agricultural
production, craft and trade, as well as to hamper the development of science. It was not until
the sixth century AD that gradual intellectual development was noticeable, which within the
contemporary era was inextricably linked with the clergy, because they formed the core of
cultural and scientific life. It was they who, as a few, mastered the art of reading and writing.
There were still items reaching roots of the ancient world in monastery libraries, containing
numerous achievements in medicine, or ancient phytotherapy, which were copied and the
precious knowledge was absorbed. A revival of herbal medicine was also observed with
emerging monasteries, where gardens, in which medicinal herbs were grown, were
simultaneously established, becoming the first therapeutic gardens. At the monasteries also
shelters, hospitals and hospices were established. [1,3,4]. Benedictines from the monastery on
Mount Monte Cassino, built in 529, which is a symbol of monastery medicine, as well as monks
from other emerging monasteries, popularized the cultivation and collection of medicinal
plants, so they were found in the gardens known to every European. The constituent chapter, a
peculiar legal act, was developed on the basis of Roman and Greek writings probably in 812 by
benedict Ansegis, abbot of the Sankt Wandrille monastery. The document contained
recommendations for tenants of royal properties in regard to the cultivation of agricultural and
horticultural crops, including medicinal species. To this day, the plans of the monastery in St.
Gallen founded in the ninth century have been preserved as an autonomous community open to
guests and pilgrims from the world, but also carefully protecting the privacy of monks,
moreover containing objects intended for health care including the garden. One can see on them,
among others, herbarium, hospital, doctor's office, blood-letting room, pharmacy, or a garden
with a description of plants[5,6]. The first documented description of 23 species of medicinal
plants with their impact on humans, under the title: "Hortulus" (garden) was made by Walafrid
Strabo (809-849). In the eleventh century, monks even were recommended to study the works
of Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen. They began to return to the rich experiences of previous
generations, gathering knowledge about folk medicine. In the light of the above-mentioned
facts, one can speak about the emergence of monastery medicine and pharmacy, and there were
monastic pharmacies run by clergy, where natural medicines were prepared according to secret
prescriptions. At the same time, people forgot to study the Bible and hygienic injunctions
recorded in the books of the Holy Bible. The result of the hygiene deficiency was a spreading
plague called "miasma” and according to the chronicles in the 14th and 15th century AD, up to
a quarter of the population was victims to this plague. Johannes Gutenberg (1394-1468) also
contributed to the significant popularization of knowledge through the invention of printing.
Herbariums were printed as textbooks for doctors, the first of which was Herbarium, and in
1485 a German one entitled Herbarius was issued. Over time, engravings appeared in released
herbariums, which further facilitated the identification of medicinal plants. The decline of the
Middle Ages manifested itself in a specific fashion for herbaria, many doctors in the fourteenth
century wrote herbariums, for example Johannes from Milan, John Arderne from England, or
the titular bishop of Sarepta from Wroclaw. However, the best herbarium is considered Liber
de simplicibus arranged by Benedetto Rinio in Venice in 1410, containing 450 engravings of
the Venetian artist Andreas Amodio[3,7]. It should be noted that the period of cloister medicine
should be considered finished at the Synod in Clermont in 1095, when a medical activity of
clergy was forbidden, but monks were still able to cure with herbs, which they willingly did.
God created herbs. Monks’, alchemists’, quacks’ activity
In the Middle Ages, it was believed that God created herbs to serve human beings, which
is why herbalism was an inseparable element of monastic life. At this point, it should be
emphasized that monks and nuns used the knowledge of earlier cultures during the preparation
of recipes. Already on Sumerian tablets it was discovered that mixtures, tinctures and powders
were made more than 5,000 years ago. The Assyrians and the Babylonians, as a result of their
observations, developed a calendar, principles of cultivation and harvesting of plants as well as
storage of a raw plant material. Descriptions of many active substances were found in the
Egyptian papyri, and when building pyramids, workers ate onions and garlic to minimize the
risk of outbreaks. A wealth of knowledge was also drawn from India, to whom we owe many
spices (cumin, pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger), as well as a medical and philosophical
system - Ayurveda. A very important foundation for medieval monks was the output of ancient
Greeks and Romans. Worth mentioning is Hippocrates from Kos (460-377 BC), who described
the healing properties of several hundred plants, developed many recipes, and created the
foundations of medical ethics, and the young doctors make the Hippocratic oath to this day.
The specific canon of plant pharmacy is the work of Dioscorides (40-90): De materia medica
libri quinque, and on the basis of this work that European monastic herbal medicine was
developed. The author collected plants himself, learned and described their healing and toxic
properties. Another well-known person associated with herbal medicine was Claudius Galenus
from Pergamum (130-210), who described more than 450 plants and discovered, for instance
the narcotic effect of poppy and antidiarrhoeal properties of buckeye. The formulas elaborated
by Galen had been used by medicine for fifteen consecutive centuries, and the definition of
galenic preparation continues to this day. Arabs have made a remarkable contribution to the
development of herbal medicine, introducing new forms of medicine: syrups, aromatic waters
and medicinal spirits, and began to grow exotic plants in the Mediterranean, conducted first
animal drug experiments, created the first pharmacy in Baghdad and separated pharmacy from
medicine. The father of contemporary medicine is Avicenna (980-1036), who described 760
medicines of plant origin and 800 various species of medicinal plants, and his Canon of
medicine was a compulsory textbook for doctors in Poland until the eighteenth century. In the
Middle Ages, alchemy was believed, therefore the focus was put on finding one magic potion
that would cure all diseases and prolong life, moreover alchemists tried to convert common
metals into gold using a mythical stone of philosophy. Alchemists were also involved in the
isolation and purification of various substances (by distillation, extraction, dissolution,
precipitation, filtration and crystallization), what led to discoveries of numerous salts that have
been used in medicine. Not everyone, however, had access to exclusive monastic infirmary.
Simple people were suspicious of a priesthood, and often they could not afford to buy medicines
in monastic pharmacies. Therefore, parallel to monastery medicine, folk medicine developed,
saturated with magic, described as a secret and dark art mastered by age-old people experienced
in using herbs called healers, magicians or sorcerers[1,2,8,9].
The monastery gardens and pharmacies, the gracious Benedictines, and the famous
At the Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino, a symbol of medieval monastery
medicine, the monks cultivated numerous medicinal plants and collected them in natural
locations. Founder of the Benedictine order, Saint. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), attached great
importance to care for the sick, which he also emphasized in the rule of the Order, devoting one
chapter to the spiritual aspect of the service of the sick, citing Christ's words: "Truly I tell you,
whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Mt
25:40). Christianity changed the approach to the sick and weak people, because in the Greek-
Roman culture it was believed that the suffering people deserved such a fate. The mission of
the founder of the Order was continued by Aurelius Cassiodorus (485-580), who attached great
importance to studying and saving ancient works. For this purpose he founded the Vivarium
monastery in 538, where the Benedictines managed to find, preserve and rewrite old
manuscripts in order to convey the cultural heritage of the ancients for posterity. He also wrote
his own work - De medicina, where he described the duties of the infirmary brothers, and
encouraged the monks to conduct their own research on a raw plant material, which influenced
the development of recipes. According to Saint. Benedict, every convent was to be self-
sufficient. Traditional monastic gardens have always had a usable character and provided the
community of monks with supply of fruit, vegetables, flowers, healing herbs and spice plants.
However, their layout was changing, so that a usable garden (hortus) and herb garden
(helbularius) intended for cultivation of medicinal plants could be distinguished. The herbs
were grown on rectangular beds, in accordance with the principle that one patch would contain
one species of plant for the preservation of the species and minimizing the risk of mistakes.
Herbariums elaborated in the convent scriptwriters played a particularly important role in the
development of healing. They were not only a record of the recipes of the medicines being
prepared, but also a model for the way the monastery gardens were developed. A great translator
of natural works was Constantine the African, a Benedictine from monastery, in which a
medical school was also established. In the eleventh century, the Benedictines also founded the
Salernitan School, in which the abovementioned Constantine the African was a teacher. The
work of this school is: Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanorum. It has become the basis for the
indications of folk medicine and information about medicinal plants.
Saint Hildegard (1098-1180) was a Benedictine abbot in Bingen, called "the first woman
doctor and first woman scientist", the author of the six rules of life contained in the Liber
subtilitatum, as well as books on the practical use of herbs, among others Causae et Curae and
Phisica, where she described over 250 species of plants taking into account their healing and
nutritional values, as well as the composer. She was a representative of the holistic medicine,
perceiving man as a functioning essence in four dimensions: divine, cosmic, carnal and
spiritual. Hildegard's works were little known during her lifetime, and her worship developed
only after her death, and her therapeutic and nutritional recommendations find followers to the
Plants the foundation of medieval medicine
Phytotherapy was the basis of medieval medicine. The plants grown in the monastery
gardens were collected by monks and kept in special rooms, which gradually became monastic
pharmacies. The raw materials were cut, crushed in a mortar and mixed together. Herbal
mixtures were made up of about hundreds of ingredients, some are known to this day, for
example, Benedictine tincture. Other forms of medicines were also prepared, such as:
ointments, extracts, decoctions. The monks treated the local population and were real specialists
in the field of herbal medicine. Wine was used as a disinfectant, moreover, it was also an
effective medicine for many ailments with the addition of fresh or dried herbs. Each discovered
herb was given a name adequate to its sacred properties, and for example St John's wort was
called "the bells of the Virgin Mary" and the valerian "herb of Saint Claire". Plants were to be
not only the basic source of food, but also a source of knowledge of God Himself, their
cultivation was supposed to bring man closer to God. Growing plants in gardens, on specially
prepared locations, had a significant impact on the healing therapy, because the problem of
seasonal availability of herbs collected from natural sites was over. In consequence, adequate
stocks were made and it was possible to standardize the raw material, for example due to
established cultivation conditions[2,10].
The basic "medical kit" consisting of 28 herbs of St. Hildegard was made of among
others: galgant alpinia, basil, mugwort, horseradish, cinnamon, summer savory, garlic, nutmeg,
mustard, gentian, cloves, hyssop, ginger, dill, bay leaf, lovage, garden orache, peppermint,
pepper, parsley, nettle, watercress, sage, chives and tansy. Hildegard of Bingen in everyday
living also used: chickpeas, greater celandine, artichoke, fennel, carrot, oregano, origanum,
parsley, purslane, watercress, cress pepper, celery, lentils, gourd, spurge and wax myrtle.
Herbs grown in the Middle Ages were divided into utility groups. The species used in
everyday life included, among others: southernwood, sapling, hops, mullein, stemless carline
thistle, juniper, common soapwort, wormwood, cotton thistle and common broom. Some
healing species are: St John's wort, red scarlet, valerian, licorice, mallow, marshmallow, tansy
and common comfrey. There were relatively few aromatic plants: iris, blue cupid, true lavender,
melissa, verbena, filipendula and tansy. For culinary purposes: small-leaved basil, winter
savory, valerian and chives were used. The herbs used by medieval artists included: boxwood,
common bugloss, greater celandine, dyer’s weed, madder, common agrimony, gallium verum,
woad and moonflower. Plants that were supposed to provide love and marriage are: agnus
castus, columbine meadow-rue and wild strawberry. The most important group were magical
plants: common lady’s mantle, ragged robin, common ivy, cornus mas and herb Robert.
Medieval times are considered dark ages, also in the field of medicine. However, thanks
to the monks ancient works were not only copied and protected from destruction, but above all,
studied thoroughly, what contributed to development of knowledge about herbal medicine and
led to optimizing, as well as creating new recipes for herbal medicines. A great deal of the
medieval knowledge is used today, especially in the world of many synthetic drugs with
numerous adverse effects. In the modern world, people often go back to the roots, so there is a
growing interest in the use of herbs in pharmacy and medicine. Under medical control,
phytotherapy can be a valuable complementary therapy or can be used instead of standard
pharmacotherapy based on synthetic drugs. On the basis of the above historical facts, one can
definitely say that in the Middle Ages monastic medicine and pharmacy was created, with many
elements present to this day.
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