By the time I finished reading the title, “A History of Herbalism: Cure, Cook and Conjure”, I was already clicking my mouse to grab this book, which I did *not* set aside to read later. I gleefully dove into it immediately. Seeing as how I love history, and am a forager and user of medicinal and edible herbs, how could I not? The cover art is also enticing and delightful.
The book is divided into three distinct sections, so I’ll talk about each of them in turn. Don’t skip over the introduction though, it’s packed with historic information that will give you some background and set the stage for the chapters to follow. Also, keep in mind that this book focuses mainly on British herbalism history.
Chapter 1: From ‘Witches’ to Botanists: British Pioneers, Popularists and Everyday Herbalists
Here’s an absorbing mix of herbal medicine history, quotes from very old books, illustrations, photographs, and enough trivia to give you conversation fodder for the rest of your life. Those interested in Women’s Studies will learn about the early history of white witches, midwives, and healers. It should come as no surprise that women excelled as herbalists, yet were often punished for practicing those skills. I also enjoyed learning more about quackery, herb illustrators, and the first hospitals.
Chapter 2: Magic and Medicine
Now we get into usage guides, one herb at a time. Many ancient incantations are included. I was amused by the entry on chamomile, which in part read, “Traditionally, it was grown in alleys and walkways and on the banks of rivers, as it was understood that the more chamomile plants were pressed and trodden down, the more abundantly they would grow.” My own driveway is proof positive that this is the truth!
Chapter 3: Culinary Transition
This section covers the British use and importing of herbs for cooking. There’s a wealth of medieval recipes, including the old medieval spellings – almaund mylke, anyone? Modern translations are included with each historic recipe. These are fascinating to read from so many angles – history, language and how it changes over time, the ingredients used, what properties were attributed to the ingredients… I was quite absorbed in this section (that’s the foodie in me, I’m sure) and enjoyed reading every word. Oh, and I think Boiled Green Dumplings actually sound delicious, and I may attempt a version of them very soon.
For the academically inclined, there’s heaps of cited references at the back of the book, and a large bibliography. This book should also be of great interest to authors of historical fiction, as a tool to help bring their stories to life.
My thanks to author Emma Kay, Pen & Sword, and NetGalley for allowing me to read a digital advance review copy of this book. This review is my honest and unbiased opinion.