Simples and Simpling

Simples and Simpling

In European medieval times there was much superstition and angst about using herbs because of their association with pagan rites and magic. At one point in time the Catholic Church even forbade the use of herbs. However, the monks realized the true healing properties of herbs and gathered herbal healing information from other civilizations such as the Greeks, Babylonians, and Egyptians along with their writings. The art of growing and using herbs for medicine was called "Simpling" and the herbs themselves were called "Simples." Although these are old words, they are still recognized today in herbal circles.

It was a time when people could only rely on the good monks and Brothers who maintained the monastic, medicinal gardens, traveling peddlers, and the old crone who lived at the edge of the village for their herbal healing remedies. Eventually pharmacies came into existence and people relied on their pharmacist to provide them with herbal remedies and advice.

The remedies and advice were haphazard, at best, because it relied on word of mouth, self-trained herbal healers, the writings of the ancients (only available to monks and the rich who could read and write), and the handing down from healer to healer. It wasn't until later that medical schools and trained doctors came into the picture.

In the meantime the common people realize that they too could grow and use herbs for medicine. Albeit, these herbs still carried superstitions and magic associated with them. It wasn't really until the invention of the printing press that many herbal writings became available to the average person. In 1656, Cole wrote a book called The Art of Simpling. He expresses the frustration of educated healers of the time when he says, "Whereas in our times the Art of Simpling is so farre from being rewarded, that it is grown contemptible and he is accounted a simple fellow, that pretends to have any skill therein. Truly it is to be lamented that the men of these times which pretend to so much Light should goe the way to put out their owne Eyes, by trampling upon that which should preserve them, to the great discouragement of those that have any mind to bend their Studies this way."

People began to cultivate their own medicinal herbs transplanted from wild or cuttings taken from monastic gardens. It became customary for the woman of the house to learn the art of Simpling. In the Seventeenth Century, a good housewife had a "still room" within her home where she preserved and mixed her herbs. This custom came from the still rooms monks kept at monasteries for the same purpose. She normally maintained a "still room" book, which contained everything from recipes, myth, magic, folklore handed down through generations, notes, advice for running the household and much information regarding the use of herbs. The Countess of Kent maintained a still room book, which was one of the first to be published. She wrote a number of recipes against the Plague. In one of the recipes she specifies that it must be taken three times, "for the first helpeth not." The most fascinating one is "The Countess of Kent's powder, good against all malignant and pestilence, Malignant or Scarlet Feavers, good against melancholy, dejection of Spirits, twenty or thirty grains thereof being exhibited in a little warm sack of Hartshorn Jelly to a Man and half as much or twelve grains to a Childe."

We have come a long way since those unenlightened times, but there are still Simples and those who practice the art of Simpling. We call them herbalists, or herbal practitioners and it's called Alternative Medicine. The average person can still grow simples and learn the art of Simpling, but it's always best to check with your medical doctor or herbal practitioner before applying herbal healing remedies.

About this Author