The Story of Simples

The Story of Simples

In times of old, before the shots, pills and powerful synthetic drugs now too commonly prescribed by doctors, folks had to live by their wits and by the wisdom of their elders. Many ailments were the same then as now: what we call flu they called "ague," what we call indigestion, they called "wamblings of the Stomacke."

For those illnesses and "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," people turned to home remedies, or simples. A simple is a plant supposed to have one single or simple remedial virtue, peculiar to it alone. Sometimes, the home remedy would involve several simples mixed together. Recipes were passed down through generations, from centuries of the experience of grandmothers, the rare doctor of "Physick," and the village witch, or "wise woman." These medicines traveled by word of mouth, picking up as they went, lots of superstition and lore in connection with the herb gathering, medicine making, and dose administration.

Early mankind knew too well the sufferings of the flesh: broken bones, coughs, fevers, jaundice, corns, indigestion, gout, toothache, bruises, the poison of weapons and the venomous bites of everything from rabid dogs to spiders and snakes, from pesky bugs and poison ivy, to the most fantastic dragons, demons, and "wykked sperytes" the human imagination could scare up.

Throughout time, we find abundant remedies for such emotional ills, along with maladies like melancholy, weak brains, and "overmuch sighing." Besides herbal teas, tinctures, poultices and other potions, early people carried special amulets, for protection from the terrifying realities of the savage, incomprehensible world around them. Wicked elves, goblins and nightmares bedeviled them, and fears of the dark and the evil creatures that inhabited the dense forest haunted them. Against rheumatism, against weariness on a journey, against the menacing barking of dogs, special herbs were used. When the protection required application of herbs against the skin, the herb was placed on the chest, say, for coughs (rosemary perhaps) or the skin for wounds (comfrey), the medicinals were bound to the body part with red wool. The reason? Creatures of darkness shunned the color Red, sacred to the god Thor. Thus, the patient was doubly safe against harm. Betony was another amulet, said to protect folks from those "wykked sperytes," terrible night visions, and "the frightful visions and dreams" early mankind had to cope with.

To be sure, there were enough complicated, often-preposterous brews of herbs, disgusting animal parts, and other oddities. Their names are colorful: the Mithridates Antidote, the Drink of Antioch, and Gratia Dei. Each involved as many as a hundred ingredients, from herbs, the ashes of vipers, cattle horns, even human skin (yuk). Nowadays, such horrible secret formulas sound worse than the illnesses!

Sir John Hill in his Family Herbal (1755) says: "mosses have been good against disorders of the head, when gathered from a skull..." Give me the headache; I'll skip the tea of moss gathered from a skull, thank you. Need an old-time cure for baldness? The 16th century herbalist Gerard recommends "the Juyce of onions annointed upon a bald head in the Sun bringeth the hair againe very speedily." Not even a match for Rogaine, the modern baldness formula. According to another early herbalist, mixing together lupine flowers, a little lemon juice, and the gall of a goat would erase smallpox scars and freckles. Forget it! Just hand me my Cover Girl concealer.

In much earlier times, Dioscorides, Theophrastus, Albertus Magnus, and Bancke recorded their simples, in some of the earliest printed works in history. These herbals, like the later ones mentioned above, combine medicine, botany, and a generous dash of superstition, legend and lore.

It seems that people from the dawn of humankind onward, from as long ago as 1500 B. C. (noted in the famed Eber Papyrus) relied on the art of "simpling" in one form or another, to care for their sick and wounded. These venerable household remedies, of a few fresh or dried herbs, sprang from common, readily available plants of forest, field and garden.

One "simple" still used today and proven effective by modern science is peppermint tea, for a mildly anesthetic calming effect on the digestion. Another is chamomile, a good herbal relaxant, and a genuine calm-down remedy for any situation of upset, physical or emotional. Chamomile also helps soothe a person into sleep, research shows.

What we know as black tea or China tea is a gentle stimulant herb containing some caffeine, but not as strong as the cup of coffee we brew up when morning comes too soon, or energies flag in the late afternoon.

Horehound tea is a simple for coughs and sore throats. Horehound was commonly boiled with honey, and left to harden into homemade cough drops. Rosemary tea brought similar comfort for the common cold, and for aches and pains ranging from the once-fashionable gout, to the never fashionable miseries of rheumatism. It also was used as an aid to the forgetful, and a warming comfort to the elderly. Catnip, another simple, brings playfulness to cats and joy to their owners any time, but in times gone by, its leaves were chewed to relieve toothache. Catnip tea comforted infants suffering from colic. It is, to this day, a mild reliable way to relieve stomach pains, from babies to baby-boomers. Today, evidence shows that catnip acts as an antispasmodic, soothing those cramped abdominal muscles, just as our great-grandmothers knew. The evidence is even stronger for catnip tea as a gentle, safe sedative for insomnia, as Grandma also knew.

Many old herbal "simples" such as peppermint tea, catnip tea, and chamomile, turn out to be "clinically" correct, proving the medicinal wisdom of times gone by. Other herbs are useful as ointments, poultices, and rubs. Numerous herbal simples, such as rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme, demonstrate antibacterial qualities. These days, we're finding scientific evidence of the benefits of the old-time simples. Yet the only means of proof that our ancient relatives had was trial and error. They learned that one plant when chewed or laid on wounds would produce a certain result, while another plant would have a completely different effect. One kind of herbal tea was calming, another stimulating.

We've learned so much through time and testing: herbal simples are often effective and safe, and they sure beat the price of that awful pink stuff that coats the stomach, the plop-plop-fizz-fizz headache medicine, and prescription sleep drugs that can bring on a host of unwelcome side effects.

About the AuthorTerry Tucker Hinkley freelances from San Diego, Ca. She has published over 500 articles in the past 30 years, in a variety of media. Garden writing is her love, and all aspects of herbalism her specialty. She has been the herb columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune for the past several years.

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