Medieval Botany

18 Sep

M took a picture of rose hips at the Cloisters

Medieval medicine and quackery has been slowly piquing my curiosity. Perhaps it started in Freiburg in 2003, where I took in an exhibit on the history of trephination, a peculiar if somehow logical cure for all manner of headaches and madness. Hieronymous Bosch, incidentally, warned against such quackery in his painting “Extraction of the Stone Folly”.  But there is a less gory and more charming side to this era in medicine. Yesterday, while visiting the Cloisters, I learned a great deal about the medicinal herbs kept in a monastery as well as general medieval beliefs about health and beauty. Should you find yourself plagued with freckles, for instance, you can rub them right out with honeysuckle. The poisonous, paralyzing belladonna plant could be used in small doses as a general anesthetic  – this  might have been what Friar Laurence gave Juliet to fake her death. Women ate figs, strawberries, pomengranates, and other many-seeded fruit to increase their chances of conception. And rose hips and other parts of the rose were believed to shrink tumors (and/or pimples); but there may have been something to this, because apparently some aspect of this plant is still used in chemotherapeutics today.

In other botanic news, I finally saw the second installment of the High Line. It certainly has a wilder look about it, with metal walkways overlooking dwarfish trees with large leaves; they seem somehow prehistoric. And there is a large abundance of some very fragrant herb. The scent actually made me a little sick, so I had to hurry away before looking into what it was, but I’m looking forward to returning in another season, when other wild plants take precedence. The closed off, still uncultivated third section of the High Line seemed more intriguing to me than the newly opened portion. That spur along 30th Street won’t be open for another five or six years.

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