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A History of Western Herbalism Part III: Advances in Herbal Medicine After the Fall of Rome:

Updated on September 18, 2010
The Golden Age of Islam
The Golden Age of Islam

Europe in Transition

The Dark Ages of Western Europe began after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476CE to Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain.. This era is considered by historians as a transitional period between the ending of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the High Middle Ages. It is characterized by the lack of Latin literature, limited building activity combined with a lack of material evidence of cultural and historical achievements. It was also characterized by a decline the population, especially in urban areas with an accompanied deterioration of trade.This time of cultural stagnation ended with the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14tn century.

Arabic Translation of Greek Scholar Discorides
Arabic Translation of Greek Scholar Discorides

Greek and Roman Treatises Lost

During these dark ages when European culture came to a standstill, the monasteries did their best to preserve the libraries of both the ancient Greeks and Romans. There were too many to save and too few who were able to do the work need to preserve these libraries.  Many of the works of the most learned people of the ancient world would have been lost forever except for the rise of the Golden Age of Islam.

Bimaristan in Bahgdad
Bimaristan in Bahgdad

Islamic Scholars: Keepers of the Flame

During this golden age, knowledge and learning flourished in the lands united under Islamic rule.Universities were established throughout the Arab world.  Medical schools or Bimaristans began to appear in by the 9th century. Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo were all important centers for the study of medicine, herbs and pharmacology. The Arab scholars of the time valued and respected what the Greeks and Romans left.  Much of what was written was preserved in Arabic to be rediscovered later in history.

The Golden Age of Islam
The Golden Age of Islam

Only A Few of the Islamic Scholars and What They Learned

Below are only a few of the many Islamic scholars responsible for not only the preservation but continued development of the sciences including botany and the use of herbs as medicine,

inner page of Kitb al-nabt
inner page of Kitb al-nabt

Ābu Ḥanīfah Āḥmad ibn Dawūd Dīnawarī (828 – 896)

was a mathematician, astronomer, metalurgest, agriculturest as well as a botanist. He is the author of Kitab al-Nabat  or in English, the Book of Plants.  In this treatise he described over 637 different plants and their medicinal uses.  Ibn Dawūd Dīnawarī is the father of Arabic botany.

Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi
Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi

Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi(936 – 1013)

Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi(936 – 1013) anglicanized to Abulcasis was born near Cordoba Spain.  He wrote a thirty chapter medical treatise, Kitab al-Tasrif, completed in the year 1000.  This treatise covered a broad range of medical topics.  A part of this tome, Liber Servitoris, gave specific instructions on the preparation of distillates and sublimations of herbs for medicinal use.

Bukari-Ibn Sina
Bukari-Ibn Sina

Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina (980-1027)

know in Europe as Avicenna, was born in Bukhara (today’s Uzbekistan). He wrote Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb in 1025.  It’s name was later  anglicanizedto The Cannon of MedicineAl-Qanun fila-Tibb was a codification of all medical knowledge of the time and included the first pharmacopoeia. Ibn Sina’s treatise is considered the first pharmacopoeia and lists over 800 tested drugs plants and minerals. This book was used as a reference book in Europe well into the 15 century.

Stained Glass Window
Stained Glass Window

Abu Abbas Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Mufarraj, often called al-Nabatî, (1165-1171 approx)

botanist and teacher of  Ibn-al-Baitar (1197-1248) was born in Seville Spain. He is considered the father of the scientific method.  He is responsible for introducing the scientific method into the study of plants as medicine. This 13th century scholar introduced into plant studies the use of empirical testing.  Not only did his materia medicas include the identification and descriptions of plants but the  observed and recorded proof of their effectiveness as medicine.  From these studies the science of pharmacology evolved.

Ibn al Baytar
Ibn al Baytar
Kitab al-jami fi al-adwiya al-mufrada or as The Corpus of Simples
Kitab al-jami fi al-adwiya al-mufrada or as The Corpus of Simples

Abu Muhammad Abdallah Ibn Ahmad Ibn al-Baitar Dhiya al-Din al-Malaqi(1188-1248)

of Malaga, Spain was a student of al-Nabati. In 1219 he embarked on an expedition across the North African coast. His travels clear across northern Africa into Egypt. In 1224 al-Kamil, governor of Egypt appointed him chief physician. When Egypt’s conquest of Syria, al-Baitar was able to include collect new plant speciments to add to his collection. In all his works included over 1400 different herbs and medications, 200 of which were his original discoveries. Some of his discoveries included tamarind, aconite and nux vomica. He published his research into herbs and herbal medicine in his book Kitab al-jami fi al-adwiya al-mufrada or as The Corpus of Simples anglicanized. This book became one of the most complete herbals ever written and was used well into the 18th  century.

In researching herbs and the Middle Ages, I discovered the wealth of knowledge contributed by the Islamic scholars of those times.


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