Magic, Spells & Potions

What Are Herbal Simples?

What Are Herbal Simples?

It may happen that one or another enquirer taking up this study will ask, to begin with, "What is a Herbal Simple?"

The English word "Simple," composed of two Latin words,Β Singula plica (a single fold), means "Singleness," whether of material or purpose.

From primitive times the term "Herbal Simple" has been applied to any homely curative remedy consisting of one ingredient only, and that of a vegetable nature.

Many such a native medicine found favour and success with our single-minded forefathers, this being the "reverent simplicity of ancienter times."

In our own nursery days, as we now fondly remember, it was: "Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; said Simple Simon to the pieman, 'Let me taste your ware.'" That ingenuous youth had but one idea, connected simply with his stomach; and his sole thought was how to devour the contents of the pieman's tin. We venture to hope our readers may be equally eager to stock their minds with the sound knowledge of Herbal Simples which this modest Manual seeks to provide for their use.

Healing by herbs has always been popular both [xviii] with the classic nations of old, and with the British islanders of more recent times. Two hundred and sixty years before the date of Hippocrates (460 B.C.) the prophet Isaiah bade King Hezekiah, when sick unto death, "take a lump of Figs, and lay it on the boil; and straightway the King recovered."

Iapis, the favourite pupil of Apollo, was offered endowments of skill in augury, music, or archery. But he preferred to acquire a knowledge of herbs for service of cure in sickness; and, armed with this knowledge, he saved the life of AEneas when grievously wounded by an arrow. He averted the hero's death by applying the plant "Dittany," smooth of leaf, and purple of blossom, as plucked on the mountain Ida.

It is told in Malvern Chase that Mary of Eldersfield (1454), "whom some called a witch," famous for her knowledge of herbs and medicaments, "descending the hill from her hut, with a small phial of oil, and a bunch of the 'Danewort,' speedily enabled Lord Edward of March, who had just then heavily sprained his knee, to avoid danger by mounting 'Roan Roland' freed from pain, as it were by magic, through the plant-rubbing which Mary administered."

In Shakespeare's time there was a London street, named Bucklersbury (near the present Mansion House), noted for its number of druggists who sold Simples and sweet-smelling herbs. We read, in [ix] The Merry Wives of Windsor, that Sir John Falstaff flouted the effeminate fops of his day as "Lisping hawthorn buds that smell like Bucklersbury in simple time."

Various British herbalists have produced works, more or less learned and voluminous, about our native medicinal plants; but no author has hitherto radically explained the why and where fore of their ultimate curative action. In common with their early predecessors, these several writers have recognised the healing virtues of the herbs, but have failed to explore the chemical principles on which such virtues depend. Some have attributed the herbal properties to the planets which rule their growth. Others have associated the remedial herbs with certain cognate colours, ordaining red flowers for disorders of the blood, and yellow for those of the liver. "The exorcised demon of jaundice," says Conway, "was consigned to yellow parrots; that of inflammatory disease to scarlet, or red weeds." Again, other herbalists have selected their healing plants on the doctrine of allied signatures, choosing, for instance, the Viper's Bugloss as effectual against venomous bites, because of its resembling a snake; and the sweet little English Eyebright, which shows a dark pupil in the centre white ocular corolla, as of signal benefit for inflamed eyes.

Thus it has continued to happen that until the [x] last half-century Herbal Physic has remained only speculative and experimental, instead of gaining a solid foothold in the field of medical science. Its claims have been merely empirical, and its curative methods those of a blind art:β€”

"Si vis curari, de morbo nescio quali,
Accipias herbam; sed quale nescio; nec quΓ’
Ponas; nescio quo; curabere, nescio quando."

Your sore, I know not what, be not foreslow
To cure with herbs, which, where, I do not know;
Place them, well pounc't, I know not how, and then
You shall be perfect whole, I know not when."

Happily now-a-days, as our French neighbours would say, Nous avons changΓ© tout cela, "Old things are passed away; behold all things are become new!" Herbal Simples stand to-day safely determined on sure ground by the help of the accurate chemist. They hold their own with the best, and rank high for homely cures, because of their proved constituents. Their manifest healing virtues are shown to depend on medicinal elements plainly disclosed by analysis. Henceforward the curtain of oblivion must fall on cordial waters distilled mechanically from sweet herbs, and on electuaries artlessly compounded of seeds and roots by a Lady Monmouth, or a Countess of Arundel, as in the Stuart and Tudor times. Our Herbal Simples are fairly entitled at last to independent promotion from the shelves of the amateur still-room, from [xi] the rustic ventures of the village grandam, and from the shallow practices of self styled botanical doctors in the back streets of our cities.

"I do remember an apothecary,β€”
And hereabouts he dwells,β€”whom late I noted
In tatter'd weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of Simples; meagre were his looks;
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shap'd fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses
Were thinly scattered to make up a show."
Romeo and Juliet, Act V. Sc. 1.

Chemically assured, therefore, of the sterling curative powers which our Herbal Simples possess, and anxious to expound them with a competent pen, the present author approaches his task with a zealous purpose, taking as his pattern, from the Comus of Milton:β€”

"A certain shepherd lad
Of small regard to see to, yet well skilled
In every virtuous plant, and healing herb;
He would beg me sing;
Which, when I did, he on the tender grass
Would sit, and hearken even to constancy;
And in requital ope his leathern scrip,
And show me Simples, of a thousand names,
Telling their strange, and vigorous faculties."

Shakespeare said, three centuries ago, "throw physic to the dogs." But prior to him, one Doctor Key, self styled Caius, had written in the Latin [xii] tongue (tempore Henry VIII.), a Medical History of the British Canine Race. His book became popular, though abounding in false concords; insomuch that from then until now medical classics have been held by scholars in poor repute for grammar, and sound construction. Notwithstanding which risk, many a passage is quoted here of ancient Herbal lore in the past tongues of Greece, Rome; and the Gauls. It is fondly hoped that the apt lines thus borrowed from old faultless sources will escape reproach for a defective modern rendering in Dog Latin, Mongrel Greek, or the "French of Stratford atte bowe."

Lastly, quaint old Fuller shall lend an appropriate Epilogue. "I stand ready," said he (1672), "with a pencil in one hand, and a spunge in the other, to add, alter, insert, efface, enlarge, and delete, according to better information. And if these my pains shall be found worthy to passe a second Impression, my faults I will confess with shame, and amend with thankfulnesse, to such as will contribute clearer intelligence unto me."

William Thomas Fernie, Author of Herbal Simples, 1895

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