Early Christian Medicine
The practice of abandoning babies to die on the Roman trash heaps was called "exposing children." The Fathers of the early Church, writing even before the Bible was compiled, not only absolutely forbade any form of infanticide by Christians, but encouraged Christians to adopt the children abandoned by the Romans. The many graves of children adopted by Christians in the Catacombs give evidence of this great charitable effort by the early Church. These adopted children helped grow the Church even during the centuries of intense persecution. As the Romans were feeding Christians to lions in the Colosseum, their very children were taking their place.
Whereas the ancient Romans had very little concept of universal charity - kindness and services to all, regardless of race, nationality or social status - this concept was very developed in the Jewish tradition. In the Book of Tobit we read the story of a Pius Jewish family, in which the father never failed to perform such acts of charity as giving to the poor and burying the dead, even in violation the secular law. Tobit is one of the books that was removed from many Bibles by those denominations that do not believe in intercession by angels and saints. This beautiful story gives us an excellent representation of the Jewish view of charity and is still included in Catholic Bibles, and all complete and accurate Bibles. The Archangel Raphael explains:
Then Raphael took them both aside and said, 'Bless God, utter his praise before all the living for the favour he has shown you. Bless and extol his name. Proclaim before all people the deeds of God as they deserve, and never tire of giving him thanks.
It is right to keep the secret of a king, yet right to reveal and publish the works of God as they deserve. Do what is good, and no evil can befall you.
'Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity. Better to practise almsgiving than to hoard up gold.
Almsgiving saves from death and purges every kind of sin. Those who give alms have their fill of days; those who commit sin and do evil bring harm on themselves.
'I am going to tell you the whole truth, hiding nothing from you. I have already told you that it is right to keep the secret of a king, yet right too to reveal in a worthy way the words of God.
So you must know that when you and Sarah were at prayer, it was I who offered your supplications before the glory of the Lord and who read them; so too when you were burying the dead.
When you did not hesitate to get up and leave the table to go and bury a dead man, I was sent to test your faith, and at the same time God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah.
I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of the Lord.'
Christians even more fully embraced charity toward all humanity, following the teachings of Christ. For instance, the Samaritans were despised by religious Jews in the time of Jesus and generally at enmity with the entire people - as evidenced when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink of water in the Gospel of John, The Samaritan woman said to him, "'You are a Jew. How is it that you ask me, a Samaritan, for something to drink?' -- Jews, of course, do not associate with Samaritans." Yet, we read in the Gospel of Luke a parable that Jesus told, that would have been far more remarkable at the time than we might read it now:
And now a lawyer stood up and, to test him, asked, 'Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' He said to him, 'What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?' He replied, 'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.'
Jesus said to him, 'You have answered right, do this and life is yours.' But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbour?'
In answer Jesus said, 'A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of bandits; they stripped him, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead.
Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came on him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper and said, "Look after him, and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have."
Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits' hands?'
He replied, 'The one who showed pity towards him.' Jesus said to him, 'Go, and do the same yourself.'
Furthermore, in the Gospel of Matthew our Lord makes the rule of Christian Charity even more clear:
'When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before Him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, "Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me."
Then the upright will say to him in reply, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?"
And the King will answer, "In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me."
Then he will say to those on his left hand, "Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me."
Then it will be their turn to ask, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?"
Then he will answer, "In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."
And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.'
Both the ancient Greeks and Romans had myths of gods appearing hidden, in human form, often as poor strangers to test the charity of humans. To the humans who treated them with hospitality, they would show favor. However, to the militaristic, hedonistic and nationalistic citizens of ancient Rome, such a concept of universal brotherhood was remarkable. Even though we are told that the pagans remarked about the Christians "See how they love each other", it would take around 400 years of martyrdom and charity for the Church to be established.
The early decades of the Church were the Apostolic era, a time of great miracles. We read in the Acts of the Apostles:
So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
The Letter of James states:
Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.
The writings of the early Church Fathers record that the sacrament of the Anointing of The Sick was regularly performed during this era and that countless numbers of people were healed. The healing of the sick through this sacrament was another of the main causes of conversion of many pagans to Christianity. Therefore, there was some debate in the first two centuries of the Church, whether prayer should be the only means of healing employed by Christians. But, this matter was soon resolved as it was realized that all forms of healing come from God and that Christian charity would not exclude the herbs and surgical techniques common to the time.
The early Christians followed the Jewish example of operating hostels for the lodging of strangers, pilgrims and the poor. They pooled their resources for a common charitable fund. To ensure equitable distribution, these funds were overseen by deacons. This necessitated that the early Church work in an organized manner under a hierarchy of authority. What marked Christianity as being so remarkable was that these funds were used for all in need - not just Christians or Jews, etc. We are told in Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton, that by the second Century AD, the Church was caring for well over a thousand poor in Rome.
In an epidemic in Alexandria in 262, Bishop Dionysius directed a massive relief operation, tending to the sick and burying the dead in sharp contrast, so he alleged, to the pagans, who threw their sick relatives out of the house and left their own dead to lie unburied in the street, afraid they would catch the disease.... Polycarp of Smyrna in the early second century thought it a major responsibility of the elders of the church, while the Apostolic Constitution, reflecting practices in Christian communities at the end of that century, expected all Bishops to care for the sick, even, so a Roman rulebook suggested, going into private houses to seek them out. By the fourth century the church of Alexandria had a corps of strong men equally adept at bringing in the sick, carrying out the dead and battling angry pagans.
...When our information reappears in quantity from the 340s onward, the picture that emerges has altered greatly since the second century. The Roman Empire has gained a second capitol, Constantinople, and a newly authorized religion, Christianity.
...In general, Christians took a benign attitude toward medicine. Methodius of Patara (d c. 311) even set his dialogue on the Resurrection in the house of a doctor, Aglaophon, and made him one of the chief speakers. The Galenic conception of a wise Creator acting in the interests of mankind and placing herbs and other remedies on the earth to relieve suffering could easily be used to support Christianity itself.
Christian hospitals continued to develop, taking in the rich and poor alike. The most significant figure of this period in regard to medicine, and truly one of the most significant figures in Christian history was Benedict of Nursia, later to be canonized Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict's approximate date of birth was 480. Nursia, the place of his birth is now the beautiful Italian region known as Umbria. He was educated in Rome, but had no interest in wealth or city life. Like many of the legendary Catholic figures we will discuss who had connection with Herbal Medicine, he wished to become a monk and a hermit. As a young man, he went off on his own to live in a cave. This was approximately 500 AD, a time of great turmoil in in the region, as we will discuss soon. But, suffice to say for now, Rome had been sacked repeatedly by invading hoards, chaos, pestilence, plague and poverty were the conditions of the day for most people. The Arians held power throughout most of central Europe and were heavily persecuting Christian peoples and European civilization largely lay in wase.
Although Saint Benedict desired to live as a hermit in prayer and introspection, his piety and holiness gradually became known throughout the region. At first, he garnered a small following of local shepherds. Soon, nobles began to entrust their sons to his care and educated people began to seek him out for advice and instruction. Eventually, he would establish twelve monasteries. These and the monasteries and abbeys that followed, would become the Benedictine Order, largely responsible for evangelizing, educating and civilizing Europe, England and much of the world. The Benedictines founded schools and libraries, preserving the knowledge of ancient Rome, Greece and all that came before. They would found charitable hospitals and become the dominant force in medicine for more than 1,000 years.
The Rule of Saint Benedict, which would both provide direction for the order and inspire Benedictine spirituality and discipline was written in 516. While more than 73 chapters long, the rule may be summed up by the Benedictine credo, "Ora et labora", Pray and Work. The duty of the monk or nun under this order was to be of service to God and man. Benedictines were not merely to be contemplatives. They were to garden, work as teachers and doctors, study science and care for the poor - manual labor was deemed essential to their mission. Chapter 36 of the Rule reads:
Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, 2 for he said: I was sick and you visited me (Matt 25:36), 3 and, What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me (Matt 25:40). 4 Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them. 5 Still, sick brothers must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward. 6 Consequently, the abbot should be extremely careful that they suffer no neglect. 7 Let a separate room be designated for the sick, and let them be served by an attendant who is God-fearing, attentive and concerned. 8 The sick may take baths whenever it is advisable, but the healthy, and especially the young, should receive permission less readily. 9 Moreover, to regain their strength, the sick who are very weak may eat meat, but when their health improves, they should all abstain from meat as usual. 10 The abbot must take the greatest care that cellarers and those who serve the sick do not neglect them, for the shortcomings of disciples are his responsibility.
The medicinal herbs grown by the Benedictines in their Physic Gardens became the medicinal herbs of the apothecary, of the Officina. Centuries later, when Linnaeus began the formal classification of plants, he would label these herbs "officinalis" or "officinale". The Benedictines had the Galenic school of medicine and the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. They not only preserved the medical knowledge of ancient Rome and Greece, but they continued its development. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for Saint Benedict, thousands of years of collected knowledge may have been lost and much of the next two thousand years of advancement may not have happened.
The herbs of the Officina were complied over the centures and included:
Althaea officinalis (marshmallow)
Anchusa officinalis (bugloss)
Asparagus officinalis (asparagus)
Avicennia officinalis (mangrove)
Bistorta officinalis (European bistort)
Borago officinalis (borage)
Buddleja officinalis (pale butterflybush)
Calendula officinalis (pot marigold)
Cinchona officinalis (quinine) - discovered much later in Peru
Cochlearia officinalis (scurvygrass)
Corallina officinalis (a seaweed)
Cornus officinalis (cornelian cherry)
Cyathula officinalis (ox knee)
Cynoglossum officinale (houndstongue)
Euphrasia officinalis (eyebright)
Fumaria officinalis (fumitory)
Galega officinalis (goat's rue)
Gratiola officinalis (hedge hyssop)
Guaiacum officinale (lignum vitae)
Hyssopus officinalis (hyssop)
Jasminum officinale (jasmine)
Laricifomes officinalis (a wood fungus)
Levisticum officinale (lovage)
Lithospermum officinale (gromwell)
Melilotus officinalis (ribbed melilot)
Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)
Morinda officinalis (Indian mulberry)
Nasturtium officinale (watercress)
Paeonia officinalis (common paeony)
Parietaria officinalis (upright pellitory)
Pulmonaria officinalis (lungwort)
Rheum officinale (a rhubarb)
Rosa gallica 'Officinalis' (apothecary rose)
Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary)
Salvia officinalis (sage)
Sanguisorba officinalis (great burnet)
Saponaria officinalis (soapwort)
Sepia officinalis (cuttlefish)
Sisymbrium officinale (hedge mustard)
Spongia officinalis (bath sponge)
Stachys officinalis (betony)
Styrax officinalis (drug snowbell)
Symphytum officinale (comfrey)
Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
Valeriana officinalis (valerian)
Verbena officinalis (vervain)
Veronica officinalis (speedwell)
Zingiber officinale (ginger)
While this list is certainly much shorter than the 500 or so medicinal herbs described by Dioscorides, they provide a concise and very useful apothecary for most common illnesses. As the order spread, they would incorporate indigenous herbs and establish a great tradition of Herbal Medicine. Even in the 1900s, tales of Benedictine monks in remote Alpine regions, carrying carefully preserved, hand copied texts of de Materia Medica were not uncommon. The professional study of medicine throughout Europe and Britain owes it origin almost entirely to the tradition of monastic medicine, and it was this very tradition out of which would grow German Folk Medicine that preserved Herbal Medicine when the professional, secular medical establishment tried to outlaw its use.
The great water-shed moment in Christian Herbal Medicine, as with so much Christian history of the era, came with the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine. Charlemagne, or "Charles the Great" was Christian.
In the late 400s, Rome had been sacked and the Roman Emperor Romulus overthrown by Germanic hordes. From this chaos rose a kingdom of Franks, which was ruled by a king named Clovis. King Clovis, I converted to Christianity, due to the influence of his wife on Christmas Day, 580. His son, Charles would lead the Franks to conquer the Germanic tribes by 768. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo, III in 800. This would usher in the Christian era and lead nearly all of Europe to convert to Christianity under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, ushering in an era of peace, education, humanity and civilization. While never officially canonized as a saint, Charlemagne may rightfully be called "The Father of Europe".
Charlemagne had a great interest in the well-being of his subjects. He was a lawgiver, concerned with equity and social reform. An article entitled "The Garden of Charlemagne" by the Traditian Order, a Catholic organization dedicated to reviving the tradition of Monastic Medicine, tells us:
The Capitulare de Villis was such an ordinance, issued around 802 A.D.. It had 120 chapters of laws regarding issues throughout his empire, including one intricately requiring and instructing all farmers on how to keep bees. Having just inventoried two of his royal estates and finding their systems and management lacking, Charlemagne moved in the Capitulare to reform those royal estates, which stretched from Germany to Spain. He included a requirement that the estates all grow particular beneficial plants instead of the unsystemized gardens they had grown before in order to help the lands around them.
That list, in Chapter 70 of the Capitulare, has given scholars insight into what were considered the best medicinal and culinary plants of that time, most of which were actually mentioned by Pliny the Elder of Rome (23–79 A.D.) centuries before in his work Naturalis Historiae Libri. This is not shocking however, since Charlemagne’s empire was at the early end of the Middle Ages, meaning much of his information would still be from Greek and Roman sources. All of the medicinal herbs cited in the Plan of St. Gall, drafted within decades of the Capitulare and intended to be in a grand Benedictine garden in Switzerland, are also listed in the Capitulare, confirming his thoughts as those of others in the know in his time.
Chapter 70 of the Capitulare details the plants that were required to be grown, with fines and penalties if they were not. Some are still considered beneficial today, some are not. The list reads: “It is our wish that they shall have in their gardens all kinds of plants: lily, roses, fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, kidney-bean, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, gladiolus, tarragon, anise, colocynth, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuces, spider’s foot, rocket salad, garden cress, burdock, penny-royal, hemlock, parsley, celery, lovage, juniper, dill, sweet fennel, endive, dittany, white mustard, summer savory, water mint, garden mint, wild mint, tansy, catnip, centaury, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, spinach, kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, cibols, garlic, madder, teazles, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary. And the gardener shall have house-leeks growing on his house.”
This article ends with a bit of verse by Abbot Walafrid Strabo, a great herbalist who we will discuss in much detail later. Strabo was tutor to the house of Charlemagne before becoming a prominent figure in the Church:
“Charles was the keenest of all kings to seek out and support
wise men so that they might philosophize with all delight.
Almost all of the kingdom entrusted to him by God was so foggy
and almost blind, but he made it luminous with the new ray of knowledge,
almost unknown to this barbarous land, with God lighting the way so it could see.
But now studies are growing weak, and the light of wisdom,
because it is less loved, grows rarer among most people.”
– Walahfrid, preface to the Vita KaroliMagni, c. 817 A.D.
This article is an excerpt from Christian Medicine, History and Practice by Judson Carroll. To learn more about this book, please visit: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice - a new book by Judson Carroll
Christian Medicine, History and Practice is available for purchase on Amazon: Christian Herbal Medicine, the History and Practice: Carroll, Judson: 9798791509611: Amazon.com: Books
Judson is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack at judsoncarroll.com
Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for posting this, Judson! This is so fascinating. I love how the Lord has given us so many ways to take care of sickness just by being good stewards in the garden…since we started out as gardeners, it only makes sense that he would still provide for us through our gardens until we can one day be restored to the Eden He created us for, where there will be no more sickness!
Thanks so much! I am sure you will understand when I say that setting the record straight about the Christian traditions of herbal medicine is somewhat of a mission for me. Just wait until I get tot he chapter on Sain Hildegard von Bingen - mind blowing!