Healing Threads by Mary Beith is now out of print, but you can still sometimes find it in second hand bookshops, though it isn’t cheap if you look on-line. My copy was from the wonderful Kings Bookshop in Callander, and was a real bargain. It isn’t a herbal as we might have come to expect, with lists of herbs, colour pictures and outlines of what herbs were used for. It’s a history of the practice of medicine in the Highlands, and it’s a real eye-opener, confirming me in some of the opinions I’ve been developing during the Half a Hundred herbs project.
Contrary to everything I might have believed, the middle ages were not an era of superstition, magic and book-bound obedience to authority. Actual practice of medicine was lively, progressive, experimental, and characterised by a sharing of information, knowledge and technique that was enabled by the monastic network of learning centres, but extended to dialogue with Islamic cultures in Spain and Constantinople, Scandinavian centres of learning, and indigenous practitioners of medicine throughout Europe, including (from evidence from the medical university of Salerno), women. Surgery is highly developed, and some understanding of bacteria and antibiotics is shown, though some of the metaphorical language in which it is couched is distractingly cute, and hard to evaluate. There are surprising gaps, of course, (how did they not grasp the circulation of the blood?) and some genuinely odd-ball practices that must have had magical intentions (like the bag of heads carried by healers, for instance – I can’t think what that might have been for). There doesn’t seem to have been the great divide we are often told about between ‘folk’ and ‘learned’ medicine, between ‘authorised’ healing controlled by the Church and shamanic healing practiced by ‘healers’ and certainly no assumption that lay healers or women had anything to do with witchcraft at that point.
And yet, the herbals, as we go through the middle ages, become increasingly awful. The creators seem to be more concerned to reproduce what’s on the page they are copying from than to evaluate the content. The drawings become increasingly unrealistic, and useless for identification, even of plants which must have been familiar. They show a culture characterised by the attitude ‘do as you’re told, don’t think for yourself’. And this attitude has since been wished onto an entire culture, to the point where ‘medieval’ is considered to be a suitable insult, without explanation or apology.
The explanation isn’t hard to find. It’s the copyists. Books were expensive, and the art of creating them was specialised. Even people who could read fluently would have found writing laborious, and the job – especially for a valuable book – would have been handed over to a scribe. Critics of literature are always complaining about text garbled in copying, so this is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. The resulting book would have been an objet d’art, more than a learning aid, and the actual transmission of knowledge would have been done by word of mouth, practical example and supervised practice. I’m finding this happens more and more today, too. As herbs become fashionable, more herbals come out, with prettier pictures and fancier layouts, but the information in the text is copied and pasted without any testing or verification – and sometimes it is obvious what the source is, and the copyist hasn’t understood it. I still don’t know how to use sweet cicely to polish oak, in spite of the many books which assert that you can, and no, you can’t get oil from the seeds. I’ve talked about this before, and the problem is worse now, because the copying and pasting extends even more easily to on-line and self-published text, to the point where the only reliable way to learn anything is to get hands-on experience from someone who knows what they are doing.
And this is the thing that did for traditional medicine. It wasn’t just scientific testing of methods, it was also a need to validate the teachers, and where a need for validation is perceived, there is an opportunity to exercise control. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. When my husband had a detached retina, the eye surgeon was going to fix it with a laser, and having explained this, he said, lightly, ‘Let’s give it a go then!’ My face must have been a picture, as I thought ‘lasers? eyeballs? amateurs?’ and he added, reassuringly, ‘I have done this before’. And so he had. Proper qualifications and experience and everything, so I know where the need for regulation comes from.
It comes down to the people you choose to regulate. And the history of regulated medicine is full of opportunists, bigots and the exercise of special interests. Regulators were able to lump together any useful suspicions – of women, of Gaelic or Welsh speakers, of Catholics, of witches, of anyone educated outside their own system – to restrict the practice of healing to the methods and institutions they favoured. It becomes easier to limit medicine to what you have approved than to test what anyone else might have been doing for centuries.
I’m not against testing, rather the reverse, but there is a difference between what you haven’t tested and what you know to be useless, which does seem to escape some commentators. And there is no doubt at all about whose interests it serves to maintain the status quo.
I got into this, because I am interested in herbs. But it matters to me equally as a poet. The way we transmit knowledge is important, and though language is not the only way we do it, (presentations, graphic novels and comics and youtube tutorials are changing the face of education, and it’s not a bad thing), it’s still a key element. And if we don’t learn how to handle it with precision and accuracy, how to evaluate what’s been heard as much as what’s been said, a gap of trust opens up in the transmission. And there’s always someone who will exploit that gap for their own ends (brexit,brexit,brexit). Poets who do their duty by the language they use may be the best defence we have against a post truth society. Poems could be healing threads.