Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021
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Flower power

Born of desperation, the Doctrine of Signatures was mainstream medicine throughout the 17th century

If the average long-suffering patient from the European Middle Ages were somehow transported to a modern Canadian hospital, chances are he'd leave happy and healthy -- though decidedly confused. His goiters and gout, scurvy and syphilis, pox and pustulences and even his erectile dysfunction would have been eradicated (or at least nicely managed) by our awesome arsenal of drugs, surgeries and therapies.

During the Middle Ages, medicine was roughly equal to religion in its ability to treat disease. Born of this ignorance were countless false cures and useless treatments, though perhaps none were as influential as the system known as the Doctrine of Signatures. It all started from the most unlikely of sources...

Jakob Boehme was born in 1575 in Görlitz, Germany. He was from a rather unremarkable Lutheran family and grew up to be a shoemaker. What set him apart from the crowd, however, was that he claimed to have experienced eye-opening visions throughout his early life in which God showed him the true nature of pretty much everything, from spiritual matters to the structure of the natural world itself. This was big stuff from a man who was more qualified to expound on the nature of a sole than the soul.

Perhaps because he feared the social repercussions, Boehme didn't mention his visions to anyone. He continued to live the life of an average family man until a particularly vibrant vision in 1610, after which he could keep silent no more. Boehme's first written work was entitled Aurora, a mystical detailing of his visions. It was widely read, though the church didn't exactly take kindly to the prophet-like shoemaker. Fearful of the threat of exile, he laid down his pen until 1623, when he was compelled to write again. He was soon run out of town, even though he was developing quite the following.

Before he died in 1624, Boehme authored De Signatura Rerum, or The Signature of All Things. Its basic premise was that God had marked every one of his creations with a clue as to its functional properties. A plant's usefulness could be determined by its form or characteristics, such as its colour or where it grew.

Chances are, Boehme pilfered some of his material from the first famed physician to suggest such a thing. Paracelsus (1493-1541), the brilliant Swiss doctor and astrologer, also based his arbitrary medical opinions on links between the looks of things. But the German cobbler wasn't interested in cures; he simply wanted to share his description of what he understood to be God's handprint in the world in order to help everyday folk build up their spiritual sides.


The idea that the mysteries of the natural world could be so simply unravelled was one that appealed to many. Not long after Boehme's death, two major figures of 17th-century science -- the English botanists Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) and William Coles (1626- 1662) -- became entranced by the idea of plant signatures.

Making Boehme's system useful on a daily basis would take some doing. Culpeper had a thriving medical practice in London during the early 17th century and enjoyed scouring the countryside for useful herbs. On many a nature walk he wondered, if it looked like a duck and quacked like a duck... might it also cure a duck? In order to frame Boehme's beliefs as a form of medicine, Culpeper took the signatures system, cleaned it up a bit and legitimized it under the guise of reason. His two major works, The English Physician and Complete Herbal, anthologized hundreds of plants and their functions.

Many of the connections made during this era remain obvious in plants' names to this day: maidenhair fern (to treat baldness), liverwort (to treat liver problems), Hawthorn (for splinters and, of course, thorn pricks) and lousewort (to stave off lice). Indeed, all the "worts" were named as a way to make their functions obvious. The shape of the birthwort flower, for example, leaves little to the imagination.

William Coles also believed that identifying and understanding plant signatures was the key to making them useful to the oozing masses. He had a keen eye for the connection between cure and complaint. Lungwort, of course, was used to treat breathing difficulty since the plant's spotty leaves were reminiscent of the splotchy surfaces of a diseased lung, and the hemispheric nature of walnuts were sure to cure headaches, since they had "the perfect signatures of the head."


Sometimes, though, Coles acknowledged that a plant's signature needed to be drawn out before it could be identified. As a result, it took some time before physicians finally realized that St. John's Wort was the perfect cure for blood ailments, since the plant didn't reveal its red signature until it had been pounded, marinated in oil and left to ferment in the sun for several weeks.

Culpeper and Coles waged somewhat of a war for dominance as to the right way to interpret plants' usefulness. This was mainly because Culpeper liked his medicine with a side of astrology. As his methods evolved over the years, planetary signatures developed great importance in his methodology, which eventually won out over Coles' plants-only approach. The cause of the patient's ailment would therefore first have to be aligned with a planet in order to discover which plant might cure it. He based his system on the planetary signatures he took from the orbs' presumed physical qualities and the characteristics of their mythological namesakes -- Venus was connected to venereal diseases, red Mars ruled the muscles and blood, the moon was responsible for fertility, breast and stomach disorders and so on.

A woman's menstrual cramps, for example, would be blamed on the influence of the moon and she would then be cured with a plant with round fruit that looked like the moon. Culpeper thoughtfully assigned each plant a planetary counterpart to make diagnosis and treatment simpler. By the end of the 17th century, the belief in the Doctrine of Signatures -- herbal and planetary -- was so widespread that virtually every physician in the Western world subscribed to it in at least some small way. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century, really, that its influence in mainstream medicine finally fell by the wayside.

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