Tag Archives: neolithic

Medicinals through the ages I

A contribution to Monks and Medicinals at the Hospitalfield Beer & Berries Festival 21 August 2021. A brief history of medicinal plants in the ‘western’ world: Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hildegard. First part of a series listing books and web links referred to on the day.

[Draft in progress, subject to editing … 31 August 2021]

Introduction

Civilisations sustain themselves on the major food plants – the cereals, legumes, vegetables and the grasses and fodders for livestock – but many other plants have been eaten, less for bulk than for special taste or healing. These are the culinary and medicinal herbs, used by mesolithic hunters, neolithic farmers, and most people that came after them [1]. Such plants have many uses.

  • They complete a varied diet, which (we know from recent research) supports a diverse and healthy microbial community, or microbiome, in the gut.
  • Some are placed on the skin as poultices, ointments, wound-herbs, repellants (yarrow, mallow, plantain, kidney vetch, etc.)
  • And others are eaten for general health, e.g. the vitamins (culinary herbs, rose hip syrup), or …
  • To cure or alleviate specific ailments (most other medicinals).

The gut microbiome? People are used to hearing about the five-a-day – the portions of vegetable and fruit needed to maintain general health – but imagine eating 20 or even 30 different plant species in a day or so. Research has found a link between the range of plants that people consume and the health and functioning of the gut microbiome. If it’s happy and healthy, there’s a chance we might be also. (More on this in Part II.)

Plants having medicinal properties: (top left c’wise) pilewort tubers and roots, betony in flower, meadowsweet in flower, opium poppy exuding latex, rhubarb root mass, angelica stem base and root, fennel.

The common knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants is fading western cultures. In some parts of the world, Indigenous Communities continued to curate a diverse range of species and retain the knowledge of how to use them. Yet the existence of many of these communities is under severe threat from land-grabbing, deforestation and mining [2]. This loss of medicinal plants from habitats and cultures is part of the general loss of biodiversity across the earth, including here in Living Field country.

The Living Field project has grown a wide range of culinary herbs and medicinals since the Garden began in 2004. We learned how to grow them from seed and cuttings and observed their roles in the natural food web – most wild and cultivated herbs offer food and shelter for spiders, hoverflies, bees and other invertebrates. We have not extracted any of their products or eaten the plants themselves – unless they are the well known culinary herbs such as thyme, sage, chervil, parsley, dill, garlic, fennel, rosemary and chive.

History of medicinals

The plants that allowed people to farm and settle in Britain and Ireland (botanical not geopolitical regions) did not grow here after the last ice retreated, but were introduced by waves of migrants arriving from Europe and the farther Mediterranean. The cereals – barley and wheat, and emmer, spelt, rye and oats – and the grain legumes, peas and beans, were all brought here in at various times over the previous 6000 years. These settlers found the climate suitable for their crops and supported high yields, as it does today [3].

With some exceptions, such as nettle, plants and animals that provided fibre for cloth and most of the cropped dye plants were also introduced. In contrast, the medicinal plants used over the millenia were a mix of native and introduced. Some of the natives have been preserved at archaeological sites: the finds of pilewort, meadowsweet, wild iris and others show that our neolithic and Bronze Age age ancestors had an understanding of the plants around them [1].

The knowledge of medicinals must have been, for thousands of years, transmitted through the generations by personal example and teaching. The process is risky – people are displaced, communities wither, knowledge is lost – but a more permanent form of transfer eventually appeared.

Pilewort – Ranunculus ficaria (top left c’wise) single flower, tubers and roots, whole plant (colours reversed), flowers heads seeking the sun in the early morning, close-up of tubers (all images Living Field)
The Greeks and the Romans

The transmission of botanical knowledge in countries that now form Europe was first based on the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. Theophrastus (372 to 286 BCE) and Pliny (ca 23-79CE) helped found the systematic study of natural history [4]. One of the first people to list plants of medicinal value was Dioscorides, who wrote De Materia Medica [5] almost 2000 years ago around 50 CE (Common Era).

Dioscorides and his forebears understood that useful medicinals had to be distinguished from poisons and that some of the more potent medicinals also had poisonous properties and had to be dosed correctly. Of the opium poppy Papaver somniferum he writes:

” … a little of it, taken as much as a grain of ervum (a small seed), is a pain-easer, and a sleep-causer, and a digester … but being drank too much it hurts, making men lethargical, and it kills.”

The early botanists wrote mostly in Greek or Latin, languages that were understandable to few other than the very learned, and many of those were raised in religious houses. De Materia Medica was not translated into English until the 1660s [6], so the plants and the knowledge of them spread across Europe in the original languages with the migrations of Benedictines, Cistercians and other monastic houses.

Opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – showing (left, then c’wise) flower from the side, seed heads, close-up of flower from above, seed head exuding latex, tool used to scour the head (from SE Asia). All images Living Field.
The Monasteries – Monks and Medicinals (and not just monks)

Benedict’s Rules from the 6th Century [7] included care of the unfortunate and care of the sick among the instruments of good works. Cleanliness and bathing were promoted as were medicinals and the herb garden. The plan for monasteries came to include specific areas for the herb garden, the hospital, a place of blood-letting, house of the gardener and an isolation area.

Some of the concepts underlying treatment were not perhaps as scientific as we would expect them today. For quite some time, people – and the plants to cure them – were classified on the balance of four ‘humours’ – hot, cold, wet and dry, a system based on the earlier and widespread ideas of fire, air, water and earth. If you were diagnosed as too hot and wet, then you were treated to counter those humours.

Given all the other feats of technology and engineering the monasteries applied at that time, they must have known more about plants than just their imagined degree of hotness and wetness! Or maybe not.

Hildegard

One of the great polymaths at the time of monastic spread was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an Abbess based in Germany and attached to a Benedictine house. She wrote, among other books, Physica or Subtleties of the divine qualities of created things [8]. A section of Physica deals with medicinal plants, where (even) she began each description as to how hot, cold, wet or dry the plant was. She did not describe the appearance of the plants, which implies she expected nuns and monks to be able to identify the different species and forms.

Hildegard wrote stunning music for her nuns to sing – most of it recently recorded [8] – and did much else to advance the arts and sciences, so it is difficult to believe that she based her medicinal remedies on these four temperaments. Still, she was about right with oats:

“Oats (avena) are hot, with a sharp taste and strong vapor. Oats are a happy and healthy food for people who are well, furnishing them with a cheerful mind and a pure, clear intellect. It also provides good colour and healthy flesh.”

Physica is a link to medicinal lore that goes back to the Ancient Greeks: on the day of Beer & Berries, plants that she wrote about, such as lungwort, fennel, water mint, plantain, tansy, and yarrow, were all found in and around Hospitalfield garden. Many of her recommendations would resonate well with later herbalists. Yarrow, mallow and plantain are all designated as wound-herbs and she warns against greater celandine (whose sap can scour the skin). But she went a bit to the dark side with one or two of her remedies, invoking magic. Here is what she wrote about betony Stachys officinalis [8]:

For someone who is “conjured by fantastic and diabolic incantations, so that the man is insane with love for the woman or the woman insane with love for the man, they should seek betony …… When found, one leaf should be placed in each nostril, and one under the tongue. One leaf should be held in each hand, and one under each foot. The person should fix his eyes intently on the betony. He should do this until the leaves grow hot on his body. This should be repeated until he is better. This will release him from the madness of his love … “.

Betony, Stachys officinalis, a relative of the odorous hedge woundwort, is from a group of plants that have many medicinal uses. Bees find it to their liking. The central, inset in the photographs is of a mature flower head that has dropped some of its seed.

The story so far …

People here have used wild and cultivated plants to flavour food and ease pain. There are uncertainties in the prehistoric record over the uses of specific plants, their preparation and how knowledge was transmitted across generations. The written systematic studies that have come down to us from Theophrastus in Greece and later workers, especially Dioscorides, were copied and transported across Europe with the spread of Christian monastic life.

The Abbess Hildegard, over 9 centuries ago, compiled works on natural history that can be read today, and composed choral music that is still sung and now recorded. She was part of the great intellectual and spiritual life in monastic houses. When she was writing and composing – she died 1179 – monasteries and their knowledge of plants was spreading north to Scotland. Part II of this series tells of the contribution they made to agriculture and medicine.

Sources

[1] Books that include medicinal plants in Scotland: Dickson C, Dickson J. (2000) Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire; Darwin T. (1996, 2008) The Scots Herbal. Berlinn, Edinburgh; Milliken W, Bridgewater S. (2004) Flora Celtica Berlinn, Edinburgh; Beith M (1995, 2018) Healing threds – traditional medicines of the Highlands and Islands, Berlinn Edinburgh.

[2] Indigenous Knowledge. For general background, try the following and forward links: UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. There are many articles on indigenous knowledge of plants for medicinal and other uses. A recent article, open access (available free): Camara-Leret, R; Bascompte, J. 2021. Language extinction triggers the loss of unique medicinal knowledge. PNAS 118, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2103683118. For specific regions try searching for ‘location’ ‘indigenous knowledge’ ‘medicinal’, etc.

[3] An article in the Living Field’s Climate and Crops series explains why the climate here is good for crop productivity: The Long Cool Summer.

[4] Theophrastus: try Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ref – Ierodiakonou, Katerina, “Theophrastus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) Pliny the Elder: try Wikipedia.

[5] Background to Dioscorides: try Wikipedia.

[6] De Materia Medica used here: an English Translation by Tess Anne Osbaldeston (2000). Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. ‘Being an Herbal with many other Medicinal Materials written in Greek in the first century of the Common Era – a new indexed version in modern English by TA Osbaldeston and RPA Wood’. IBIDIS Press. Available to buy and there is an online version. [Ed: remarkable, includes a detailed history of previous translations and other sources.]

[7] The Rule of St Benedict , written ca 535-540 CE (but not all sources agree). Various links at Britannica: Benedictine Rule. Wikipedia: Rule of St Benedict.

[8] Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translation from the Latin by Priscilla Throop, Illustrations by Mary Elder Jacobsen. Healing Arts Press, Rochester. For Hildegard’s recorded music: see the early music groups Sequentia and Gothic Voices.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com.

Many of the plants shown here were grown in the Living Field garden near Dundee by Gladys Wright, Jackie Thompson and helpers.

Bere Barley at the Living Field

A summary of various articles on bere and other barleys from the Living Field project. First records of barley in the late stone age (neolithic). Structure – six-rowed, two-rowed (and four-rowed?). Origins of bere uncertain. Its name – from bere to bigg. Bere not exclusively Scottish – similar forms reported from mainland Europe in the early 1800s. Geographical distribution mostly to the north in the 1850s. Bere’s decline  in the 1900s.

Bere – an ancient grain

Bere is one of a group of cereal or corn crops grown at the Living Field garden near Dundee [1]. It is a landrace of the barley group. As a landrace [2], it is maintained from year to year from saved seed – and has been for centuries in Scotland. Each year, plants suited to the climate will leave more seed than others less suited, so gradually the characteristics of the population may shift. The bere grown in a particular region may become adapted to the climate and soils of that region. 

The Living Field got its bere seed from Orkney – from the Agronomy Unit at Orkney Collage and from Barony Mills – and though very little bere is now grown outside a few fields in Orkney, collections held at the James Hutton Institute include bere and other landraces from several northern locations. Bere is quite distinct from other old barley varieties such as Spratt and Old Cromarty.

Bere maturing in a field on Orkney mainland, taken 3 August 2018, showing (left) stems and downward curving ears, most leaf now withered, and (right) single ear with its vertical rows of grain and long awns.

Barley originated to the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Seed was gradually brought across Europe until it eventually reached Britain 5000-6000 years ago [3]. Barley ears with grains are first recorded at neolithic or late stone age settlements, and repeatedly through Bronze and Iron ages and onwards [3]. They are best preserved where the ears holding the grain had been charred in a fire.

Bere and similar types of barley therefore have a long history in these Islands. Yet it is unclear whether those grown by neolithic settlers started a line that led directly to the bere recorded in the 1800s and that present today. There was repeated migration of people from Europe from the earliest times, and it is not hard to imagine that seed would have been brought across the sea on many occasions. 

Bere and other barleys have been one of the main staple grains of the region, along with oat and pea [4]. These ancient grains have sustained people for thousands of years, even up to the early 1900s. Today, bere is a heritage crop, but now getting needed recognition as a source of breeding material and a nutritious food.  

The rest of this article presents some of the history of bere, including its fate after the 1700s, its relation to barley and the degree to which these two crops have been considered different.

Grains of bere, pea and oat (from left)

Structure – six-row, two row, four-row, naked and clothed?

To appreciate the various records from pre-history to the present, it is necessary to know a little of the structure of the barley ‘ear’ that holds the grains. Cultivated barley is defined by the row-structure in the ‘ear’. Grain sites are formed in triplets, on both sides of the ear’s rachis, a kind of stem. There are types in which all grains in the triplets fill. As the two set of triplets fill along the length of the ear, they form six vertical rows and are named six-rowed. There are also types where only two of the six fill, and these are named two-rowed. The unfilled grain sites appear as little ‘pegs’. The difference is clear when 2-rowed and six-rowed are shown side by side as in the photographs below.  

Bere is generally included within the six-row group, because all six grains form and fill, but bere types have also been named 4-rowed, for example by the Lawsons, Edinburgh seed merchants, working in the 1800s [5], and also in a modern definitive UK flora [6].  In the four-rowed class, six grains form, but the outer two (the lateral ones) on opposite sides of the rachis merge into one row, so there are two rows of central grains and what appear to be just two rows of the four outer grains. The structure of bere can change on the same ear, leading to the Lawsons naming bere six- and four-rowed barley [5, see also 6].

The barley grown at the Living Field tends to hold its ears upright when they emerge from the top leaf, then they gradually bend towards the horizontal as the grains start to fill and as maturity approaches the ears move to hang down towards the vertical: bere (left) in early grain fill, showing three of its rows; and maturing two-rowed barley (right) where two of the four unfilled grain sites are visible as short pegs, one next to each filled grain.

The distinction is also made between naked barley in which the grains do not adhere tightly to the surrounding protective tissue, and hulled barley, in which the protective layers remain and are difficult to separate off.  

The barley that has been found at prehistoric sites is six-rowed and variously naked or hulled. Bere today is mostly classed as a hulled barley, but as recently as the 1800s naked 4-rowed were still cultivated [5].

Bere in the historical records – is it uniquely Scottish?

The word bere and its variations have been in use for at least 9 centuries. Macleod [7] writes that in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), covering usage from the 12th century to 1700, bere occurs also as bear, bair and beir. The other name by which it is known, big or bigg (from Old Norse Bygg) “does not seem to be in the DOST record” which implies it was pre-dated by bere and not recorded in use before 1700. It is also unclear whether bere and barley mean the same or different things in these early writings. Macleod cites the use of ‘barley beir’ for example. 

Bere and barley were both in common usage in records of the agricultural improvements after 1700, for example in Andrew Wight’s account of travels around Scotland, 1778 – 1784 [8] and in the Old Statistical Account, 1791-1799 [9]. Sometimes both names are used when referring to crops at the same location, implying they were regarded as different crops, but at other times the distinction is unclear.

Large areas of lowland Scotland are barley country, as here on the Tarbat peninsular. Traditionally used for food, alcohol and livestock feed, but now only the latter two, with few exceptions.

By the early 1800s, the published information on crops had been greatly expanded, especially through the various descriptive lists prepared by the Lawsons’ seed company in Edinburgh, notably in 1836 and 1852 [5]. Most of the barley varieties were named under two groups. One they define as Four-rowed, of which there were 12 types, some local and some from overseas including those named African, Bengal, Himalayan and Peruvian.  The second group, recorded as a different species [10] was Two-rowed or Long-eared barley of which there were 26 types, again some sourced overseas. They also distinguished what they called true six-rowed, comprising one or possibly two types and an unusual form named Spratt (which is shown among the images on this page).   

Common Bere was among the four-rowed and was also named Barley, Bigg or Rough Barley. So the Lawsons are implying that bere was also referred to as barley among farmers and merchants. It seems that around that time, the term ‘barley’ referred to two-rowed types, but could also be used for the four-rowed, and was therefore a general name for all cultivated barleys, whereas ‘bere’ referred to the local representative of the four(six-)-rowed types.  

One of the most interesting pieces of information in the Lawsons’ account shows that Scotland’s ‘common bere’ was by no means unique. One other type, named Victoria bere, was stated as being received from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836  and undergoing improvement by field trialling and selection. Another type, named Square, was received by the Lawsons from M. Vilmorin and Co., Paris, and had the following character: “Differs from the Common Bere in being three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin; properties which it may have acquired by being grown successively in the more genial climate of France, and is probably the same variety.” It is likely but not certain that Square was grown in France but the authors report ‘it was cultivated extensively in some parts of Germany’. 

So even as recently as the mid-1800s, bere was not seen to be a uniquely Scottish form of barley. Something very like it was grown elsewhere in Europe. Also, they include in the four-rowed group, two naked types – the Naked or Siberian (“Ear similar in shape to the Common Bere, but rather more distinctly six-rowed … “) and an earlier form named Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked, neither of which were much grown at that time.

In the Lawsons’ account therefore, naked and hulled forms of 6- or 4- rowed barleys were still grown in the mid-1800s, as they were in the neolithic. 

Occurrence in the 1850 agricultural census and later

The area and yield of crops in Scotland were first recorded in a major agricultural census in the 1850s. The statist Thomas Thorburn presented averages of sown area and yield for each of the Old Counties and they have been were arranged by the Living Field on a map of Scotland [11].

The circles on the maps below represent the area of crops placed at the centres on the old counties. For reference, the internal boundaries show current administrative areas. Bere is shown on the left and barley on the right. Over the whole country, barley occupied about 10 times more area than bere, but at that time even barley covered a much smaller area than the main corn crop, oat. Bere, though present in most counties, was mainly grown in the north. 

Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census. Each circle represents the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. For a circle of given size, crop areas are 10 times greater for barley. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Full description at Thorburn’s Diagrams [11].

The 1850s census recorded yield in bushels, a measure of dry volume. A bushel does not necessarily measure the same weight in different grain lots since it varies with the density of the grain and the amount of chaff [11]. Converting census records from bushels and using the same conversion for both bere and barley indicates that bere yield was 80-90% of barley yield over Scotland as a whole but similar in northern counties at 1.5 to 2.0 t/ha. (Modern barley yields are typically 5 to 6 t/ha.)

One of the fields sown by Barony Mills on Orkney in 2010, the harvest used to make beremeal (flour): for the main image, a photograph of a green crop (as inset) has been reduced to grey but with the infra-red accentuated to show the structure – the characteristic ‘leaping fish’ (www.livingfield.co.uk).
Decline

The agricultural census continued in the 1880s, after a break. By 1912, bere occupied 5.4% of the total barley, so quite a bit down as a proportion of the total from the 1850s. The total barley itself was only 20% of the area sown with oats.

During the 1920s, 1930s and up to 1944, bere was still mentioned in the census, its area was not given separately but included with barley. In the 1950s bere was no longer mentioned – barley area alone was given alongside oats, wheat and rye.

[In progress – to include recent genetic analysis]

Sources / references

[1] For a general introduction to the Living Field’s work on cereal landraces – Ancient grains at the Living Field – 10 years on

[2] Landraces: articles on this web site – What are landraces? and Landrace -1 bere, and then The bere line – rhymes with hairline.

[3] Dickson C, Dickson JH. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, UK.  

[4] The Living Field article on Peasemeal, Beremeal, 0atmeal gives a recent historical account of these three grains. Cooking tips from the Living Field’s correspondents can be found at The bereline – rhymes with hairline

[5] The Living Field article Bere in Lawson’s Synopsis summarises work by the Lawsons, seed merchants working from Edinburgh in the 1800s. Their main works are: (1) Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin, (2) Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son. Copies are available online via the Biodiversity Library and Google Books. 

  • Of the four-rowed types they write – “middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”
  • On the definition of naked: “The difference in naked and other barleys, consists in the palea, or husk, separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats.”

[6] Stace C. 1991. New Flora of the British Isles (second edition 1997). Cambridge University Press. The following appears: “Usually the three fertile florets per triplet produce 6 vertical rows of caryopses in the spike, but in some cultivars the 2 lateral rows of triplets on opposite sides of the rachis are superimposed producing four vertical rows (Four-rowed barley)”. 

[7] The Living Field article Bere, Bear, Bair, Beir, Bygg summarises the use and origin of words for bere as related in – Macleod, I. 2005. Cereal terms in the DOST record. In: Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue. Eds Kay CJ, Mackay MA, pp 73-83, Edinburgh University Press. Reproduced online in the Scottish Corpus of Text and Speech Document 840.

[8] Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books. For more at the Living Field on Wight’s observations – Great quantities of Aquavitae, Great quantities of Aquavitae II and The Mill at Atholl.

[9] The Old Statistical Account 1791-1799.

[10] The taxonomic naming of barley in not consistent. The Lawsons named four-rowed as Hordeum vulgare and the two-rowed as Hordeum distichon, as does Stace [6] who commented that they were ‘better amalgamated’. Most authorities today [e.g. 13] group them as one species, Hordeum vulgare, and distinguish the forms as sub-species.

[11] The Living Field article Thorburn’s Diagrams gives a summary of the 1850s crop census: Thorburn T.  1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. The Living Field article Bere Country gives maps of bere and barley in the 1850s based on Thorburn’s county averages. For more explanation of bushels and other measures of dry volume: Light on bushel and Grain measures in Ancient Greece.

[12] Agricultural Statistics provided by Scottish Government can be accessed at Scottish Agriculture: Economic Reports.

[13] Wallace, M., Bonhomme, V., Russell, J. et al. Searching for the Origins of Bere Barley: a Geometric Morphometric Approach to Cereal Landrace Recognition in Archaeology. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 1125–1142 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9402-2

Another comparison of bere (left) and a two-rowed barley, Golden Promise, both grown in the Living Field garden.
Contacts

All the bere and barley – except those photographed in Orkney fields – were grown at the Living Field garden at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee by Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson. Geoff Squire assembled the text above.

Photographs by squire/www.livingfield.co.uk

Author / contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk and geoff.squire@outlook.com.

[Update – minor edits and corrections, 15 May 2021]

Field Art

The Living Field is pleased to announce that the artist Jean Duncan has been commissioned to work with us during 2014 on designs and exhibits to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Living Field Garden.

Painting by Jean Duncan 2013
Painting by Jean Duncan 2013

Jean will develop ideas arising from the Living Field’s 5000 years project – the history and use of crops and other plants since the first settlers brought agriculture to these shores in the late stone age.

One result of her work will be educational material free to download from the web or available as PDF files.

You can see more about Jean’s work and her previous collaborations with the Living Field at the Jean Duncan page in the main menu.