The oldest surviving English manuscript of botanical medicine is the Saxon ‘Leech Book of Bald’, which was written between 900 and 950 by a scribe named Cild under the direction of Bald, who was a friend of king Alfred the Great. (‘Leech’ is an old English word meaning healer). This early text contains a mixture of herbalism, magic, shamanism and tree lore, and describes 500 plants, their properties, and how they can be used in amulets, baths or taken internally.
When the Crusaders returned from the Holy Wars they brought back rose water, perfumes, aromatics and remedies that were previously unknown. Fragrant plants became more popular, with aromatic herb garlands decorating homes and rose water being used to wash the hands of those who could afford it. The availability and range of aromatic medicines continued to increase over the next few hundred years, but the knowledge of the Eastern physicians had not yet begun to arrive on our shores.
During the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe, medicine was almost entirely governed by the Catholic church. They considered illness and disease to be a punishment from God, and the standard form of treatment administered by the priests was prayer, and perhaps a session of blood–letting. When the ‘Black Death’ first arrived in 1347, it was devastating. Almost 50% of London’s inhabitants succumbed within the first year, and up 40% of the entire population of Europe would die within 3 years. The basic Anglo–Saxon botanical remedies such as wearing sachets of dried lavender and amulets of thyme proved no match for this deadly pandemic. In 1597 John Gerard published ‘Herball, or General Historie of Plantes’ which is now considered a herbal classic. Although the very first essential oils such as juniper, lavender, rosemary and sage had arrived in Britain around this time, he makes no mention of them. Gerards book proved highly influential, and the apothecaries which had previously only sold the medicines prescribed by doctors, began to to prepare and compound their own medicines too. New style apothecaries that dispensed medicines and attended to the patient began appearing throughout England. But not quickly enough.
The second visitation of the Black Death in 1603 hit almost as hard as the first, and virtually every available aromatic was burned in houses and on the streets to keep the pestilence at bay. Benzoin, styrax, frankincense and various spice oils were all used to prevent the spread of this deadly disease, but to little effect. It was reported the only people not to succumb to the plague were the workers involved in aromatics and perfumery, and this is undoubtedly due to the highly antiseptic properties of the essential oils.
Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) was one of the most influential herbalists who also introduced the concept of astrological herbalism. In his most famous work, ‘The English Physician’ (1652), Culpeper’s descriptions of herbs, oils and their uses were intermixed with astrology. Other notable herbalists such as Joseph Miller and John Parkinson would also leave a rich botanical legacy, paving the way for later generations to expand upon. The essential oil industries throughout Europe flourished, providing oils for the pharmaceutical, flavour and fragrance industries.
Champions of modern aromatherapy
The term ‘Aromatherapie’ was coined by a French chemist named Rene–Maurice Gattefossé (1881–1950) who studied the medicinal properties of essential oils for many years whilst working in his families perfumery business. He had the opportunity to personally test his innovative theories when an explosion in his laboratory caused a severe burn to his hand.
He plunged his hand into a vessel of pure lavender oil which immediately reduced the swelling and helped accelerate the healing process. Most impressively, he was left with no scar. He was a prolific writer covering many subjects, but it was his passion for researching essential oils that eventually led to the publication in 1937 of his ground–breaking book, ‘Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales’.
A French doctor named Jean Valnet followed the work of Gattefossé, and during World War 2 whilst working as a surgical assistant he used essential oils of chamomile, clove, lemon and thyme to treat gangrene and battle wounds. After graduating as a surgeon at the end of the war, Valnet continued to use essential oils to treat illnesses, and was the first ever to use them to treat psychiatric conditions. His inspired book, ‘Aromathérapie – Traitment des Maladies par les Essence de Plantes’ was released in 1964, and in 1980 translated into English and released under the new title of ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy’, putting aromatherapy on the English map.
Madame Marguerite Maury (1895–1968) was an Austrian born biochemist who became interested in what was to become aromatherapy, after reading a book written in 1838 by Dr. Chabenes called, ‘Les Grandes Possibilités par les Matières Odoriferantes’. This was the man who would later become the teacher of Gattefossé. Her influential book, ‘Le Capital Jeunesse’ was released in France in 1961 but sadly did not initially receive the acclaim that it deserved. In 1964 it was released in Britain under the title of ‘The Secret of Life and Youth’ and has at last been recognised for the great work that it was.
After her death, the work of Maury continued through her protege, Danièle Ryman, who is now herself considered an authority on aromatherapy. The work of Valnet and Gattefossé stimulated and influenced Englishman Robert Tisserand, who in 1977 wrote the very first aromatherapy book in English entitled, ‘The Art of Aromatherapy’. This book became the inspiration and reference for virtually every future author on the subject for almost two decades.
Today we are at last unfolding the final secrets of the Egyptian mysteries, revealing aromatherapy to be one of the finest ways to combat the detrimental effects of stress, restoring the beauty, tranquility and harmony of Nature into the lives of everyone.