The Herbal History Research Network
Why the network is needed
There is a lack of historical research on plants, people and practice using herbs as medicines in the past. The Herbal History Research Network (HHRN) is needed to promote a scholarly approach which is systematic, objective and developmental. Reliable sources on the history of herbal medicine can be hard to find and some historians have had to rely on a few websites and popular texts as sources for their information about plants and medicinal uses. Some medical herbalists refer to herbal traditions based on repeated claims which fit with their current beliefs but are poorly evidenced. This network is needed to connect together such people who share common interests in researching the history of herbal medicine.
The aim of the network
The HHRN brings together historical researchers, medical herbalists, and others who are active in exploring the history of herbal medicine. Their studies range from classical to medieval, early modern and modern periods in medicine. The Network aims to promote further research through seminars and other events.
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Current research into herbal history
At the present time there is limited organised and knowledgeable support for researchers in relation to the history of Western herbal medicine. A few specialist scholars are actively researching plants and their use in health contexts in a variety of historical periods. However, a much larger number of other researchers encounter medicinal plants in a range of time periods. These research studies vary from classical studies to medieval institutions to household healthcare in early modern social history and oral folklore in modern times and much else. Many study contexts also incorporate aspects of herbal history in addition to social history and the history of medicine – including food history and garden history studies. Herbal history can be found in related disciplines too, such as archaeology and ethnobotany. Herbal history is multidisciplinary and the HHRN can help to build links.
Problems in researching herbal history
One concern is that there is much uncritically sourced and repeated information, another is that there is little access to original sources which can be used in an effective way. Judging from the range of queries reported by individual specialists in this field, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about credible and reliable sources for information on medicinal plants. The resources available for various kinds of research also present particular methodological issues, for example concerning the identification of plants, reliable translations, accurate naming of plants, substitutions in different cultures, and interpretation of texts and images. Awareness of these kinds of problem is increasing and, through the HHRN, we hope to share methods, techniques and solutions.
How the HHRN started
In 2009, a small group of researchers came together to form the network with an overall aim of promoting scholarly research in herbs and herbal traditions. Founding individuals included professionally trained medical herbalists with active interests in the history of medicine, and scholars of history ranging from classical studies to medieval, early modern and modern medicine.
Activities so far
Since 2009 the group have organised and promoted a range of seminars. These events were organised to disseminate knowledge about research findings and to bring together scholars working in fields incorporating historical elements of herbal medicine. The seminars have enabled these individuals to present their knowledge and methodology concerning the sources used and the particular problems overcome (or still faced) in their research.