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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 7th June 2011

I suppose we’ve all got our heroes. Those people who we believe played a vital role in how the world works. It was perfectly clear from the first part of ‘Botany: A Blooming History’, shown on BBC4 this evening, that for Timothy Walker, the presenter, John Ray was such a hero.

The first programme was, supposedly, about how botany was created and how ‘the mysteries of the plant kingdom’ were ‘unlocked’. The approach was to suggest that the idea of plant classification started with John Ray in the middle of the 17th century bringing an end to beliefs based purely on superstition before following the story through to Linnaeus and his binomial system.

Now, I realise there are time constraints on TV programmes and I know some simplification is necessary for the general audience but really… No Theophrastrus. No Dioscorides. No John Gerard. No Fuchs. And no William Turner, who is often called the ‘Father of English Botany’ to distinguish him from Theophrastus who is given the epithet ‘Father of Botany’.

If anyone really wants to know about how plants got their names, they would be much better advised to read Anna Pavord’s excellent ‘The Naming of Names’. It is 403 pages of text and she brings John Ray in on page 372 with the words ‘the final protagonist of this story’. So, Ray is not where it all starts, he’s pretty much where it all ends.

This idea that it was only in the 17th century that we got clever enough to move beyond superstition does a great injustice to our ancestors.

Chelidonium majus, greater celandine

Take the Chelidonium majus, greater celandine. It was sometimes called swallow wort because of a claim made by Pliny that swallows would use a little of the plant juice to restore the sight of their blind young. But, it is also called wart wort because that same juice is caustic and was used to burn off worts. That’s not something you would want in your eyes.

Nonetheless for a long time it was recommended as a treatment for inflammations and other diseases of the eye. Anglo-Saxon medical books give recipes for its use that involve gentle heating for some time to remove the caustic effect. During this heating it is necessary to recite an incantation or the remedy won’t work. It’s easy to dismiss that as superstition or mumbo jumbo but that approach forgets that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t have watches or clocks so you couldn’t say ‘simmer for 3 minutes’. Saying ‘recite this thrice while simmering’ was a way to set a time for the heating to have an effect. Furthermore, I believe, having that recitation use strange or foreign words was a way of enduring a reasonably consistent speed in the speaker.

It really is time ‘experts’ stopped branding our predecessors as ‘superstitious’ and letting that be a synonym for ‘stupid’ and focussed on how much they did know about how the world worked and how much their efforts have shaped our knowledge. In we don’t do that, people in 300 years will be calling us ‘superstitious’.