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The Importance of Plantago in Medieval European Medicine
By Christopher Jamali, Swetha Sundaram, Eryn Wilkinson, Fiza Baloch, and Osvaldo Sanchez Fernandez
The historical study of Plantago in European Materia Medica has played a significant role in bioprospecting. Bioprospecting is defined as the search for materials including plants, animals, or other “commercially valuable” substances. The discovery of Plantago has set the stage for current bioprospecting inquiries because learning how tangible products from our environment may be used to treat individuals changed how medicine is viewed and even procured. Natural remedies retrieved directly from our surroundings are useful in treatment without the addition of complex strategies to process synthetic material in producing a desired result.
In particular, antibiotic resistance has become a growing issue in medicine. Some infections are extremely difficult to treat with current drugs, and research on new antibiotics has not caught up to the number of resistant cases. Thus, the significance of looking at historical uses of Plantago is that herbal treatments may be a possible solution for cases of antibiotic-resistant infections. Historical studies of Plantago in European Materia Medica have focused on several species of Plantago for a range of medicinal treatments. By focusing future bioprospecting efforts on Plantago, a natural remedy for infections and injuries, the way we approach medicine may drastically change.
The genus of Plantago is studied because of its long history and present use in herbal medicine. In Bernard of Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, various species of Plantago were used for different ailments such as: wounds, skins infections, general oral diseases, abscesses in the gums, burns, nail infections, nosebleeds, digestive complaints diarrhea, liver problems, ruptured cornea, respiratory conditions, committing blood, kidney stones, and blood in the urine. It was even called a cure-all by Pedanius Dioscorides and many others. The “Nine Herbs Charm'' in the Lacnunga calls Plantago the “mother of herbs.” There are 240 different species under the genus of Plantago but this project mainly focused on Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata as those are the two species that are particularly active in the literature.
Current scholarship focusing on Lilium medicinae has discovered the medicinal Plantago major and Plantago lanceolata, and some of the earliest herbal collections also focused on Plantago major and Plantago minor (later was also called Plantago media, but is the species of Plantago lanceolata, which is different from the accepted species of Plantago media today). For instance, sources such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (50-70 CE), Leonhart Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium, 1542), and later translations and commentaries of De Materia Medica all refer to Plantago major and Plantago minor. Other anecdotal references mention the Plantago species as a whole or by common names, such as waybroad and hoary plantain.
However, further research should be performed on the other species of Plantago. Since the two main species are highly useful in treating a variety of injuries and illnesses, the accepted species Plantago media may also have medicinal uses according to this recent research, more studies should be done to examine the medicinal properties of the remaining species under the genus of Plantago. Future research could also investigate the best method of extracting aucubin from Plantago leaves, as it is the main active compound in Plantago for its antibiotic activity. Additional testing can also be conducted on the Plantago species in combination with modern treatments as a potential solution for antibiotic resistance to increase effectiveness against novel illnesses.
WORKS CITEDConnelly, Erin. 2018. “A Case Study of Plantago in the Treatment of Infected Wounds in the Middle English Translation of Bernard of Gordon’s Lilium medicinae.” New Approaches to Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe, 126-140. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.
Dioscorides, Pedanius. 1555. De Materia Medica. Translated by Andrés de Laguna. From World Digital Library: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10632/.
Fierascu, R. C., Fierascu, I., Ortan, A., & Paunescu, A. (2021). Plantago media L.-Explored and Potential Applications of an Underutilized Plant. Plants (Basel, Switzerland), 10(2) :, 265. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants10020265
Fuchs, Leonhart. 1542. “De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes: Maximis Impensis Et Uigiliis Elaborati, Adiectis Earundem Uiuis Plusquam Quingentis....” University of Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed June 1, 2021. https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-SEL-00002-00081/347.
Plantago lanceolata from the Wellcome Collection
by Swetha Sundaram
In this image, there is text on the left-hand side with the image of Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) on the right. The plant is not drawn in detail, only a general outline is provided along with very few discerning features. One of these main features includes the stemmed bristle part of the plants that are seen scattered among the broad leaves. Another important note to make of the image are the scorpion, snake, and spider depicted beneath the plant. The significance of this “notation” is to highlight the specific healing properties of Plantain (Plantago lanceolata). It was observed that this plant is effective in treating venomous bites from scorpions, snakes, and spiders, which is why they were drawn as part of the image. The purpose behind this overall book was to compile all the European medieval knowledge gathered on animal, plant, and mineral substances used for wound treatment. The two main authors of this piece are Matthaeus Platearius, who worked on the text portion of the work, and then Robinet Testard, who gathered the illustrations. Platearius provided information “on the nature, healing properties, secondary qualities and therapeutic use of samples obtained from plants, metals and precious stones”. The illustrations are unique in that they are considered to be of “diagrammatic nature” or not being closely depicted as other realistic work from the Renaissance “back to nature” movement (Moleiro).
By examining different species of Plantago, all the plants were drawn with broad, green levels and the occasional bristle-like stems. It is effective when applied directly to the wound in pulp/paste form or even ingested as a juice. Because of the similarity in physical appearance and chemical properties that promote healing, we argue that the Plantago species studied are closely related (MAMcIntosh 2019).
WORKS CITEDMAMcIntosh. 2019. The Art and Knowledge in Medieval Herbals. Brewminate. https://brewminate.com/the-art-and-knowledge-in-medieval-herbals/.Moleiro. n.d. The Book of Simple Medicines National Library of Russia, St Petersburg. M. Moleiro Editor. https://www.moleiro.com/en/books-of-medicine/the-book-of-simple-medicines.html.