Monday, December 3, 2018

'Collecting Women', Exhibition Rosny Farm Art Centre, Rosny Tasmania 15 November till 9 December 2018

Collecting Women
Chantale Delrue

When I grew up, we seldom visited the doctor. My mother grew herbs for common ailments and I remember the books of the famous Dutch herbalist Mellie Uylderd and of Doctor Vogel took pride of place in her library. I learned basic herbalism from my mum and am still learning every day. Nature is forever fascinating!


Since the beginning of human history women have been gatherers. Traditionally women collected herbs and administered them through food and medicinal preparations. They had the knowledge of plants, which also gave them a certain power. Later the socalled ‘physical’ herb-women collected plants and sold them to quacks or apothecaries who in turn sold them at exorbitant prices. 

While learned men studied science and medicine at institutions, prohibited to women, it was often the women who had the practical knowledge of the properties of plants. Scientist such as Joseph Banks, Philibert Commerson and Frederick von Mueller, who got credit for their ‘discoveries’ and gave them Latin names, acknowledged that they got some of their knowledge from (unnamed !) women.

Herbal medicine is the oldest form of therapy. The largest percentage of the world’s population still depends on it.  In Western societies however, church and the College of Physicians had great influence and tried to ban the use of herbs. People became more and more reliant on medical institutions and as a result much of knowledge about the use herbs, traditionally transmitted orally by women, has been lost to the mainstream population.

'Collecting Women', Exhibition Rosny Farm Art Centre, Rosny Tasmania 15 November till 9 December 2018


Artwork  in exhibition 'Collecting Women' at the Pharmacy room of the Rosny Farm Art Centre

Herbalism in Western society

The Inquisition, which started in the 12thcentury aimed to combat heresy. The persecution of witches, of which the large majority were women, became prominent between the 15thand 18thcentury; many of these women were of a low socioeconomic background, often old, or/and widows who worked as healers or midwives. The possession of plant ointments and oils was enough to accusations of witchcraft and grounds for trial. 

When the flurry of the Inquisition died down in the 17thcentury, even women with a household full of servants were expected to be able to care for the sick as doctors and apothecaries were often few and far between. They were the first line of defense. The lady of the manor might have had a special distilling room or a still in her kitchen where she made perfumes and herbal tinctures, salves and ointments. She used plants that were growing in her garden or nearby in the countryside. With the knowledge she inherited from her mother and passed on to her daughters, this woman might have saved countless lives as many of the learned doctors with their heroic medicine, purges and bloodletting often did more harm then good. 

The 18thand 19thcenturies saw a downturn in the use of plant medicines, as more people started living in cities as the Royal College of Physicians gained influence, male dominated professional medicine became the norm and the more gentle herbals were replaced with stronger more poisonous drugs.

At the outbreak of the First World War in England, like in the United States and possibly also in Australia there was a shortage of medicines. This produced a renewed interest in the growing, collecting and use of herbs. Maud Grieve and Hilda Leyel where the two main instigators that put this gentle green revolution back on the front stage.

Maud Grieve was born in London but lived in India for about 20 years, where she learned a about herbal medicine, before returning to England. An avid gardener she became involved with the war effort by turning her garden into a medicinal plant farm and nursery. Maud also started giving courses on how to cultivate the plants. Her enthusiasm encouraged many people to start growing herbs. Hilda Leyel was an expert herbalist who founded the society of herbalists and started Culpeper house in London. These two women were a huge influence on the spreading of the herbal lore in the early twentieth century in England and beyond.

During the last few decades, there has been a great resurgence of interest in herbal medicine in the West. Big pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking into medicinal properties of herbs. The herbal product industry, with its scientific research and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes is a huge and growing business. At the same time there is an upsurge of interest especially in the younger generations to regain the knowledge of properties of the actual plants and their uses.

'Collecting Women', Exhibition Rosny Farm Art Centre, Rosny Tasmania 15 November till 9 December 2018



Book of Herbs and Organs, at 'Collecting Women' exhibition at the Pharmacy room at The cottage of the Rosiny Farm Art Centre