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The surprising origins of herbal medicine


Where does Herbal Medicine come from?

Herbal Medicine has been used for centuries in every culture around the world. Most of our modern Western Herbal Medicine has its origins in Europe and North America. But there's one wee country that is often overlooked, yet it arguably made an important contribution. That country is Wales (or Cymru as the locals would call it). And who would have thought that a tiny village in Wales called Myddfai, with a population of a mere 400 people, was the birthplace of some of the Herbal Medicine practices used today?


The Physicians of Myddfai created a medical practice that was renowned throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. During the Medieval period, Wales was the centre of medicine in Europe. These physicians started a medical lineage that was to last eight centuries. Such was their skill, knowledge and fame, that a beautiful legend was born to explain their origins.


The Woman of Llyn y Fan Fach

In the 12th century, there lived a young man in Myddfai. He was out tending his flock on the eve of Nos Calan Gaef (the first day of winter) at a small lake called Llyn y Fan Fach (Lake of the Small Hill) when he was enchanted by a beautiful young girl sitting just on the surface of the water. He fell in love with her and tried to woo her. After several attempts, he succeeded, and eventually married her.


They had a long and happy marriage and she bore him many children. But being immortal, she one day felt compelled to return to live in the lake once more. When her sons grew to be men, she appeared to her eldest son Riwhallon and to him bequeathed her knowledge of herb-lore, and bade him and his lineage to heal the sick. She appeared to her sons many times after to show them where to find various healing plants and what their medicinal properties were.


And so it was that her sons became the Physicians of Myddfai, the most famous healers in all of Briton and Cymru. They served in the Royal Welsh court and treated the aristocracy.


This family of herbalists pioneered the use of herbal medicines in a most useful way, their work being much influenced by Hippocrates (he is often mentioned in their works). The physicians were familiar with Greek medicine due to Britain's trade with the Phoenicians. This family of Welsh herbalists made Wales / Cymru the centre of the most advanced medicine in Medieval Europe.


The Physicians of Myddfai wrote their Materia Medica & Medical Maxims in Welsh. These writings are now housed in the British Museum and Jesus College in Oxford. More was added to their manuscripts in the late 15th century by 'Hywel the Physisican', a direct descendant of Rhiwallon. The Materia Medica included over 175 herbs and 188 herbal recipes, lifestyle recommendations, and methods of diagnosis. Many of these are incredibly similar to Naturopathic methods used today.


Wales has a strong medical tradition, and as well as the Druids, it had many 'wise women' who treated the common folk. The tradition of wise women was so predominant in Wales that the image we see today of witches in tall black hats in fact comes directly from traditional Welsh costume. Also called 'hedge witches', these healers would pick the herbs and healing plants from hedgerows, meadows, and woodland according to the phases of the Sun, moon, starcraft, and Celtic Wheel of the Year.

Welsh herbal and medical history continued with the Welsh king Hywel Dda, AD 930. This monarch laid down a code of laws, some of which included how Physicians in the Royal Court should be treated, and how much to pay them. Examples included:

  • for an application of red ointment, 12 pence

  • for an application of herbs to a swelling, 4 legal pence

The South Wales Echo publication 'The History of Wales' by Gwynfor Evans states that Hywel Dda's laws "are the fruit of a rich, ample, and well-ordered culture." The laws of Wales of this time, written in both old Welsh and Latin, were rich in poetry and prose, as is the Welsh way. Here also must be mentioned 'The Mabinogion', a stunning masterpiece written in the Dark Ages that is the oldest prose literature of stories in Great Britain. (And not many British people know that!) It tells the tales of Arthur, Bran the Blest, faeries, changelings, women made of flowers, giants, and of course Wales' greatest herbal legend of all, The Woman of Llyn y Fan Fach.


Want to learn more?

This article has only touched on some of the amazing aspects of Herbal Medicine. If you want to learn more about natural health, Switch on Health has several short courses and accredited qualifications that you will love, including Advanced Diplomas in Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Naturopathy and Homeopathy. Browse the short courses or learn more about our accredited Advanced Diploma programs here: https://switchonhealth.learnworlds.com/start


Article by Carol Hannington

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