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A History of Herbalism (Hardback)

Cure, Cook and Conjure

P&S History Health Gardening Food and Drink

By Emma Kay
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 224
Illustrations: Integrated mono images
ISBN: 9781399008952
Published: 30th June 2022

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Food historian Emma Kay tells the story of our centuries-old relationship with herbs. From herbalists of old to contemporary cooking, this book reveals the magical and medicinal properties of your favourite plants in colourful, compelling detail.

At one time, every village in Britain had a herbalist. A History of Herbalism investigates the lives of women and men who used herbs to administer treatment and knew the benefit of each. Meet Dr Richard Shephard of Preston, who cultivated angelica on his estate in the eighteenth century for the sick and injured; or Nicholas Culpeper, a botanist who catalogued the pharmaceutical benefits of herbs for early literary society.

But herbs were not only medicinal. Countless cultures and beliefs as far back as prehistoric times incorporated herbs into their practices: paganism, witchcraft, religion and even astrology. Take a walk through a medieval ‘physick’ garden, or Early Britain, and learn the ancient rituals to fend off evil powers, protect or bewitch or even attract a lover.

The wake of modern medicine saw a shift away from herbal treatments, with rituals and spells shrouded with superstition as the years wore on. The author reveals how herbs became more culinary rather than medicinal including accounts of recent trends for herbal remedies as lockdown and the pandemic leads us to focus more on our health and wellbeing.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

By the time I finished reading the title, "A History of Herbalism: Cure, Cook and Conjure", I was already clicking my mouse to grab this book, which I did *not* set aside to read later. I gleefully dove into it immediately. Seeing as how I love history, and am a forager and user of medicinal and edible herbs, how could I not? The cover art is also enticing and delightful.

The book is divided into three distinct sections, so I'll talk about each of them in turn. Don't skip over the introduction though, it's packed with historic information that will give you some background and set the stage for the chapters to follow. Also, keep in mind that this book focuses mainly on British herbalism history.

Chapter 1: From 'Witches' to Botanists: British Pioneers, Popularists and Everyday Herbalists
Here's an absorbing mix of herbal medicine history, quotes from very old books, illustrations, photographs, and enough trivia to give you conversation fodder for the rest of your life. Those interested in Women's Studies will learn about the early history of white witches, midwives, and healers. It should come as no surprise that women excelled as herbalists, yet were often punished for practicing those skills. I also enjoyed learning more about quackery, herb illustrators, and the first hospitals.

Chapter 2: Magic and Medicine
Now we get into usage guides, one herb at a time. Many ancient incantations are included. I was amused by the entry on chamomile, which in part read, "Traditionally, it was grown in alleys and walkways and on the banks of rivers, as it was understood that the more chamomile plants were pressed and trodden down, the more abundantly they would grow." My own driveway is proof positive that this is the truth!

Chapter 3: Culinary Transition
This section covers the British use and importing of herbs for cooking. There's a wealth of medieval recipes, including the old medieval spellings - almaund mylke, anyone? Modern translations are included with each historic recipe. These are fascinating to read from so many angles - history, language and how it changes over time, the ingredients used, what properties were attributed to the ingredients... I was quite absorbed in this section (that's the foodie in me, I'm sure) and enjoyed reading every word. Oh, and I think Boiled Green Dumplings actually sound delicious, and I may attempt a version of them very soon.

For the academically inclined, there's heaps of cited references at the back of the book, and a large bibliography. This book should also be of great interest to authors of historical fiction, as a tool to help bring their stories to life.

NetGalley, Lori Alden Holuta

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An herbal history written by a food historian. This is exactly something I find utterly intriguing, and I eagerly accepted the opportunity to read an advance copy of this.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by my Italian grandfather’s herb and produce garden - and helped him regularly, learning from his example and words. When I was playing alone, I would make potions. As I grew up, I studied herbs under a mentor for my own benefit and use, and once I became a parent and my youngest child was diagnosed with severe food allergies, given an epi-pen, and that one of her allergens would be so frequently found in many topical products, it was necessary to start making our skin care products and cooking everything from scratch. I started studying again, and became a certified herbalist over ten years ago. I’ve continued with my studies and recipe creation. What started out of need has become a pleasure.

I came to this book from the viewpoint that I am always learning; I will never know enough of the earth and what she gifts us. And this book was fantastic. Thoroughly and wonderfully fantastic. While I did find the history in the beginning of the book to read a little dry; all the rest was fascinating, including the recipes. This is a book I’ll purchase to put in my bookshelf alongside my collection of helpful herbal tomes.

All in all, this is a commendable, excellent resource, and one I especially recommend to herbal students, fans of history, other people in the world who are as obsessed as I am with really old recipes, and gardeners.

NetGalley, Michelle Smith

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I love this! I'm off to buy a hardcopy right now. Amazing information about herbs, with their history and significance. Very nice as a gift and I love an engaging and educational read. Will be picking this up off my shelf often.

NetGalley, Amina Benhenni

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an fascinating book, it certainly covers herbs and herbalism. I found the old recipes especially interesting but no so sure they would go down well with the family. The diverse references to different historical periods were so well written. I learnt a lot. Will continue to dip in and out of this book.

NetGalley, Karen Hammond

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is an absolute joy to read and a fountain of information. If you ever need to know more about herbs and their origins then this the book for you. I will be rereading this quite a few times and buying for gifts. Well done Emma Kay.

NetGalley, Jane MacKinnon

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve read so much on herbs and am a clinically certified aromatherapist, but this history and the broader spectrum of information in this book really makes this like any other book I have ever ready on herbalism. Just like Christianity was based on Pagan beliefs, customs and holidays, here too we have examples of how herbs have fared over time and have come back around again.

If you are even slightly interested in this topic, this book will be a great read for you. if you’re into herbs and history, then this book is REALLY going to be a great read for you. I am highly impressed with the content and it will have a place on my bookshelf for years to come.

NetGalley, Cindi Austin

This is quite a comprehensive view of herbalism throughout the ages! Anyone who's interested in both history and herbal medicine will find this a fascinating read. It's a no-nonsense dive into the past views, pioneers, and uses of herbs in healing.

NetGalley, Jessica Kougl

About Emma Kay

Emma is a post-graduate historian and former senior museum worker. Now a food historian, author, and prolific collector of Kitchenalia, she is a member of The Guild of Food Writers. Her articles have appeared in publications including BBC History Magazine, The Daily Express, Daily Mail, Times Literary Supplement and The Victorian Review. She has featured on numerous national and international radio programmes and podcasts and contributed historic food research for several TV production companies.


During 2021 Emma cooked and presented a selection of historic dishes from the Regency era to accompany a new CTVC series for Channel 4 and was interviewed and filmed demonstrating Medieval cooking techniques for a documentary series on KBS-TV in South Korea.


In 2020 Emma created a Roman banquet and presented the origins and influences of Roman cooking for Channel 5 series Walking Britain’s Roman Roads.


At the end of 2019 Emma appeared as an expert contributor across several episodes of Channel 5 series, Britain’s Lost Battlefields.


In 2018 she appeared in a ten-part series for the BBC and Hungry Gap Productions, The Best Christmas Food Ever and on BBC Countryfile, co-presenting a feature exploring the heritage of the black pear with Anita Rani.


Published titles


Dining with the Georgians (Amberley Publishing, 2014), Dining with the Victorians (Amberley Publishing,2015), Cooking up History: Chefs of the Past (Prospect Books, 2017), Vintage Kitchenalia (Amberley Publishing,2017), More than a Sauce: A Culinary History of Worcestershire (Amberley Publishing,2018), Stinking Bishops and Spotty Pigs: A History of Gloucestershire's Food and Drink (Amberley Publishing, 2019).


A History of British Baking (Pen & Sword Books, 2020)


A Dark History of Chocolate (Pen & Sword Books, 2021)

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