Merlin Unwin Books 2014, 256 pp.

ISBN 978-1-906122-51-5.

Reviewed by Anne Martin


This book is beautifully presented. Part coffee table glossy gorgeousness (even down to the purple satin book mark), part serious reference book, The Herbalist’s Bible is a translation of a description of fifty of the 3,800 herbs outlined in John Parkinson’s ‘Theatricum Botanicum’. Parkinson, master herbalist to Charles 1, published his ‘Magnum Opus’ in 1640. Its size, some 1,788 pages, meant that it was never reprinted and is now an extremely valuable rare book.  The recent publication of The Herbalist’s Bible makes this valuable contribution to the literature of Western Herbalism accessible once more.

Unique amongst many herbal reference books, The Herbalist’s Bible contains reproductions of the original manuscript complete with detailed line drawings, alongside a modern translation, including descriptions of therapeutic applications illustrated with high quality photographs, making plant identification easy.

Those who enjoy history will love both the introduction to the Theatricum Botanicum and the brief life history of John Parkinson, including his roles as apothecary, gardener and herbalist. The appendix on Apothecary Prices in 1639 and reproduction of sample pages from the original work are intriguing.

I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Parkinson’s original description of the characteristics and medicinal use of each herb alongside an account of the remedies’ modern applications.  Herbs are described in terms of whether they are considered hot or cold (an important consideration in early herbalism) as well as their main actions on relevant body systems.  Safety considerations are included and the glossary of Middle English terms, such as ‘falling sickness’ for epilepsy, is useful for those who want to compare Parkinson’s information with modern usage.

The entries from the original manuscript are thought provoking. What, for example, is meant by “is good to represse the hurtful longings of women with childe” (entry for ‘Sea Weede’)? Unfortunately the translation gives no clue. I was not always convinced of the accuracy of parts of the translation.  In the section on ‘Savourie’ (Savoury) Parkinson’s entry states that a poultice applied “giveth ease to the Sciatica or hippe goute”. This is translated as meaning that a poultice of Savoury will to ease nervous pain, gout or Sciatica. My understanding is that “hippe gout” is Parkinson’s term for what we would today call Sciatica.

Putting these quibbles aside, as practicing herbalists the authors know their stuff. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in both historical and contemporary uses of a wide selection of herbal remedies still relevant to today’s maladies.

You are unlikely to find a better designed book which will appeal to both amateur and professional herbalists. It would make an excellent gift for someone interested in plants and/or alternative/complementary medicine. You might even like to try the original recipe for ‘Simple Chilli Bread’.