Sunday, August 15, 2010
For many centuries Monastic medicine was the only hope for the sick -- today modern researchers are tapping the old knowledge.
Plants from the herb book of Leonhart Fuchs from the year 1545. The representation is of high quality botanically speaking.
The powerful towers of the Church of St. Michael reach into the sky. They overlook the cloister garden of the Oberzeller Franciscans. Sister Leandra Ulsamer grows lavender, sage and hyssop. The herbs grow faster in the hot summer weeks than at other times so that the Franciscans have all their hands full to bring in the rich harvest.
"Primroses and lemon balm are ripe in the early part of the year for our herb trees", reported Sister Leandra. "We have harvested enormous quantities of St. John's Wort, mullen, peppermint and sage."
The Sisters started this garden 21 years ago with a small corner. The sisters will plant the herbs for their evening tea. Today their herb garden in Oberzell by Wurzburg with around 100 different types of herb is one of the largest in Germany. "And every year we add four, five plants onto it," said Sister Leandra. Right now she has introduced the new fine leafed olive herb that helps with indigestion.
Sister Leandra went to another patch and cut some twigs out. "The hyssop will bloom in a bit a very beautiful blue, its oil is an ideal treatment for bronchitis and dry cough", she declared. The herb belongs to the mysterious plants of the ages. Already in a prescription at the medicine school of Salerno in the year 1066 it reads: "Blue hyssop clears the chest of harmful mucus."
Modern science is also interested in the medicinal knowledge of the monks. The historian of medicine Johannes G. Mayer has worked for 10 years together with Sister Leandra. His "Cloister Medicine Research Group" at the University of Wurzburg has systematically harvested its way through the medieval sources.
Are there any surprising discoveries? "That is the important discovery, that they used penicillin-like stuff in the cloister medicine, he said. "With a mixture of moldy cheese, honey and portions of sheep dung was put together and applied directly to the wound. Unfortunately, we could not reconstitute this, to discover what cheese was used."
For the astonishing prescription comes from the Lorscher Arzneibuch (Lorsch Medical Book), which dates from the time of Charlemagne in the year 795. This valuable Codex was first rediscovered in 1989. A donation of the Pharmacy Company Boehringer Ingelheim made possible the translation and scientific research.
The existing work from the Imperial Abbey Lorsch at Worms contains around 150 pages and 500 prescriptions, which astonishingly comes in part from Antiquity. The unknown author made the admonition from biblical texts, the duty to help the sick by means of God-given healing plants.
The so-called cloister medicine had its flowering between the 8th and 13th Centuries. The art had been lost through the chaotic upheavals: the migrations, in the final collapse of the Roman Empire (476) and the plague of the time of Justinian, which came from Egypt to wide parts of the Mediterranean and European homelands. Up to a quarter of the population died by the ravaging epidemic, which broke out again in 770. People lived in the most primitive of circumstances.
Early Christianity perceived in the fury of the plague, war and the migrations the unmistakable hand of God. The ancient healing arts were lost in great part during these dark times. [Obviously, if he was copying the herbology texts, they must not have been lost. Most historians view the Dark Ages as an indeterminate period starting not long before St. Benedict's birth and ending around the millennium.] It was the monk, Benedict of Nursia (480-547), in whom the flames of knowledge burned again. At Monte Casino near Naples he founded a Cloister (Monastery) where he established his revolutionary [sic] rule.
Most Europeans were incapable of reading and writing. The monks however were obliged by Benedict to read and copy the old writings, to which also belonged the pre-Christian works of Medicine. Benedict rejected the old Christian teaching [Where that teaching is, this author doesn't say.], that all sickness is sent from God. "The care for the sick is a duty for everyone; one should serve them, as though they were Christ Himself," wrote the founder of the Benedictine Order. He established with this the foundation of cloister medicine.
Pope Gregory I, called "The Great" (540-604), was very impressed with Benedict's Rule, that he declared it binding for the entire Roman Church. Gregory I even turned his parents Villa on Monte Celio near Rome into a Benedictine Cloister.
Already there were healing herb gardens in all of the Cloisters of Europe, which increased even more the healing capabilities of the monks in the infirmaries. The Emperor Charlemagne the Great (747-814) undertook the mission to care for the sick in his Empire and ordered the foundation of herb gardens for his cities.
The last great medicinal author of the high middle ages was the mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Abbess of the Benedictine Cloister on the Rupertsberg by Bingen on the Rhine. Her work "Physica" (Natural History) and "Casae et Curae" (Cause and Cures) have been discovered in recent years. Critics doubt in any case, that the writings are authentic, there is nothing original from her time.
After Hildegard the Cloister slowly lost its monopoly in the healing arts. Worldly Universities like the school at Salerno were founded, which contains the legend that it was founded by a Greek, a Latin, an Arab and a Jew.
At the University of Wurzburg, Mayer and his team of chemists, pharmacists and doctors have identified around 600 healing plants of cloister medicine. "What then can be taken away from this is for the manufacturer to decide", he said. The Research Group for Cloister Medicine has been financially supporter by Pharmaceutical Company GlaxoSmithKline and the Martin Bauer Group, who want to supply the herbs and extracts for other producers.
"Germany is the worldwide leader in the analysis of the contents of medicinal plants", says Medicinal Historian Mayer. That corresponds with the good reputation of the plants' healing properties in the country. Since 2004 a few cases have been filed against St. John's Wort in cases of depression. Otherwise the past year has seen, according to IMS Pharma Scope, a value of 796 Million Euro sold in Pharmacy Phytopharmaka alone, which was in large part the result of private business. They were distributed to Drug stores, Reform homes and supermarkets. The most popular are the cough and cold remedies, heart medicine and cancer as well as stomach and digestion.
"For the most part it is still not clear which stuff is exactly responsible for the effect, sometimes there are in any case, several," said Mayer. There has been great progress, however, with valerian and hops. "With valerian it is the roots, with hops the umbels, which produce a completely valuable mixture of materials."
The ligands in the valerian have an effect similar to caffeine or nicotine, they effect like the hormonal material adenosin, explained Mayer. "A person can drive a car with it and take a test, if one is very upset. That is the ideal remedy, to calm down." One can sleep better, but it doesn't have the side effects like many other synthetic sleep tablets, which can paralyze the organism.
"A harmless sleep", says Mayer, "is very important, especially for cell regeneration and for the assimilation of the experiences of the day. Valerian does not afterward disturb these important bodily functions." When you actually compare hops and passion flowers, then these sleep and calming remedies are clearly superior to synthetic drugs.
While modern medicine can isolate individual substances, nature offers an entire concert of ingredients in place of single instruments, Mayer insists. We almost know that from the everyday. Caffeine operates completely differently when it is applied as a single isolated substance, than as Coffee, Tea or consuming a Guarana plant. "We believe it is senseless to isolate a material which then, often does not have the complex effect which the complete plants have, as clinical studies show.
Sage slows the building of neurotransmitter acetylcholin, so the patient with Alzheimers or Dementia could profit. In any case, there are still more precise studies of the dosage which have yet to follow, sage also contains the nerve poison thujon. [An ingredient in absinthe, yum, yum] The saying, "whatever is effective has side-effects" doesn't just apply to synthetic medications, but also some medicinal plants have poisonous ingredients.
For this reason before the healing of sickness it is always the healthy lifestyle which is important. And here also Mayer has learned from the Rule of Benedict of Nursia -- whose attribution one finds in the English word for "nurse".
"Ora et labora et lege -- pray, work and read", the motto of the Benedictine order is also for the Wurzburger Medicine Historian of greatest importance. "That comes from an actual relationship between sleep and waking, from work and rest, it is important also for nourishment, from which imbalance I can be easily effected by illnesses," said Mayer. The mid-day nap is a central component of life in a Cloister, whose positive effect for modern sleep research has been established, "that's definitely been frowned upon, but after a little nap you are clearly more alert and capable."
One can also read this in the advice of the Middle Ages as from a modern Fitness expert, explained Mayer. "Don't eat too late. Meat of mammals like pork or beef were only intended for Feast Days and sickness. Otherwise one ate fish and poultry."
Even alcohol was allowed in small quantities, as Mayer reports, in the rule of the Benedictines it says that the Abbott should take care, that every monk gets one roman measure of wine per day, which is about 0.27 Liters thus about a quarter Liter. That is the exact quantity which is recommended by modern medicine as foreseeable tolerable.
But for a swallow of wine it is in these days too early. Sister Leandra takes a swallow of wine after lunch, prays an hour and finishes with by taking a nap.
Now there are waiting in the garden around 40 white-haired visitors. These also she shows her blooming glory, St, John's Wort, the healing herb and powerful blooming stripped blossoms. "it is beautiful that there are always more people taking interest in what good the herbs can do", says Sister Leandra.
And perhaps she will betray her recipe for overeating, to bring the life's spirits back into swing again: "For that you need some stems of rosemary in the best Bordeaux wine, leave to set for a few days and take a little glass with every meal." Get well.