Inspiring innovation from tradition

The roles of genders in medicine and, particularly, medicinal plants has been–and still is– debated among historians, ethnobotanists, ethnopharmacologists, and others. In his several books on abortifacients, the historian of medieval medicine John M. Riddle has suggested that knowledge of medicinal plants–particularly abortifacients and other herbs related to women’s health–was shared among women, without necessarily circulating within the wider society. Ethnobotanists and ethnopharmacologists have approached the topic of gendering gardens of medicinal plants. A recent example is the following article recently published by a large team of Spanish scientists: Victoria Reyes-García, Sara Vila, Laura Aceituno-Mata, Laura Calvet-Mir, Teresa Garnatje, Alexandra Jesch, Juan José Lastra, Montserrat Parada, Montserrat Rigat, Joan Vallè, and Manuel Pardo-De-Santayana 2010. “Gendered Homegardens; A Study in Three Mountain Areas of the Iberian Peninsula”, Economic Botany 64(3):235-247. On the basis of their samples (however limited they are), the authors suggest that homegardens may be gendered, and they highlight some of the parameters that influence their gendering, among others the selection of plants.


The interesting point here is that these conclusions can help explain the range of materia medica used in ancient times. A clear example is the palette of substances most prescribed in the whole series of medical writings arrived to us under the name of Hippocrates. Whereas these texts contain formulae with a high number of names of medicinal plants (350+), more than half of the formulae are made of only a selection of 45 plants. Moreover, the nature of these 45 plants is significant: they are common and often used as foodstuff. On this basis and taking into account a work like the article above, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that, already in antiquity, gardens of medicinal plants were gendered and, with them, the practice of medicine.


The important point here is not so much the conclusions themselves (although they are significant), but the methods of the research, particularly the interpretation of data, which requires by all means to approach the topic from a multiplicity of viewpoints, preferably crossing the all-too-often rigid contours that have traditionally delimited (and still do so) academic disciplines.

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