There’s a grand thriller and pleasure in studying historic texts that may nonetheless fulfill our curiosities in regards to the human expertise. Writings about herbalism aren’t any exception, as they provide us a way of how our ancestors lived, survived, and interacted with the pure world round them. De Materia Medica, Latin for “On Medical Materials” is a surviving textual content from the primary century written by Pedanius Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE), a Greek medical botanist and doctor who served within the Roman military. His five-volume manuscript describes roughly 600 vegetation for greater than 1,000 conventional medicines. Centuries after it was written, Dioscorides’ celebrated natural reference would turn into the premise of European and Western pharmacopeia. 

Dioscorides is seated within the backside left of this portray. He’s proven inspecting a flower whereas he takes notes. (“Medication within the Center Ages” (1906), by Veloso Salgado.) NOVA Medical College, Public Area.

Spreading Natural Data

As a military surgeon, Dioscorides traveled all through the traditional world and noticed, collected, and utilized a whole lot of vegetation to his medical observe. Due to his detailed descriptions of plant cures from many various areas, Dioscorides grew to become a trusted supply of data relevant to many. His textbook, originally written in historic Greek with the title Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς, was subsequently translated, most frequently by non secular monks, into Latin, Arabic, Italian, German, Spanish, and French because it gained rising recognition throughout the European and African continents. For the primary time in recognized historical past, details about medicinal vegetation and cures had been extra simply documented and distributed throughout numerous cultures and languages. His De Materia Medica, hand-copied and edited numerous occasions, could be extensively referenced by physicians and herbalists for the next 1,500 years.

The unique manuscript was written nearly two thousand years in the past and has by no means been discovered; nevertheless, the oldest recognized copy, named the “Vienna Dioscorides” or Codex Vindobonensis Medicus Graecus 1 (ca. 512 CE), is at the moment within the Austrian Nationwide Library in Vienna. This special-ordered copy, written within the unique Greek and adorned with superbly hand-painted illustrations, was created as a royal reward for the Roman imperial princess Juliana Anicia, who was a well known patron of the humanities. The manuscript, a “masterpiece of guide artwork,” is registered with the Reminiscence of the World Programme established by UNESCO, which describes the quantity as “an important pharmaceutical supply of the Historical World” (UNESCO Reminiscence of the World, n.d.).

An illustration of coral from De Materia Medica

Illustration of coral from the Vienna Dioscurides (Public Area).


Different celebrated copies will be discovered within the nationwide libraries of Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and Britain, in addition to within the sacred monastery of Mount Athos, Greece, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York Metropolis, obtained from a 1920s public sale. Single pages from manuscripts will also be discovered in lots of museums, lots of which have been digitized and can be found to view on-line, together with within the Smithsonian Establishment, the Harvard Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, and the Walters Artwork Museum, amongst many others. 

For English-language readers, the primary and solely translation from the unique Greek to English was surprisingly not accomplished till 1655. This copy consisted of greater than 4,000 pages and took John Goodyer, a distinguished English botanist, roughly three years to finish, throughout which he consulted at the least eighteen editions of the manuscript. An edited model of Goodyer’s medieval English translation was accomplished centuries later, in 1933, by R.T. Gunther, founding father of the Oxford Museum of the Historical past of Science (Magdalen School at College of Oxford, 2014). Most not too long ago, a contemporary English translation from Goodyer’s version was accomplished in 2000 by Tess Anne Osbaldeston and R.P. Wooden, who created a 1,000-page textual content full with vivid pictures borrowed from well-preserved 16th-century editions (Cilliers & Retief, 2001). This latest publication lastly permits fashionable English readers the power to entry and totally recognize the breadth and depth of Dioscorides’ excellent feat. Along with buying it, it is usually out there for free online.

A page from De Materia Medica

A folio from the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides – 13th Century watercolor on paper. (Metropolitan Museum of Artwork – Public Area.)


The Bounty of De Materia Medica

What makes De Materia Medica important within the historical past of medication is how well-referenced it’s by medical practitioners and herbalists all through the centuries and in a number of languages. Undoubtedly, the traditional medical texts from Chinese language, ayurvedic, and Arabic traditions additionally contributed invaluable information. For Western and European herbalism, particularly, De Materia Medica helped educate physicians on pure medicines and elevate the significance of utilizing vegetation native to Europe and the Mediterranean in a therapeutic capability. Each the information and the vegetation had turn into extra accessible than ever earlier than. 

Dioscorides documented every little thing he discovered about vegetation, animals, and minerals from his travels. To prepare his info, he divided his guide into 5 components:

  • Quantity I: Aromatics
  • Quantity II: Animals to herbs
  • Quantity III: Roots, seeds, and herbs
  • Quantity IV: Roots and herbs
  • Quantity V: Vines, wines, and minerals
A page from De Materia Medica

Yarrow, foxglove, and primrose pictured in De Materia Medica. (Credit score: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Photographs [email protected]


Every part offers a bounty of details about the place the herbs develop, how and what to make use of them for, and different attention-grabbing tidbits that we will use to deduce about life in historic occasions. From potions utilizing mandrake and hellebore to herbs “efficient towards issues that darken the pupils,” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 319) a few of these are price noting just for their distinctive functions (equivalent to cow dung!) and a few stay relevant to be used within the Western pharmacopeia. A sampling of data from the 1,000 pages of De Materia Medica translated by Osbaldeston and Wooden contains:

Celandine (Greek: Chelidonion mikron, Latin: Chelidonia minor) “grows round waters and marshy locations. It’s sharp like anemone, ulcerating to the outdoors of the pores and skin.” Recommended cures included juicing the roots and inserting “into the nostrils with honey for purging the top. Equally, a decoction of it gargled with honey powerfully purges the head and purges all issues out of the chest” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 355).

Contemporary cow dung (Greek: Apopatos), when wrapped in leaves and heated above scorching ashes, lessens the irritation of wounds” and “serves as a heat pack for lessening sciatica.” When “utilized with vinegar it dissolves hardness, [goiters], and bone irritation” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 222).

Garlic (Greek: Skorodon), amongst its many makes use of, was “rubbed on for lack of hair however for this it should be used with ointment of nard.” It will also be mixed “with salt and oil [to] heal erupted pimples.” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 319) 

Gentian, the “most bitter plant materials recognized,” was named for Gentius, the final king of Illyria who, in accordance with Dioscorides, was first to seek out it. “A teaspoonful of extracted juice is nice for problems of the edges, falls from heights, hernia, and convulsions. It additionally helps liver illnesses and gastritis taken as a drink with water. The basis, particularly the juice utilized as a suppository, is an abortifacient. It’s juiced by being bruised and steeped in water for 5 days, then afterwards boiled within the water till the roots seem on high. When the water is chilly it’s strained by means of a linen material, boiled till it turns into like honey in consistency, and saved in a ceramic jar” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 367).

Hyssop (Greek: Ussopos, Latin: Hyssopus hortensis or Hyssopus officinalis or Origanum syriacum) “boiled with figs, water, honey, and rue and brought as a drink it helps pneumonia, bronchial asthma, inside coughs, mucus, and orthopnoea [type of asthma], and kills worms” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 399).

Hyssop illustration

Licorice (Greek: Glukoriza, that means “candy root,” Latin: Glycyrrhiza) helps with “burning of the abdomen, problems within the chest and liver, parasitic pores and skin illnesses, and bladder or kidney problems. Taken with a drink of passum [raisin wine] and melted within the mouth it quenches thirst. Rubbed on, it heals wounds; and chewed, it’s good for the abdomen” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 371).

Wormwood (Greek: Apsinthion, Latin: Absinthium vulgare or Seriphium absinthium, or Artemisia absinthium), which was banned for its narcotic properties within the U.S. till 2007, was well-known in historic occasions, with one of the best variety rising in Pontus and on Mount Taurus in Cappadocia (current-day southern Turkey). “It’s warming, astringent, and digestive, and takes away bilious matter sticking in the abdomen and bowels” (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 392). 

To today, there are herbs from the traditional world that we’ve got but to establish, together with Acanthium (Greek: Akanthion), which grew a tender net at its tip, much like silk, that was gathered and spun. The leaves and roots had been ready as a drink to assist alleviate a stiff neck (Dioscorides, Osbaldeston, & Wooden, 2000, p. 384). 

De Materia Medica

In Closing,

Happily, there are various pages of De Materia Medica to learn that may give us perception into our personal natural observe. Moreover, these data proceed to supply an thrilling and complete useful resource not just for practitioners within the conventional and people use of vegetation, but in addition for botanists, environmentalists, archaeologists, historians, and people whose ancestors wove these practices into their household customs. The fantastic thing about it’s that the pages and prospects are limitless. 

De Materia Medica Pinterest graphic


Cilliers, L., & Retief, F. (2001). Reviewed work: Dioscorides De Materia Medica by Tessa A. Osbaldeston, R.P. Wooden. Acta Classica, 44, 253-257. 

Dioscorides, P., Osbaldeston, T. A., & Wooden, R. P. (2000). De materia medica: Being an natural with many different medicinal supplies: written in Greek within the first century of the frequent period: a brand new listed model in fashionable English. Johannesburg: IBIDIS.

Magdalen School at College of Oxford. (2014). The John Goodyer assortment of botanical books. [Online article]. Retrieved from

UNESCO Reminiscence of the World. (n.d.). Vienna Dioscorides [Online Database]. Retrieved from

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