Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Book Review: A History of Herbalism: Cure, Cook, and Conjure by Emma Kay

The book starts with an introduction that lists herbs for various purposes and then takes you on a brief world history tour of herbalism, starting with the Greeks and Chinese. Throughout the book examples of how various herbs are used are employed from sources from multiple countries.

There are three chapters. Chapter 1 goes over specific British herbalists, followed by information on those who worked in adjacent fields (sellers, hospitals, gardens, illustrators). Chapter 2 deals with magic and medicine, giving individual A-Z lists for both topics. Each listing mentions an anecdote or usage from a historic source. The book isn’t being comprehensive, there are only a few usages per herb, but it’s a great compilation that’s enlightening without being boring. Chapter 3 is on how herbs have been used in cooking. Here the author translates a number of interesting recipes. Be aware, with a few exceptions these are direct historical translations, meaning there are no measurements, so unless you’re used to using old cookbooks or are a trained chef, you’ll have a lot of experimentation ahead of you if you decide to make one of these recipes. The recipes are organized by topic, with most of them employing multiple herbs.

I was impressed with the breadth of sources Kay used. I learned about quite a few interesting British and medieval herbals (some of which you can find online as they are out of copyright), as well as herbs and herbals from other countries (including Nigeria, Japan, and the Aztec empire). I was impressed by the number of countries with written herbals predating the modern period, and with the author’s including recipes and herbal usages from so many of them.

The book ends with substantial notes and a bibliography.

There are a decent number of black and white photographs to accompany the text.

The text often jumps from one herb or topic to another with little to no transition, which I found delightful as it maintained interest when reading the book in its entirety, though some might find it disorienting.

This is a great book. It tackles a broad topic and has done an excellent job of maintaining interest while being enlightening. Even if you’ve read several books on herbs and herbals you’ll find something new here.

Out in the UK on June 30th, later (different sites show different release dates) in other countries.

No comments: