Internal usage of root of tormentil for arthritic conditions goes back to Dioscorides, who advises a decoction of the root, reduced to one third, drunk for suffering in the joints and hip ailments. Beck usefully translates the Greek as ‘hip disease’ rather than draw inferences about the meaning of the words. This advice is repeated by Turner, Parkinson and Culpeper but yet it is not a common modern usage. Hip ailments is given by Turner as pain in the hucklebone called sciatica, under his entry for root of ‘the herb five leaf. Culpeper recommends the juice of the leaves and roots applied to sciatica, and states that it is effective against ruptures and bursting, bruises and falls both outward and inward. The entry in Culpeper is word for word from Parkinson, who refers to sciatica as hipgout. A recent review of five herbals found that the only Rosaceae recommended for rheumatic disorders were Potentilla species, given by Adam Lonitzer (Lonicerus) in 1557 andlacob Theodor (Tabernaemontanus) in 1588 for pain. The corresponding modern terms given by the authors are ‘polyarthritis’ and ‘gout of the feet’.
The 1656 edition of Culpeper includes a tantalizing sentence that is not included in the modern edition. It is copied from Parkinson and reads, ‘Lobel saith, that Rondelitus used it as Hermodactils for joint-aches’. Hermodactils or hermodactylus was an imported herb that, according to Parkinson, had not been identified but was most effective in purging phlegmatic, slimy and watery humours from the joints and therefore valuable in gout and other ‘running joint aches’. Parkinson says some consider hermodactylus to be roots of ‘Colchicum, but they are dangerous if not deadly”. This designation seems unlikely to him partly because he says it was included in drinks with lignum vitae Guaiacum officinale and sarsaparilla Smilax species and also because he cites Mesue as stating that it was a finger-shaped root. Pereira (1853) had the opportunity to examine some material purchased as hermodactyl in India that he considered could be the underground parts of autumn crocus Colchicum autumnale, which is used in the treatment of gout. Pereira gives a quote from Paulus Aeginata, which may be referring to the use of Colchicum: ‘some, in the paroxysms of all arthritic diseases, have recourse to purging with hermodactylus; but it is to be remarked that the hermodactylus is bad for the stomach, producing nausea and anorexia, and ought, therefore, to be used only in the case of those who are pressed by urgent business, for it removes rheumatism speedily, and after two days at most, so that they are enabled to resume their accustomed employment’. Another candidate is a Mediterranean member of the Iris family, Hermodactylus tuberosus, with a rootstock of ‘finger-like tubers’. Whatever the identity of hermodactylus, the statement of Culpeper leads one to ask whether or not tormentil could be particularly useful in pain associated with arthritis.
Matthias de l’Obel (1538-1616) is influential in that he was a significant figure in the development of botany and transmission of knowledge. He was born in Flanders but studied medicine in Montpellier. In the 16th century, the curriculum at the medical school in Montpelier was influenced by humanist ideas in that the study of original texts and of the living plants was encouraged. New Greek versions and translations direct from Greek into Latin were becoming available such as a Latin version of De Simplicium Medicamentorum Facultatibus by Galen, which was published in Paris in 1530. Rondelitus is the latinized name of Guillaume Rondelet, who graduated in medicine at Montpellier in 1531 then returned as a lecturer. He was one of the pioneers of the use of Dioscorides and in 1545 he lectured on the books of Dioscorides. A translation into Latin from the Aldine Greek version published in 1499 had been published in Paris in 1516 by lean Ruel. Rondelet pioneered field trips into the local countryside to address the thorny questions surrounding the sources of medicinal plants and the interpretation of the ancient authors. He travelled to Italy, where he saw the ‘true Roman absynthium’ in the ancient ruins and had contacts with Italian, Swiss and German scholars. Rondelet is important to this book as he taught two of our authors, Dalechamps and lean Bauhin. He taught Charles de l’Ecluse, who translated the version of Dodoens which we have used from Flemish into French, and de l’Obel, to whom he left his papers at his death in 1566. De l’Obel was inspired to continue searching for wild plants throughout his life and, after graduating in 1565, he travelled in Europe with Pierre Pena. He came to Britain in 1569, returned to Antwerp until the early 1580s, then settled in London, where he died in 1616. His first book, Stirpium Adversaria Nova, was published in 1571 in London but an edited later version was published by Plantin in 1605 with the addition of In G. Rondelletti Pharmaceuticum Officinam Animadversiones. It could be that the comment that ‘Lob el saith, that Rondelitus used it as Hermodactils for joint-aches’ is taken from this book or from the papers of de l’Obel, which were edited by Parkinson. Some material from the papers was included in Theatrum Botanicum, published in 1640. Either way, the comparison with hermodactylus confirms the relative efficacy of tormentil. It also suggests that Rondelet used it in his own practice for joint pains and thus that the recommendation is not merely taken from Dioscorides. The point here is that when reading Culpeper we have a window into older usage as he copied Parkinson freely and Parkinson used many sources in the preparation of his material.