Tudor medical practitioners firmly believed in the “doctrine of signatures”, which was the idea that God had give each plant or food with medicinal value a special look that would correspond with what it does to aid or restore health. This, along with astrology, is often used as a good example of just how silly and misguided Tudor medicine could be. After all, the Tudors thought that vine plants in a garden would wither if menstruating women got too close to them; therefore any ideas that they might have had regarding medicine were just as laughable, right?
Well, maybe not.
I am not saying, of course, that modern science has proven astrology correct or that it turns out that the human uterus can break free of its moorings and carom around the abdomen making women “hysterical”. What I am trying to convey is that people in those days, while lacking our current information, were far from stupid. This means that they could notice certain effects, extrapolate from the data, and then try to figure out a rationale within their framework of understanding.
Somewhere along the way humans noticed that eating carrots made for better eyesight, that walnuts improved mental agility, and that men who ate figs were more fertile. These things have been found to have some validity in modern laboratory testing. Carrots are a good source of vitamin A, which aids in vision, while walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that do actually help mental function, and figs are among the foods recommended by fertility specialists to help boost sperm quality.
Humans also noticed that there were certain mnemonic devices that clued one in on the kind of ailment a plant would help. They could see that a cross-section of carrot looked a bit like an eye, that walnuts looked like little brains, and that figs were full of little seeds as well as looking somewhat like a scrotum.
What made the most sense for human, based on what they knew to be true, was that a Divine Being had left clues to help people find medicinal foods and correlate those foods to the body part they would help. Lacking modern technology, there was very little anyone could have done to prove or disprove this theory. Once that idea was entrenched in the conception of health and well-being, it was simply handed down as “authoritative knowledge” and was seldom (if ever) disputed.
Don’t think we do that anymore? Guess again. Not too long ago it was considered the ‘best practice’ to shave a woman’s privates and give her an enema prior to her giving birth, and no one challenged those ideas for decades … but once those procedures were studied with a scientifically critical eye they were found to be useless or actively harmful. Like the people of the past, we tend not to see the flaws in our paradigms until AFTER the paradigm has changed.
It makes me wonder what medical belief that we currently embrace that will be a source of scorn for our descendants. Anyone want to have a guess?