CEMERS Lecture: Medicinal Plants During the European Middle Ages

Winston Black, visiting assistant professor, History Department, Binghamton University, will speak about “Mother Nature, Divine Providence, and Twelfth-Century Medical Theory” at noon Wednesday, March 16, in the University Art Museum. The 12th century in Western Europe saw equally rapid economic and intellectual expansion, both of which brought to light evidence of a much greater variety in people, plants, goods and ideas than previously known. New generations of philosophers, particularly those associated with the cathedral school of Chartres, tried to account for this variety in nature as well as its rational unity by constructing elaborate cosmologies, Christian at heart but cloaked in Neo-Platonic thought and the language of the pagan classics. Central to this intellectual endeavor was the personification of the natural world as a goddess, Mother Nature — neither the ancient fertility goddess nor the kindly matron of modern children’s books, but an awesomely powerful and profoundly rational aspect of divine wisdom. Black will examine how several 12th-century authors (Bernard Silvestris, Alan of Lille and Henry of Huntingdon) used the goddess Natura and other deities to explain God’s providential plan for plants, people and medicine. The works of Henry of Huntingdon, in particular, show a desire to account for the huge number of new medical plants which were introduced to Europe in this era, and to explain them in the context of the latest medical theories.