Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
MAASTRICHT. A beetroot up your nose will do wonders for a cold, tobacco improves a sore throat and mandrakes should always be picked by a dog. Folklore abounds in the historic herbal books on display at Realm of Herbs (Kruidenrijk), three mini-exhibitions curated by students and spread around Maastricht: Centre Céramique, the University Library and the Natural History Museum.
In the olden days, people believed that the root of a mandrake was shaped like a human being. If you plucked the plant, the human would scream and the sound would kill you. A better option was to tie the plant to a dog and wait. When the dog got hungry and walked away, it would pull the mandrake out. “That story lives on – just look at the Harry Potter movies”, says Jack Fildew, one of the students who put the exhibitions together as part of a study project. In the movies the young wizards have to protect themselves from the scream of a mandrake by wearing earmuffs. Even more interesting than the old tales, though, are the parts the old herbalists got right. “They knew long ago that a mandrake can be used as a painkiller.”
Fildew, Tijs Adams and Nabilah Binti Noordin – all students at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – spent the past months going through the herbal book collections in Maastricht. “The earlier books focus on the usefulness of herbs in everyday life. Later, it gets more and more scientific”, says Noordin. “The writers experimented on themselves; there was a lot of trial and error.” They also approached the topic from different angles. Some were doctors who experimented with herbs as medicines, others were biologists who tried to classify them and went on long journeys to discover new plants, still more were gardeners who sought to advise those who wanted to grow the herbs themselves. But it’s not just the content that makes the books interesting. Most also contain beautiful drawings. “They’re almost cartoonish in the beginning, but get more detailed and realistic in later years”, Noordin says.
The books spent quite some time in storage. Some have been in the Maastricht collection for up to three hundred years, but it’s been over fifty years since they were last on display. “Some books have a little note in them explaining how they got in the collection”, Fildew says. “One was stolen from a Nazi who tried to take it to Germany.”
The students opted for three mini-exhibitions rather than one large one to keep the books in the institution where they are normally housed. Each has a slightly different theme. Centre Céramique presents a timeline of the history of herbs, while the Inner City Library focuses on the role they played in international knowledge exchange and the Natural History Museum sheds light on their medicinal effects.
Adopt a herbal
Herbals were generally practical guides for anyone who wanted to use simple medicine. Indeed, they often show signs of intensive use. Many of the herbal books in the university library's vaults are in poor condition, and need to be made available again for teaching and research. Unfortunately, the UB lacks the necessary resources. Therefore they ask people to adopt a herbal.
To find out more about the adoption procedure and the benefits for you, contact Odin Essers, curator of Special Collections at Maastricht University firstname.lastname@example.org
Realm of Herbs is open until 18 June. Admission is free (except for the Natural History Museum).