Herbal Medicine Steeped Among Orthodox Monasteries

greek monastery clinical herbalism

Photo by George M. Groutas

By Case Adams, Naturopath

Herbal medicine is not a new thing. For thousands of years, people have been clinically applying herbal medicines. Yes, they didn’t conduct the kind of clinical research we do today. But they did indeed conduct clinical research: They applied many different types of herbs for various conditions and they passed on those that worked from one generation to the next.

Some of the leading sources of documentation in human history comes from the religious institutions who employed healing clinics for their communities. Now research finds they also documented the use of many healing herbs.

Research from the University of London has determined that documentation from early Greek monasteries demonstrate a consistent clinical application of medicinal plants through the centuries.

While modern conventional doctors largely dismiss the use of herbal medicine without careful clinical practice and peer-review, the research finds that medicinal plant knowledge was documented in monasteries with consistency and clinical application.

The researchers studied the archives together with surveys and interviews from 21 mostly –isolated monasteries on the island of Cyprus. The researchers then collected and analyzed the documentation and compared it between the different monasteries, achieving a “systematic ethnopharmacological analysis involving comprehensive datasets of historical and modern ethnographic data.”

Put more clearly, the researchers found that the application of herbal medicine was not a haphazard practice. It was well-documented, complete with clinical experience with the classification of particular herbs for particular ailments.

The research also found that the different monasteries had a surprisingly similar process for documentation and clinical adherence. This was described as “continuity.” This consistency of clinical processes and documentation can only mean that there was a peer-reviewable system in place where clinical evidence was applied and accepted over the centuries. As described by the researchers, the evidence:

“show a remarkable historical consistency in terms of their use for defined groups of ailments…”

Furthermore, the researchers stated that:

“The example illustrates continuity and change in ‘traditional’ knowledge as well as the adoption of new knowledge and provides the opportunity to look beyond the dichotomy between traditional and modern concepts of plant usage. Overall, the study suggests that a systematic diachronic approach can facilitate a better understanding of the complex and dynamic processes involved in the development of medicinal plant knowledge.”

This groundbreaking research opens up one of the first attempts of researchers to establish that traditional herbal medicine was well-documented and practiced with care among traditional cultures. Monasteries provide a unique facility to demonstrate this as monasteries were able to better preserve their writings and practices, compared to cultures who were stricken by periodic wars and destruction of their clinical institutions.

And yet we still find many other examples of exquisite documentation and clinical application of ancient traditional herbal medicine in the ancient texts of Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Kampo (Japanese traditional medicine), Native American medicine, Polynesian medicine and many other traditional medicines of the world. While much of this knowledge was passed on via healer mentorship – this is a proven facility for transferring clinical experience and knowledge from one generation to the next.

We thus find from surviving records that the knowledge being passed from one generation to the next came with a deep understanding of the effects of certain plants upon certain diseases – which accumulated over thousands of years of clinical application.

Why then does modern conventional medicine so quickly dismiss this rich clinical history? Do we not trust the knowledge of our ancestors?

We cannot forget that our ancestors were thus able to deliver to the modern era a planet not yet decimated with chemical pollutants, soil erosion, fossil fuels, plastics and other toxins that will serve to ruin the planet for future generations.

Perhaps our ancestors’ approach to medicine was filled with greater wisdom than modern conventional medicine wants to accept.


Lardos A, Heinrich M. Continuity and change in medicinal plant use: The example of monasteries on Cyprus and historical iatrosophia texts. J Ethnopharmacol. 2013 Aug 29. doi:pii: S0378-8741(13)00580-1. 10.1016/j.jep.2013.08.026.

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn our health around. As I drove home that night, I realized this knowledge should be available to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.”