MPNS Newsletter  January 2020: Version 9 Released.
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Byzantine Herbals: which plants were used?

With support from the Wellcome Trust, we recently began an exciting new project about ancient Greek herbals. With an initial focus on a particularly interesting 13th century text from Byzantine Cyprus, the project's primary goal is to develop a new interdisciplinary methodology. MPNS is working with philologists and geologists from Royal Holloway College in London with ethno-botanical experts from Switzerland and Cyprus.
What are our aims?
A major challenge for historians is how they may identify, with confidence, the plants and other materials cited in early medicinal recipes.  Clearly it is not sufficient to rely on a translation of the plant's common name given that these vary so much in their meaning both geographically and over time.
Our project aims to design a method to increase the precision with which plants cited in ancient texts maybe identified and to provide some measure of confidence in each of those identifications. Starting with an important  historical herbal from Cyprus, we will list all possible candidate species for every plant mentioned in the text. We will then analyse what we know about those plants with information taken both from historical texts and from botanical, ecological and ethno-botanical sources available today.  We will capture information of any kind: morphology, use, trade, ecology etc. and then use these comparisons to assign likelihoods to each possible identification.
Why does it matter?
Existing methods prevent reliable comparison of the which plants featured in different historical herbals or for us to compare the herbs used in Ancient Greece with those used simultaneously in Persia or China. Nor can we draw reliable conclusions as to how the use of herbal medicine evolved over the centuries simply because we can never be certain of which plants were actually being used.
We hope that our new method will permit more objective determination of which plants were used historically regardless of the epoch, geographical region or language.  We intend this to enable more meaningful analyses, including mapping of trade in plant materials between civilisations and for academics in multiple disciplines to share knowledge regarding the past uses of plants, potentially leading to further research in medicine or drug discovery.
The role of MPNS
At Kew, MPNS is working closely with Mark Nesbitt (Senior Research Leader, Economic Botany) with considerable expertise on the historical uses of plants and are thrilled that Rebecca Lazarou, an early MPNS volunteer, has joined Kew to work on this project. Rebecca is of Greek Cypriot heritage and holds a master’s in medicinal natural products and phytochemistry from UCL. She is a perfect fit!
MPNS’s role is to detect potential ambiguity in plant names, help establish comprehensive lists of candidate species and then gather relevant information from current literature about each of those candidates regardless of the names being used in different publications.
This project adds a fascinating new dimension to how MPNS maybe used, illustrating, once more, the merits of a comprehensive catalogue of medicinal plants and herbal drugs with their diverse alternative names. If you are interested in this work, or have any other questions about MPNS then please do contact us.

Best wishes to you all,
The MPNS Team
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