Saturday, October 31, 2015

Doctrine of Signatures and Colonial Medicine

Susan F. Craft
Author of The Xanthakos Family Trilogy
The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia

        The doctrine of signatures refers to the concept that “nature marks each growth according to its curative benefit.” In other words, herbs and plants that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of those parts of the body.
        The concept was developed in the early 1500s by Paracelsus and was followed throughout centuries and around the world until the late 1700s when scholars realized that there was no scientific evidence that plant shapes and colors helped in the discovery of medical uses of plants.
        There was a theological justification for the doctrine, as stated by botanists like William Coles who lived until the late 1600s. He said that God would have wanted to show men what plants would be useful for them. He supposed that God had made “herbes for the use of men, and hath given them particular Signatures, whereby a man may read ... the use of them.”
        Coles's The Art of Simpling and Adam in Eden, stated that walnuts were good for curing head ailments because in his opinion, "they Have the perfect Signatures of the Head." Regarding Hypericum, he wrote, "The little holes whereof the leaves of Saint Johns wort are full, doe resemble all the pores of the skin and therefore it is profitable for all hurts and wounds that can happen thereunto."
        Many colonial women who created their own “medicine kits” to care for their families and friends brought the idea of the doctrine of signatures with them when they travelled from Europe to the colonies.
        The concept of signatures is reflected in the common names of some plants whose shapes and colors reminded herbalists of the parts of the body where they were thought to do good, for instance: 
  • Eyebright used for eye infections
  • Liverwort used to treat the liver
  • Lungwort for pulmonary infections
  • Toothwort for dental problems
  • Carrots for the eyes
  • Mushrooms for the ears
  • Walnuts for the brain
  • Beans for the kidneys
        Lilyan, the main character in my The Xanthakos Family Trilogy, is not only a portrait and mural artist she is a healer who cares for her family and friends with medicines from her kit that she has assembled over the years.
        For a chance to win a copy of Cassia, the third book in the trilogy, can you guess what the tomato was used for according to the doctrine of signatures?
        I will select a winner from among the people responding to this question.

Susan F. Craft is the author of the historical romantic suspense series, The Xanthakos Family Trilogy


  1. I would say that the tomato was used for the heart.

    1. Thanks, Melanie. Will draw a winner Monday and let you know.

  2. This is a fascinating post! The tomato was used for the heart.

    psalm103and138 at gmail dot com

    1. Thanks, Caryl, for participating. I'm glad you liked the post.

  3. Tomato for the heart. kamundsen44ATyahooDOTcom.

    1. Thanks for participating, Kim. I'll announce the winner Monday, Nov. 2.

  4. Very interesting and informative post. The heart was represented as the tomato.
    Thanks for the chance to win. Happy Halloween.
    Carol Smith

  5. I like the shape of the mushroom and the shape of the ear! It seems so obvious! I really enjoy your books and the research you put into them. sm CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com