Mechanics of a project

My new project seems an excellent time to walk through a way to think about a large long-term research project (it’s always nice to have a handy example!)

Tea ball with a mix of herbs and dried flowers, cracked slightly open.

Step one: What am I trying to do here?

I described a lot of this in my previous post, but I want to turn out articles that take on the core theories behind what a given plant was used for, and provide more information about them, in a way that allows people to figure out where the information comes from.

(As I said, there’s nothing wrong with intuitive response – but it helps a lot to know what’s underlying it. A lot of our intuition is built on our experiences and the connections we’ve made between our experiences, so knowing what’s influencing that is pretty helpful.)

It’s also really helpful to know where a particular idea comes from if you need to make an adjustment. For example, if you need to substitute a herb you’d use for a spell (you can’t get it, or you’re allergic to it, or some other reason), wouldn’t you rather have a detailed idea of what people think about the alternatives? Too often, people put a whole lot of things together, while forgetting that ‘herb that does passionate lust’ is possibly a different flavour (magically speaking, and possibly also physically) from one that is known for helping build a long-lasting committed relationship.

Why do I want to know about the source?

I don’t believe that older sources are better. A quick look at medical history suggests why learning things is so powerful and important! But I do think knowing where our ideas and information comes from is very helpful, in figuring out what it means to us.

I want to look at the sources to figure out where they came from, and to begin to understand the other associations. One common one from the Middle Ages is the question of why certain figures (Mary is a common one here) are so commonly shown in certain colours.

In Mary’s case, it’s a particular shade of blue. She’s painted in that shade, because it was an incredibly rare and expensive colour to make at the time. So the same way you might put gold leaf on the most important pieces of art, you painted that shade of blue to demonstrate how something in the picture was important or central or most honoured.

In this day of other options for colours, maybe that reason for choosing blue is less relevant than the fact that we know psychologically it is calming, or that it echoes water, or some other reason. (Probably, given colour symbology, multiple different reasons.)

Step two: What do I need?

I need some sources. My idea, to start with, is to pick a number of well-known plants and culinary herbs, things that are widely used and pretty widely documented. (There are whole books devoted to roses, for example!)

And then check out those items in a selection of well-known sources.

This means I need to collect those sources, which will fall roughly into three groups:

Early sources

By which I mean mostly Classical sources – Greeks, Romans, and maybe some Medieval and Renaissance texts. These are things that largely predate our understanding of modern medicinal uses. (In other words, some of their medicinal uses worked, but they might have the wrong idea about why. In other cases, the suggested things and their uses are just bizzare. Want more about this? Listen to just about any episode of the podcast Sawbones…)

Early modern sources

In the 17th to 19th centuries, you start getting a more systematic review of medicinal uses – but of course, you see less discussion of magical uses. However, many of the herbals of this time included folklore and stories. A great example here is Nicholas Culpepper, whose Complete Herbal is a classic in the field. This exists as an ebook on Project Gutenberg, which has the advantage of being searchable.

Modern sources

There are of course dozens, hundreds, of modern resources out there about these topics, from a variety of different perspectives (medicinal herbalism, magical herbalism, religious and magical sources, folklore collections, and many many more.) Making sense of them is baffling.

Obviously, I’m not going to read every modern source – my time, my library, my available ability to hold things in my head won’t allow it. But I can look at a few of the most widely referenced ones, and look at what they talk about, and try and track down stories. For example, Scott Cunningham’s Complete Book of Magical Herbs doesn’t have citations, but I can use it to help me look at stories to trace backwards. I won’t be able to figure out sources for all of them, but I can do some.

Step three: Make a plan

Identify some widely referenced sources, and see what a handful say about each plant, and then follow stories from there. For example, Culpepper, talking about saffron, says: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion, and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens the heart so exceedingly.” From there, one can follow some notes about where it comes from, how one recognises a plant suitable for use, and so on.

I full expect that sometimes later research will turn up new information or new sources to explore. But one of the things I want to do with this project is model how a long-term project can go, how there often is a spiralling pattern to the work, where you come back to things over time as you’ve learned more or have a new way to connect them.

Mixed with the plants and stones, I also want to highlight useful books, or at least books that are relevant to the project, putting them into context of why they were writtten, what kinds of information they’re interesting and useful for. High on my list is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette which is a fabulous look at stories and information about colour.

Challenges of research

Wrapping up this post, I want to talk about a few challenges of research.

The biggest one, I suspect, is going to be variations in names. In books written before we had species names for plants, they can get referred to in a wide range of ways. Sometimes the names are consistent through the centuries, but often they’re not. I’ll have to do some digging and hunting to figure out what the references might be in many cases.

The other big challenge I’ve discussed above: so many sources, so little time. The only way to do this is to do things in a manageable chunk, and remind myself (and everyone reading) that I can and will come back.

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