Among the important plants that Francis Bacon mentions in his experiments in consort touching purging medicines (Sylva Sylvarum, Century I) is the plant of hellebore, considered to be a helpful remedy moving the body to „expell by consent”. Black hellebore is counted among the medicines that have a „loathsome and horrible taste” and by this quality moves the stomach to surcharge and expell. It is interesting to see that Bacon does not consider hellebore to have any occult quality and insists on the fact that purging medicines in general, when better understood, can be properly administered. Thus, the following short presentation on the plant of hellebore.
The hellebore plant belonging to the helleborus genus has been known ever since antiquity to posses powerful purging qualities. The physicians following Hippocrates used the Helleborus niger, known today as the Christmas Rose and the Veratrum Album-known as the White Hellebore- as diuretic remedies. The Hippocratic physicians, nevertheless, did not acknowledge the pharmaceutical differences between the two plants and used them both for the same purposes, although only black hellebore was later regarded as an efficient cure for obstruction.
Black hellebore has kept its medical importance up until today and it is still listed in some of the pharmacological manuals. If we look into the pharmacological hand-books of the late sixteen-century, we find out that hellebore was used as a powerful remedy against melancholy and was thought to have the virtue of evacuating molesting humours that would lead to insanity and depression. By the late sixteen century, the difference between the species, their habitat and cultivation methods was already known although the apothecaries still appealed to Pliny and Galen for information regarding the plant. Hellebore was highly esteemed by the „chymick phisicans” too, who would mix it with various other tinctures and oil and alcohol (spirit of wine), a mixture that „could be easily been given to children against the dropsy and all melancholy affections”(du Chesne, 1591) The Alchemists included hellebore in the category of opiate medicines which, according to some of them, proved to be efficient remedies against colics, pleurisy and gout and also able to provoke sleep and appease disease of the respiratory tract and the rheuma. The controversy around opiates is common to sixteen century alchemical debates concerning plants that would have a strong and possibly poisonous impact on the human body. This might be one of the reasons why hidden, occult virtues or qualities have been attributed to it.
Although parts of it, are still used today in homeopathy, the drug made of the hellebore plant is seen to be as highly narcotic.
Bacon, Francis. 1857–74. The Works of Francis Bacon (SEH), 14 vols. edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Denon Heath. London: Longman (repr. 1961–63, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann)
Quercitanus, Josephus. A brief answer of Josephus Quercitanus Armeniacus Doctor pf Physick to the exposition of Jacobus Aubertus Vindonis: Concerning the origins and causes of metals, London, 1591
Prioreschi, Plinio. A History of Medicine, Vol II: Greek medicine, Horatius Press, Omaha,1996
Turner,William. The Name of Herbs in Greek, Latin, English, Dutch and French, London, 1548