Charlatanical knavery

Plants have rarely sparked the imagination in the way that the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) has. This unassuming plant has inspired numerous superstitions and legends, and crops up frequently in popular culture, including the recent Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, and Guillermo del Toro's film Pan's labyrinth (2006). But why?

The superstitious and absurd stories formerly told of the Mandrake… the great resemblance of some of the roots to the human form, the danger of taking them out of the ground... were all the invention of charlatanical knavery and imposture.

In this quote from his well-known book, Medical botany (1790), William Woodville provides an important clue. It alludes to the doctrine of signatures, an ancient philosophy which claimed that any plants resembling parts of the human body could be used to treat ailments affecting that same part. Because of this philosophy, people have used the mandrake as a medicine for thousands of years.

illustration of mandrake

This image is taken from John Gerard’s famous book The herball or generall historie of plantes (1597). It shows the mandrake looking distinctly like a pair of walking human legs. Because of these human characteristics, it was believed that if someone pulled up the mandrake root, the plant would scream like a baby and the person would die. There are many stories and book illustrations describing how to get around this complication. For example, tie one end of a rope to the mandrake leaves, and the other end around the neck of a dog. Then stand back, look in another direction, and let the dog do the pulling.

In reality, death by mandrake would most likely have occurred by ingesting a large portion of any part of this fatally poisonous plant. However, in small doses, the mandrake is a modern miracle. Its root contains the alkaloid chemical atropine, which is an essential drug used today. Atropine’s effects include dilating the pupils, increasing the heart rate and reducing salivation and other secretions; it is one of the core medicines needed for a basic health care system.

The mandrake is just one of around 1,300 plant species in the RCP’s medicinal garden. The garden fellows lead guided tours of the medicinal garden on the first Wednesday of every month (March–November), and other tours for groups may be arranged by appointment.

Sarah Backhouse

Exhibition coordinator

Read more about the RCP's library, archive, and museum on our blog, and follow @RCPmuseum on Twitter.

Sarah Backhouse ,
Exhibitions officer

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