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When herbs added more than flavour to life

The medicinal herb Għerq Sinjur, literally meaning the rich root. This etching was printed by G. & I. Robinson, London, on May 1, 1804. Colour photo courtesy of Joe Sultana

The medicinal herb Għerq Sinjur, literally meaning the rich root. This etching was printed by G. & I. Robinson, London, on May 1, 1804. Colour photo courtesy of Joe Sultana

Until the late 19th century, herbs were not merely plants with flavours that helped to make food more appetising but a divine gift for the treatment and prevention of illness, especially so in isolated places such as Gozo.

An exhibition on this intriguing theme, called Herbs, Health And Hospitals Of Gozo Past, is being held at the National Archives, Gozo Section in Victoria.

The most prized medicinal herb was the Għerq Sinjur, erroneously known in English as the Gozo Fungus. Believed to be endemic to Ħaġret il-Ġeneral at the mouth of Dwejra Bay, it was sought for its astringent and haemostatic properties and considered the best cure for haemorrhages and diseases of the blood. The dried stalks were pulverised and mixed with wine or water and taken as a potion.

The number of plant species known or believed to possess medicinal properties is very large; no fewer than 300 are included in a herbal list of Malta and Gozo. The island's best known herbalist was Frenċ tal-Għarb. Thousands sought his herbal potions.

The health of the Gozitans was of prime concern to the Universitas, the regional government of Gozo in late mediaeval and early modern times. On November 21, 1580, it authorised Alfio dello Re, one of the jurats, to travel to Malta and try to persuade one doctor Xerri to take up residence in Gozo. Dello Re was also directed to negotiate an acceptable salary.

When the British took over the governance of these islands in 1800, they further enhanced the health services. In 1897, they evacuated Comino to quarantine troops returning from India where there was a plague outbreak. The small Comino population was transferred to Gozo and given a small daily allowance.

It was only in the early years of the 20th century when chemists began to make medicinal compounds that new kinds of drugs became available and the old herbal remedies were abandoned.

The exhibition in Gozo has a special significance as it is being held on the 20th anniversary of the setting-up of the National Archives, Gozo Section. The exhibition runs from today till October17, Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. till 1 p.m. at the National Archives, Vajringa Street, Victoria. Entrance is free.

An exhibition catalogue compiled by the author and a souvenir postcard sell at a nominal price. The exhibition is sponsored by HSBC.

Dr Bezzina is assistant national archivist.

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