Research and Re-creating herbalism in the Society for Creative Anachronism has its satisfactions. But it has some big, big frustrations, too.
To begin with, let's leave aside to some extent the alternative lifestylists, the people who dabble in medical herbalism, and want to drag their personal hobbyhorses into our re-creation. If you want to document for me the use of Echinacea before 1601, have at. I like to learn. Besides, I've written here before about the way the social and political environment surrounding modern herbalism shapes and interferes with the study of the use of herbs in history.
People in the SCA are fascinated to some extent by herbs, especially dangerous ones. They want you to teach classes on period poisons; they want to know about herbal contraceptives, about how to cure themselves with herbs and aromatherapy, etc. They are perfectly happy to smear creams on themselves, drink beers, or ask your advice about complex medical problems.
What they don't want you to do is use actual herbs. Especially on site.
An acquaintance of mine once said that we in the SCA would be very well prepared to survive the apocalyptic fall of civilization-- until our inhalers ran out.
Put it simply: the SCA is full of people with asthma and allergies and those who are vigilant on their behalfs (behalves?). Add to that the people who believe that their non-histamine reactions are serious/lifethreatening. These people and their advocates are vocal and active.
In a world where food service professionals put their plastic gloved hands first into the mushrooms, onions, peppers and lettuce in turn when making sub sandwiches, and where commercial enterprises routinely spray us with synthetic scents it's not unreasonable to be concerned about issues of allergens and contamination. In a world where some people believe that everything that is natural is safe, it's natural to be worried about unsafe things being advocated. Over time, we find out that even the most innocuous-seeming substances-- wheat, peanut butter, alcohol, even chlorinated water-- can cause our friends and relatives distress or even kill them. Things long considered inert or even beneficial may turn out, on investigation, to be dangerous.
Pre-modern medicine, even pre-modern cuisine, can be dangerous, filled with hazards that have long been removed in our society, often for good cause. We're very happy, for instance, that mercury is not part of our medicines, and lead isn't part of our cosmetics (though belladonna is sometimes used in medicine still).
And yet... the SCA, and SCAdian re-enactors, have the same hazards as any other part of modern life outside one's bedroom. If you are allergic to roses, or lavender, or mint, those items may well be brought into an environment you are in by someone who doesn't know that. Walking into the shower-house at a camping event means braving an ever-changing cocktail of airborne essential and fragrance oils. Attending an even where food is cooked and served means taking a chance on encountering someone cutting open an orange. Yes, we try to avoid killing our friends, just like your co-workers will rush out that bouquet of roses if you have a rose allergy. But modern life means contact with plants generally regarded as safe, whether you like it or not. Be safe, be sane, and be aware- someone near you might be using lavender oil to treat a cold sore, or drinking mint tea.
And when it comes to consuming re-created products-- no one should feed you a whole nutmeg or some rue. But if you have a counterindication to black pepper, you should know not to eat a teaspoonful of it, whether that be in a herbal breath remedy or a pepper-crusted steak. Every cook in the SCA should be ready to give out a list of the ingredients in their dishes-- and every person in the SCA with allergies and reactions should be aware of what to look for.