ARTICLES - histoire de la médecine

Charlemagne (747-814)

Histoire de la médecine

Histoire de la médecine

Prix Georges Villain d'histoire de l'art dentaire

Charlemagne (747-814), his teeth and an edict:
the "Capitulare de Villis" (812)

Xavier Riaud

Chapter #70 of the Capitulare (Library of Wolfenbüttel) - Histoire de la médecine par Xavier Riaud
Chapter #70 of the "Capitulare" (Library of Wolfenbüttel)

Theophrastus (v. 372- v. 287 before J.-C.)

Inspired by the Greek philosopher and botanist, author of the History of Plants (a series of ten books which made him the greatest botanist since the Antiquity), unrivalled until the Renaissance, the great French emperor Charlemagne (747-814) did not hesitate to use the plants recommended by Theophrastus for medical purposes (Lamendin, 2008).

Recommended plants by the Greek philosopher and botanist for oral purposes.

Theophrastus used almond trees as the excipient of various oral concoctions, anise and cinnamon trees for oral aromatherapy, the latter was notably used for oral infections and dental abscesses. He also used gum arabics from acacias as excipient for medications, Hyoscyamus as a pain killer against dental pains and flaxseeds whose flour was used for its anti-inflammatory action when applied with poultices. Theophrastus also recommended the use of alexanders for gingival lesions caused by scurvy, Marrubium to cure fever, papavers for dental pain, black pepper for dental cavities, liquorice for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, red rose bushes whose astringent petals were used for mouthwash, poppies for their soothing effects, emollient mallow for mouthwash and hypericum for its sedative action.

The genesis of the capitulare

It is said to have been written by Alcuin, one of the most prominent scribes of the King of the Franks who met Charlemagne in Parma in 781 and who remained at his side from 782 to 790. He left the monarch for England, his original country, where he stayed from 790 to 793.
Once he returned to the Frank kingdom, Alcuin became abbot of Saint Martin of Tours in 796 and settled in Tours in 801. In 796, Charlemagne was reported to give Alcuin the task to write a text aiming at regulating the cultivation of plants (villae, villis). Alcuin taught botany, pharmaceutics and agriculture. The Emperor’s private tutor and advisor, he had run the Palatal School of Aix-la-Chapelle in 782. He was, therefore, more suited for the duty he was entrusted with. First, he had to collect the plants, classify them and check their therapeutic qualities which demanded a large amount of time. Alcuin died in Tours in 804. Does “his” work –whose paternity is still disputed today (Girre (1997)- not confirm that this capitulare would have been written by Eginhard, Charlemagne’s personal chronicler? Consequently, Alcuin’s work was entitled the “ Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii (or according to some authors Capitulare de villis et curtis imperialibus (Girre, 1997)), the “Capitulare de Villis” which was promulgated in 812 by Charlemagne. Its implementation and diffusion were dealt by the Emperor’s son, Louis the 1st, the Pious (778-840) (, no date given).

The “Capitulare de Villis”

This long ordinance is composed of 120 capitulae (chapters or articles). This text tackles numerous topics such as professions, medicine or mainly botany ( (a), 2009). With this series of articles, Charlemagne aimed at entirely reforming agriculture and the administration of these large estates which spread from Germany to Spain, and which was known, for some of them and notably in the West, the Carolingian France, to be badly run and maintained. Those were strict rules to follow scrupulously at the risk of heavy sanctions (fee, dismissal, imprisonment, banishment…) because this text was a royal ordinance whose full implementation was controlled directly on the spot by the “missi dominici” (envoys of the Emperor) (, 2009). As for the plants, they were described in the chapters 43, 62 and 70. Therefore, really precious indications were supplied in these three articles in fruits and vegetables cultivated at the time ( (b), 2009).

The medicinal plants of the chapter 70

It comprises 88 plants which are exclusively medicinal and quoted by Pliny the Elder (23-79) in his work entitled Naturalis Historiae Libri (books XIV to XXV – 37 volumes in total) and by Pedanius Dioscorides (v. 40-v. 90) in his book De Materia Medica (, no date given). Among those plants are some with efficient oral qualities. It is notably the case for: garlic which has an antifungal and antibacterial action at the oral level, and which alleviates toothaches; dill which also alleviates toothaches; burdock which is used for mouthwashes against dental pain or mouth ulcers; tarragon which is used against raging toothaches with poultices on the sour teeth, but also against scurvy and subsequent gingival lesions; fennel which is used as toothpicks to alleviate gingival pains or as bandages around the painful teeth; lily which was applied as an antiseptic and healing bandage on the sick teeth or also as mouthwashes; lovage which is chewed to prevent mouth ulcers; mustard which is chewed against toothaches or scurvy; onion which is very efficient against ulcers, dental pains or scurvy; oregano which is famous for being an analgesic or an efficient antiseptic against dental pains; parsley whose action against halitosis or dental pains is noteworthy; common Rue (also known as the Herb-of-grace) which is recommended against gingival lesions due to scurvy; and finally, salvia which is chewed to soothe dental pains and fight against oral infections and those of the mucous membrane (Lamendin, 2007).

Conclusion :

« Before Charlemagne, the medical education originated directly from the Gallo-Romans. Before the constitution of medical schools, the medical knowledge was transmitted from master to student in singular symposiums in monasteries (clerics) or in towns (unaffiliated doctors). Conventual medicine was born under Charlemagne and, during three centuries, each monastery owned its own school for monks and clerics. The knowledge taught in these schools was not only medical. However, the monks-doctors practiced as real practitioners…” (Baron P. & Baron A., 1986) » Girre (1997) added: “Charlemagne created numerous religious schools where the study of plants was the main basis for pharmaceutical teaching. Until then; only the monks, and especially the Benedictines, treated the sick.”
If he revolutionized agriculture and his administration with this ordinance, Charlemagne brought with the “Capitulare de Villis” an undisputable and undeniable assistance to the medicine of the time with the production of medicinal plants on a large scale and with their use. To a lesser extent, the oral action of some of these plants being notifies, cannot we consider that this original text had been a fundamental document which the oral phytotherapy got inspired from?


Baron P. & Baron A., L’Art dentaire à travers la peinture [Dental art through painting], ACR (ed.), Paris, 1986.

Library of Wolfenbüttel, Allemagne, 2009.

Girre Loïc, Traditions et propriétés des plantes médicinales [Traditions and qualities of medicinal plants], Privat (ed.), Toulouse, 1997. (a), Alcuin, 2009, pp. 1-4. (b), Capitulare de Villis, 2009, pp. 1-3.

Lamendin Henri, Soignez votre bouche par les plantes [Treat your mouth with plants], L’Harmattan (éd.), Collection Médecine à travers les siècles [“Medicine throughout the centuries” Collection], Paris, 2007.

Lamendin Henri, Précurseurs de la phytothérapie bucco-dentaire occidentale [The precursors of western oral phytotherapy], L’Harmattan (éd.), Collection Médecine à travers les siècles, Paris, 2008., The Capitulare de Villis, no date given, pp. 1-7.

All my thanks to my great friend and colleague, Henri Lamendin, for his support and precious advices.

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