The yew tree has a rather diversified background in terms of its historical accounts. The yew was sometimes known as the "tree of death." Its poisonous nature was often noted in ancient Greek literature. In fact, the name Taxus comes from the Greek word taxon, which translates to poison or toxin. Julius Caesar, in his writings about the wars against the Gallic tribes, noted that Catuvolcus, who was king of the Eburones, poisoned himself with the yew because he eas old and weak and could no longer endure the hardships of battle. Other writings, such as Pliney the Elder, noted that people died after drinking wine stored in casks made of wood from the yew tree. As seen in Celtic tradition, the yew was a sacred tree. Its wood was used for religious objects, such the druidic staff. Further citings of the poisonous yew are illustrated in Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Agatha Christie's novel "A Pocket Full of Rye."

Although now the yew is almost extinct, at one time in Europe there were vast forests of the trees. The reason being is that the wood was used to make spears, arrows, and bows. In particular, the yew was used to make a specific type of bow known as the longbow. In its time, the longbow was an extremely vital military weapon. Historians have attributed the success of the English over the French in the Hundred Year's War to the longbow. Specifically, at the battle of Agincourt, 4,000 English archers defeated 65,000 French cavalry with only 26 dead compared to 40,000 French dead. The longbow had a range of 400 meters and was lethal from 60 meters. It had a variety of arrows that could be used with it, including ones that could pierce the armor of knights. With advantages such as these, every general wanted to supply his archers with longbows. Unfortunately, as a result, a great deal of lumbering was soon to follow. For example, the trade in yew timber from Nuremburg was about 600,000 trunks of yews exported between 1531 and 1561. However, by the latter half of the 16th Century, the longbow began to be phased out. This was in part due to the invention of firearms, but it was also due to the scarcity of wood available as a result of the massive lumbering efforts. In addition to these historical accounts, the longbow is also depicted in several paintings. One such example is the painting "Martyrdon of San Sebastian" by the Flemish painter Hans Memling (1430-1494) in which the longbow is clearly visible.

In more recent history, the yew tree has come to the forefront of medical research due to the discovery of the anti-cancer agent taxol in the 1960's, which can be isolated mostly from the bark of the yew. For information concerning this aspect of the Pacific yew, refer to the section titled Medical Significance.

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