"O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities..."
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
© Copyright 1997 Jennifer Heise.
Table of Contents:
Pliny the Elder (Roman) -- botanist, described plants and uses
Walafrid Strabo, Hortulus, 9th century-- monk in monastery of St. Gall
Leech Book of Bald, Saxon, 10th century
Ibn Botlan, Tables (Taqwim), 11th Century, Arabic physician
William Turner, Herbal, 1551-1568 in parts-- "Father of Botany" in Britain
John Gerard, Herbal, 1597; cribbing the work of Dutch Rembert Dodoens (Pemptades)
John Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum, 1640, a gardener's gardener
Nicholas Culpeper, The English Physician, 1652 -- physician and astrologer
William Coles, Art of Simpling, 1656-- anti-astrology, pro-signatures
Greek/Roman theory (from Hippocrates and Galen) with remarkable persistence. Humans had four fluids, or humors, in the body: phlegm, choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile) and blood. Disease was caused by an excess of one humor or another, and treated with herbs that would change the body's heat/moisture condition: herbs were classified as hot or cold and moist or dry. One was also supposed to eat foods and engage in activities that would tend to balance the Humors. On Right Pleasure and Good Health, by Platina, and The Medieval Health Handbook (Tacuinum Sanitatis) are examples of manuals for using the humors.
Doctrine of Signatures
Very favored by Greek philosophers and Medieval monks. The appearance and characteristics of the plant showed what it was useful for. Sometimes this worked-- other times there were some AWFUL results
Principle of Contagion
"Like to like." More magical than herbal, this principle held that things once together maintained a relationship. So, one could heal a wound by putting ointment on the knife that caused it, or a wart could be removed by rubbing it with a piece of vegetable and discarding the vegetable. Often used in combination with Doctrine of Signatures , leading to some interesting sexual remedies!
Propounded by Renaissance university-trained physicians and Culpepper. Assigned each body part and disease to an astrological sign or signs, assigned astrological signs to herbs based on characteristics, and compared the lists to prescribe. Still used now by occult and magical practitioners.
Enfleurage: stick flowers and/or bruised herbs in oil to capture essential oils. If you chop them up first, they are macerated.
Decoction: boil herbs (usually roots or seeds) in water.
Essence or Oil: essential oils from herbs and flowers obtained various methods including enfleurage, distillation, or soaking in cold water and collecting floating oils.
Tincture: infuse herb bits in alcohol or add herb essences to alcohol (brandy, vodka, etc.)
Ointment: mix herb bits, and/or oil made by enfleurage, tinctures, essential oils, etc. with an ointment base (beeswax and oil, usually).
Plaster or Poultice: make a paste or mix, add hot water, apply to affected part with or without cloth covering
Incense or Burning Perfume: burn bits of the herb or flower, either with flame or by smoldering on a hot rock or hearth. Widely used in worship and fumigation.
Pomander: Mix herb and spice bits with resin and or clay: form into a ball for smelling unto. Let dry. May be encased in a wooden or metal case. Or, take a piece of fruit, especially citrus, stud it with cloves, and douse it with a powder of mixed, ground herbs.
Strewing Herbs: Herbs mixed in with floor rushes or on flags to combat odor, fleas, and germs (pestilence) in the air.
Sweet bags and Sachets: little cloth bags or envelopes of mixed herbs, used to keep clothes and linens smelling sweet;16th to 19th century (previously, herbs were generally simply strewn in chests and folded into cloth).
Tussie-Mussie: bouquet of herbs and flowers, originally used to avoid breathing noxious odors and pestilent humors.
Conserve: flowers or herbs preserved or jellied in sugar or honey solution.
Bath: Steep herbs in bathwater or add an infusion or oil of the herbs to the water. Soak.
The name, Melissa, comes from 'bee' in Greek, and the artificial-lemon scent definitely attracts bees. Medicinally Lemon Balm is best known as sovereign for depression, anxiety and 'melancholy'.
Culpeper says it 'causes the mind and hearth to become merry and reviveth the heart,' and suggested that it be used in tea for fevers, the leaves in food, and smelled to dispel melancholy. Recipe from Culpeper: "A tansy or caudle made with eggs, and juice thereof, while it is young, putting to some sugar and rosewater, is good for a woman in child-bed..." Also, a cure-all syrup for "to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor and sickly neighbors". According to Culpeper, the Arab physicians praised it. Dioscorides suggests as the leaves as poultices or drunk with wine for dog and scorpion bites, and mentions the love of bees for it. "Pliny said that balm was of so 'great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound, it staunceth the blood'." (Clarkson, Magic Gardens.)
Knab relates a (15th century?) Polish superstition: "the country housewife carried it in her apron pocket when going to market to sell her butter and eggs believing it would bring buyers 'swarming around her, like bees in a hive.'"
It was also used fresh, to polish wooden furniture!
Native to southern Europe, probably spread by the Romans (Garland).
There are two main types, Roman (true) or German chamomile, which is used more as a medicine (see Garland). Clarkson and Garland mention it grown as lawns and over turf-seats. It was mentioned (as mayweed) in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm. Shakespeare uses it in a proverbial saying. The flowers are the parts used.
Culpeper said "it is so well known every where, that it is but lost time and labor to describe it." He cites it for liver, spleen and digestive troubles, and for 'stones' (kidney stones) and cites an Egyptian remedy, involving rolling the ground flowers into balls with oil, and anointing "the part grieved", followed by a sweat treatment. Also "The flowers boiled in posset-drink provoke sweat, and help to expel all colds, aches and pains whatsoever: is an excellent help to bring down womens' courses." Banckes' Herbal suggests it for liver problems, mouth sores, and headaches and migraines.
Oddly enough, the standard uses of camomile as a sleep inducer and a
baby calmer are NOT mentioned in the early herbals; nor is the use of it
as a wash for blond hair. According to Knab, though, the oil (which is
blue) was already being extracted from it as medication in the 15th
century. Gerard says "the oile compounded of the flowers... is a remedie
against all wearisomnesse, and is with good successe mixed with all
those things that are applied to mitigate paine" (Clarkson, Green
This hairy-leaved plant looks like Hosta on steroids (and possibly Rogaine). A well-known healing plant: the tea was used for whooping cough and lung complaints, leaves as a poultice for sprains (Clarkson, Magic Gardens). Culpeper cites it for bloody spit, urine, or fluxes; also suggests using the decoction, distilled water, or syrup of the root for bruises, cuts and wounds, and poultices of the root for gout and painful joints. Knab describes a Polish salve made by grating the root and heating it in butter, used for broken bones and injuries. (This long-rooted plant also pulls nutrients up from deep underground, making the huge leaves a great mulch!) Too much internally may cause liver cancer.
Imported from the east, this root was really considered a spice. Swahn says it was imported by the Arabs from antiquity, either dried or candied in sugar or honey.
The Arabs told the Greeks a tall tale about ginger being grown by the "Troglodytes". (Swahn and Dioscorides). It was introduced to N. Europe by the Romans, and Garland says it was "one of the most popular spices in medieval cookery," used for sweet foods; and "Its antiseptic properties and sulfur content made ginger a common antidote for the plague."
Dioscorides says: "they have a warming concocting power, mollifying the belly gently, & good for ye stomach... it is also mixed with Antidots, & in generall in a manner it doth resemble pepper in its strength."
The 'cones' of hop flowers are and were used to season beer. Also used as a soporific, specifically in sleep pillows. The name is from Anglo-Saxon 'hoppen', 'to climb'. Hops were used in N. Europe in beer from the 8th century but it was not used in Britain until the 16th; there was an ongoing controversy over the healthfulness of it. Swahn gives a good account of the growing and use of hops. Because it was a well-known crop, most gardening handbooks of the 14th and 15th centuries mentioned it (Clarkson).
Culpeper says that hops "will open obstructions of the liver and spleen, cleanse the blood, loosen the belly, cleanse the reins from gravel, and provoke urine." He prescribes a decoction for venereal disease and skin sores; the powdered seed to 'bring down women's courses'!
One of the most legendary herbal scents, lavender (or lavendar) was used by the ancients and folks of the middle ages with even more enthusiasm than modern aromatherapists devote to it. The spike of old recipes may either be the true Lavender or its sharper cousin, spike lavender. The name supposedly comes from the Latin 'lavar', since it was used in the Roman baths. Garland says it is native to the Mediterranean. The purple flowers are the parts used-- plucked and dried as unopened blossoms.
Dioscorides knew it, and mentions the decoction for 'ye griefs in ye thorax', and in antidotes. Banckes' says: "If this be sodden in water, give that water to drink to a man that hath the palsy and it will heal him." Culpeper recommends it for all head pains and brain disorders, including falling sickness (epilepsy) and faintness. This is another herb which he credits with 'provoking women's courses, and expelling th dead child and afterbirth..." Gerard recommends the distilled water of the flowers for smelling and bathing the temples as a refresher, and Turner suggests a headache-preventing cap with lavender flowers quilted in it (Clarkson, Magic Gardens). Gerard liked it for a mouth wash (Clarkson, Green Enchantment).
It is a sedative, calming agent, and an antiseptic, but Culpeper warns caution in the use of the oil, being too 'piercing' for much use.
Knab says "Lavender became very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages when it was used to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, gout and broken limbs." She says that lavender wine was used "to strengthen the heart and protect against nausea." Lavendogra, a wash made with lavender and rosemary, was popular in Poland, and Knab claims it was related to the Queen of Hungary water
Both Marjoram and Oregano were known as origanum or oregany (Swahn). Oregano is from the Greek for 'Joy of the Mountains' (Garland). The herb was used as seasoning for food, and as an antiseptic medicine. Oregano is winter-hardy in N. Europe, while sweet (or knotted) marjoram is grown as an annual. Both flowers and leaves were used in medicines (Banckes' Herbal). Knab says it was used for dyeing and for animal illnesses as well as human in Poland. Fox and Garland cite it as a strewing herb and furniture polish. Fox says that Pliny, Ibn Al Awam, and Ibn Baithar recommended it, and "The leaves were formerly used to dye linen reddish brown, and the Russian Cossacks color the wood of their lances with it..."
Banckes' says "it had the virtue of comforting, of loosing, of consuming, and of cleansing" and suggests it for stomach problems, including "The disease of the stomach that cometh of wind." The Medieval Health Handbook says it purifies the blood. Dioscoridies classes it with hyssop, thyme and dittany, but describes organinum vulgare (oregano): eaten with figs for 'convulsions, & ruptures, & dropsies'; licked with honey for coughs; the decoction in a bath "ye prurigo and ye Psorae" (skin conditions); with milk for ear-pains. Garland and Dioscordies agree that the oil "will provoke menstruation and soothe and calm the nerves"
Swahn says oregano is native to Northern Europe, sweet marjoram to North Africa and southwestern Asia.
Dioscorides says that strewed, it dispels serpents. Knab says: "During the Middle Ages in Poland, oregano was believed to protect against illness and witchcraft, used to treat poisonous bites, decrease sex drive, erotomania and hysteria."
Contrary to rumor, medieval people did recognize different varieties of mint, including garden mint, peppermint, and pennyroyal. Culpeper cites both green mint and pepper, along with water and horsemint, as well as pennyroyal. However, as mint hybridizes at the drop of a leaf, "Walafrid Strabo wrote in his Hortulus, 'Mint I grow in abundance in all its varieties. How many there are I might as well try to count the sparks from Vulcan's furnace beneath Etna.'" (Clarkson, Green Enchantment).
Mint was considered sovereign for stomach aliments. Pennyroyal was known to chase away fleas. Mint was grown in walks and alleys; Fox says it was a strewing herb, and cites Ovid on another use: "How Baucis rubbed mind on the table before setting it..." Mentioned as a tithe herb in the Bible.
Banckes' mentions mint, white mint and red mint (garden mint). Banckes suggests a mouthwash of mint steeped in wine or vinegar for toothache, and rubbing the powder on the teeth for a "sweet mouth"; also suggests it to restore appetite and for all digestive disturbances. Culpeper says Spear or Garden mint 'applied to the forehead and temples... eases pains of the head"; applied with salt, it "helps the bites of mad dogs..."; "Mint is an herb that is useful in all disorders of the stomach, as weekness, squeamishness, loss of appetite, pain, and vomiting", and he strongly recommends the spirit (distillation) as even better. Peppermint he suggests even more strongly for stomach complaints, "for which there are few remedies of greater efficacy." Parkinson suggested it "in baths with Balm and other herbs" (Clarkson, Magic Gardens).
Swahn says it came from Greece and Mycenae, but it spreads wildly,
and was known everywhere. The Latin name comes from comes from the myth
of Mentha, a nymph pursued by Pluto and saved by transformation into a
The little tiny seeds of the tree-sized mustard plant have been popular as a seasoning since biblical times. Clarkson (Green Enchantment) mentions the office of the mustardarius in monasteries, whose job it apparently was to see that the monks had mustard to eat with their meals. Mustard (the ground seeds mixed with vinegar, water, etc.) was eaten with salt meat and fish especially, and the leaves were eaten in salads. Culpeper mentions three types.
As a counter-irritant, it was used in poultices and plasters to 'draw' infection, in colds & fevers, and rheumatism and sciatica. Dioscordies: 'being mixed with figges and lady on the place till it come to rednesse. . . in general for any pain of long continuance when wee would draw out any thing from the deep within to the outside of the body (to cure it) by diuerting the grief some other way."
Culpeper says it "purges the brain by sneezing", and also suggests it as a poison-remedy. Pythagoras suggested it for scorpion-bites (Swahn) Dioscorides says that chewed, or the powder snuffed, it purges the sinuses. Also suggests juice as gargle for tonsils, and for fever.
Banckes' Herbal says "... its virtue is, if it be eaten it sharpeneth a man's wit... it cleanseth the belly. It breaketh the stone... and comforteth the stomach."
Native to the Levant, but spread all across Europe, probably by Romans. Knab says that it was grown on the estates of King Jagiello in 14th and 15th century Poland. Swahn says it reached Germany & England in the 12th century, and that it was an upper-class condiment in most of Northern Europe.
Folklore: mustard seed sewed in a wedding dress will give the bride
the upper hand in the marriage; mustard seeds scattered around the house
drive off evil spirits (Swahn).
"Old-fashioned" bush roses, primarily; the medieval heraldic rose is actually the 'simple' rose of five petals, not the double or compound ones we are used to. Parts used were petals and hips (fruit). Attar of roses was used, extracted by enfleurage, or by soaking in water and collecting oil. (Garland) Rosepetals were used in food, whole and as rosewater, and rosehips were also used. Rose conserve (petals in a sugar jelly) was prescribed for the sick. Petals were used tom make beads and as a basis for moist potpourris. Dried ground rose petals were used as a cosmetic and in body powders. Knab says the Polish herbalist Marcin Siennik suggests a pillow filled with rose petals to promote sleep. The standard rose in the herbals is the 'apothecary' rose.
Culpeper distinguishes between the damask (damascus) rose, and the common dog rose ('hip' rose, probably Rosa canina). He suggests a syrup or conserve of damask rosepetals as a laxative; the conserve of dog-rose hips for coughs and colds. For hemorrhages, he suggests an infusion or tincture of rose petals. He lists THREE pages of uses for rose, classifying it as 'cooling and binding' but giving recipes for 'purgative' medicines made from it. White roses he says are only good to make a wash for inflamed eyes. The Medieval Health Handbook says roses are "good for inflamed brains".
Bancke's Herbal gives a recipe for 'mell roset': "Take fair purified honey and new red roses, the white ends of them clipped away; then shred them or chop them small; then put them into the honey and boil them meanly [moderately] together. The syrup when it is boiled enough; you shall know it by the sweet odor and the color rufe [reddish]... By the roses it hath virtue of comforting, and by the honey it hath virtue of cleansing." Banckes' also gives recipes for oil of roses and other preparations, specifying that fresh roses both 'bind' and 'lax' the bowels, but dried always bind. It also recommends rosewater as a face-wash, and "dry roses put to the nose to smell do comfort the brain and the heart and quickenest the spirit."
The origin of the apothecary rose is vague (possibly Egypt); but the modern rose was developed in Asia. It was grown all over Europe.
Roses were considered symbolic of love, beauty, of happiness (Fox), and religiously emblematic of the Passion of Christ, and of martyrdom. They were widely used in heraldry, also.
This pine-scented evergreen shrub is not winter-hardy and must be brought indoors in winter in N. Europe and Northern England; in the south, shrub grows luxuriantly in gardens and wild.
Swahn says it was used in cooking salty food.
Banckes' lists multiple uses for rosemary, mostly antiseptic; for instance, a medieval Stridex: "boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and they brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face." More metaphysical: "Make the box of the wood and smell to it, and it shall preserve thy youth;" and psychological: "take the flowers and make powder thereof and bind it to the right arm in a linen cloth, and it shall make thee light and merry."
It was used as a fumitory-- burned to cleanse the air (Virgil cited by Clarkson), an incense, and the ashes were used as tooth-powder (Banckes, Clarkson)!
Banckes' and Culpeper say it was used for stomach troubles and to clear the head (Culpepper). It was supposed to improve the memory, if consumed or smelled, and to sharpen the mind (Culpeper, Clarkson), also against headaches.
Rosemary is the main ingredient in one of the oldest known alcohol perfumes, "Hungary water", or "Queen of Hungary Water," which originated around 1379 (Garland, Booth). Elizabeth of Hungary was supposedly so good-looking that she was accused many times of improper conduct, and her beauty secret involved the use of 'hungary water', a preparation involving distilled spirits of alcohol, rosemary, and other herbs.
Associated with memory, and hence with fidelity,. rosemary was used in marriages and funerals. Dioscorides mentions that the Romans made wreaths of it. Those wreaths were used in weddings, either as headpieces for the bride or exchanged instead of rings (Knab). It was used as a strewing herb, and in tussie-mussies and burnt to prevent infection (Garland).
Pliny supposedly named it based on 'ros marinus'-- sea foam, since it grows so near the sea in Greece. The Romans spread it, but Clarkson says it was re-introduced to N. Europe in 10th century.
Legends: Where rosemary flourishes, the mistress rules; rosemary grows no higher, only wider, after 33 years (age of Christ at death); Never grows taller than 6 ft (Christ's height); blue flowers from Mary's cloak spread over it to dry. Offered to Mary as to Venus before her (Fox).
Proverb: "Why should a man die if sage groweth in his garden?" Garland: "Sage has been considered one of the most important medicinal herbs for several thousand years." It is an astringent and disinfectant. It was also called 'salvia', meaning 'to save', which shows how important the ancients thought the herb.
Dioscorides: "But ye decoction of ye leaves, & of ye branches hath the power being drank, to move ye urine & ye menstrua, & to draw out ye Embrya... It dyes the hair black also, & it is a wound-herb, & a blood-stancher, & a cleanser of ye wild ulcers. But ye decoction of ye leaves, and of the branches of them with wine being fomented on, assuageth ye itchings about ye privities."
Bankes' distinguishes between garden and wild sage, recommending garden sage. For the palsy, leaves boiled in wine or used as a plaster are suggested. For 'the strangury, the flux, and the matrix it cleanseth," if it is boiled in water and the patient sits over the steam. Banckes' also suggests it as a poison antidote. "It will make a man's body clean; therefore who that useth to eat of this herb or drink it, it is marvel that any inconvenience should grieve them that use it."
Culpepper suggests it for coughs, sore throats, consumptions, bloody fluxes, boils behind the ears (as a poultice), and "it also helps the memory, warming and quickening the senses." He prescribes the juice mixed with vinegar for the plague, and bathing the body with sage boiled with "other hot and comforting herbs" in summer.
Oddly enough, the Medieval Health Handbook says it lightens dark hair!
Sage was brought from the Mediterranean, but it was well known in most of Europe, though Knab says it was only imported to Poland in the 16th century by the Cistercians and Benedictines.
Legends listed by Fox: it prolongs life, it grows according to the wealth of the owner, and it prospers where the wife rules.
The oil contains thujone, a mildly toxic substance, and neither oil or burning sage should be used around pregnant women.
Thyme, emblematic of courage, was embroidered on tourney favors, complete with a bee (Clarkson). This creeping plant was known to the Greeks and Romans-- who praised the honey of Mt. Hymettus, made from its flowers, and used the oil as an after-bath rub (Garland)-- , and spread with their culture. There are many varieties, from mother of thyme (a tiny leaved, slow creeping plant), to English/garden thyme, to lemon thyme (lemon scented, sometimes with golden leaf speckles). Widely used as incense and fumigator, having antiseptic properties, it was also used in cooking-- for instance, caraway thyme is also known as herba barona, because it was so frequently used to season 'barons' of beef.
Pliny claimed burning it put to flight venomous creatures, and Virgil mentioned it as a fumigator (Clarkson). Dioscorides mentions it for asthma, phlegm, and mixed with honey for all the women's complaints he lists, also as an ointment for skin troubles. He says, "It is good instead of sauce for the use in health. Ibn Baithan said it kills lice, expels the dead fetus and clears the head, while Parkinson recommended it for baths, strewing, and in broths of fish or flesh (Fox)
Culpeper recommends it for coughs, to purge phlegm, and for shortness of breath, also for (you guess it) provoking the terms and helping in childbed. He recommended the ointment for aches and swellings, including "to anoint the testicles that are swelled." He prescribes mother of thyme for nervous disorders.
Knab says that thyme only came to Poland with Queen Bona Sforza (16th century) but that it was used to wash the wounds of knights in in tournaments. Clarkson (Green Enchantment): "it used to be the custom for maidens to wear a nosegay of sprigs of thyme, mint and lavender to bring them sweethearts."
Other Flower herbs
*Arano, Luis Cogliati, ed. The Medieval Health Handbook (Tacuinum Sanitatis), (NY, George Braziller, 1976) from 14th century illuminations
*Culpeper, Nicholas, Culpeper's Complete Herbal. (NY: Foulsham & Co)
*Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides: illustrated by a Byzantine, A. D. 512; Englished by John Goodyer, A. D. 1655; edited and first printed, A. D. 1933, by Robert T. Gunther ... with three hundred and ninety-six illustrations.
Secondary Sources (describe what so-and-so said):
Clarkson, Rosetta E. Green Enchantment: The Magic and History of Herbs and Garden Making. (NY: Macmillan, 19941) Also published as
Clarkson, Rosetta E. Magic Gardens: A Modern Chronicle of Herbs and Savory Seeds. (NY: Macmillan, 1939)
Garland, Sarah. "History and Traditions", and other articles and entries, in The Complete Book of Herbs and Spices, rev. ed. (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1979), pgs 8-19.
Tertiary Sources (summarize known knowledge; some citations)
Fox, Helen Morgenthau. Gardening with Herbs for Flavor and Fragrance. (NY: Dover, 1933)
Knab, Sophie Hodorowicz. Polish Herbs, Flowers & Folk Medicine. (NY: Hippocrene Books, 1995)
Swahn, J.O. The Lore of Spices: Their history and uses around the world (NY: Cresent Books, 1991)
Booth, Nancy. Perfumes, Splashes & Colognes: Discovering and Crafting your Personal Fragrances. (Pownal, VT: Storey, 1997)
McNair, James. The World of Herbs and Spices. (San Francisco: Ortho, 1978)
*Rose, Jeanne. Herbs & Things: Jeanne Rose's Herbal. (NY: Putnam, 1972)
Ody, Penelope. The Complete Medicinal Herbal. (NY: Dorling Kindersley, 1993)
*Use with Caution! May not be a completely reliable source.