Savory Seeds in The Middle Ages
Herbs and spices seem to be differentiated one of two ways: either
herbs are what you can grow in your back yard, while spices have to be
imported, or herbs are the green bits and spices are everything else.
Many of the
seeds commonly used in the middle ages were primarily used as
carminatives, and diuretics. Comfits, bread and distilled waters (the
of our cordials and liqueurs) were made from them.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
A.k.a. 'black lovage', a potherb known from Russia to Poland.
Alexanders seeds and lovage seeds can be used in similar ways to the
herbs. Culpeper (1652): "It warmeth a cold Stomach, and openeth
stoppings of the Liver and Spleen, it is good to move Womens Courses to
expel the After-birth, to break Wind, to provoke Urine, and help the
Strangury; and these things the Seeds wil do likewise, if either of
them be boyled in Wine, or being bruised and taken in Wine, it is also
effectual against the biting of Serpents."
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)
This is the favorite digestive/carminative of the period. Anise was one
of the comfit seeds mentioned by Rumpolt.It was used in mustards and
sauces. Apparently anise seed was added to the doubly-baked breads or
called binavice or biscotum which were called "soldier's bread" by
who "noted that anise seed was normally added not so much for the
as for health reasons" (Dembinska, Food and Drink of Medieval Poland).
Banckes' Herbal suggests it to treat gas, induce sweating, and as
and/or laxative, but says, "And the seed must be parched or roasted in
manner medicines; then it will work the rather." William Turner (16th
"Anyse maketh the breath sweeter and swagethe payne." The Roman Pliny
mentioned it in bread. Edward IV of England reputedly had sachets of
anise and orris root to perfume his linen.(Clarkson) Humorally, it is
considered hot in the second degree and dry in the second degree. Candied anise seed shows up as a garnish on top of puddings such as the plum puree called Erboles, also.
Caraway (Carum carvi)
Native to northern Europe, caraway appears to have been a flavoring for
baked goods there even in period. Sophie Knab, in her book on Polish
says "In the Middle Ages, caraway was a trade item found in parts of
and Poland, however it was already being used as a spice from the time
the first Piasts. It was added to beet soup and all varieties of meats
baked goods, especially breads." p. 99. Garland says "the
have been found among the rubbish on prehistoric sites in southern
They were a common ingredient in 15th century English cookery (Falstaff
invited to 'a pippin and a dish of caraways'), and Gerard writes that
consumeth wind' and 'is delightful to the stomache and taste'." A
and carminative, caraway was one of the comfit seeds mentioned by
It's one of the ingredients in kummel liqueur. Rye bread with
may be period too. Banckes suggests it for flatulence, coughs, 'the
'the biting of venemous beasts', 'scabs and tetters' and as a tonic for
baldness. Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree
and dry in the third degree.
Parkinson (1629): "the seede is much used to bee put among baked
fruit, or into bread, cakes, etc. to give them a rellish, and to help
digest winde in them [that] are subject thereunto. It is also made into
Comfit and put into Trageas, as we call them in English, Dredges that
are taken for the
cold and winde in the body, as also are served to the table with
Culpeper (1652): "Caraway Seed hath a moderat sharp quality wherby
breaketh Wind and provoketh Urin, which also the Herb doth. . . . The
is conducing to all the cold griefs of Head and Stomach, the Bowels or
as also the wind in them, and helpeth to sharpen the Eye-sight. The
of the Seed put into a Pultis, taketh away black and blue spots of
or Bruises. The Herb it self, or with some of the Seed bruised and
laid hot in a bag or double cloth to the lower part of the Belly,
the pains of the wind Chollick. Caraway Comfects, once only dipped in
and half a spoonful of them eaten in the morning fasting, and as many
each meal is a most admirable Remedy for such as are troubled with
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Garland documents many medical and culinary uses for coriander in
period, including flavoring barley gruel. Candied coriander comfits are
mentioned by Rumpolt. "Coriander was known in Poland during the time of
the first Piasts (900 A.D.) In the Middle Ages it was valued both as a
spice and as medication. Marcin of Urzedow (16th century) wrote:
'Everyone knows of coriander: even children in diapers know of the
sugared coriander'." Knab, p. 106. Banckes'
Herbal says, "the seed thereof is good to do away the fevers that come
third day." They may have been the earliest spice imported to Britain:
coriander seeds found by archaeologists on the floor of a late Bronze
hut at Minnis Bay near Birchington, Kent, represent our earliest
of a spice imported from the Mediterranean region." (C. Anne Wilson, Food
and Drink in Britain.)
Cormary [Roast Pork] from the Forme of
Cormarye. Take colyaundre, caraway smale grounden, powdour of peper
garlec ygrounde, in rede wyne; medle alle 6ise togyder and salt it.
loynes of pork rawe and fle of the skyn, and pryk it wel with a knyf,
and lay it in the sawse. Roost it whan 6ou wilt, & kepe 6at 6at
6erfro in the rostyng and see6 it in a possynet with faire broth,
serue it forth wi6 6e roost anoon."
Mix enough red wine to marinate the roast in with the spices and garlic
and salt to taste. Prick the roast all around with a knife, then
marinate the roast in the mixture. Marinate as long as you wish or
overnight. Roast in a shallow pan with the marinade in it, at 350
degrees F for 20 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature
reaches 160 degrees F on a meat thermometer. Remove the roast,
and mix the pan drippings/marinade with broth. Cook this au jus sauce
until reduced by at least 1/4 and serve with the roast.
- About 3 pounds pork (loin) roast
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons ground caraway
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons ground garlic
- Red wine
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup beef or pork broth.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Another digestive/carminative seed. Garland says, ". . . its warming
effect is felt when taken, as Gerard describes, 'in a supping broth . .
. for the chest and cold lungs'. He also suggests sewing the seeds into
a little bag with bay salt, heating it on a bed pan, sprinkling with
vinegar and applying it to stitch and paines thereof'' . . . the Celts
along the Atlantic coast of France baked fish with cumin in the first
century BC". Swahn says "Northern European farmers long cultivated
cumin in order to flavor bread, cheese and liquor." Banckes mentiones
it for flatulence, indigestion and as a diuretic. Humorally, it is
considered hot in the third degree and dry in the third degree.
Hildegard of Bingen says, "Cumin is dry and of moderate heat. No
matter how it is eaten, it is good, useful and healthful for a person
who is congested. . . . One who wishes to eat cooked or dry cheese
without ill consequences should place cumin on it." She also
suggests a troche of cumin, pepper, pimpernel and flour made into small
cakes for nausea. Clarkson: "In medieval times
cumin was used for dangerous wounds and we also learn that if you take
seeds, sugar coated, night and morning, 'by the help of God you will
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Both the fresh dill 'weed' and the seeds were used in medieval Europe.
Garland says, "The old Norse name for dill was dilla, which
'to lull' and the oil from the leaves and especially the seeds,
a gentle sedative. It is also a soothing digestive and relieves
dill water has been used to calm colicky babies for centuries'. It
in the herbals, such as Banckes' as a remedy for flatulence,
and hiccups. (Banckes' also recommends the burnt seed for wounds, and
scalding of the male genitalia.) Humorally, it is considered hot
in the third degree and dry in the second degree.
In Poland it was used in pickling: Mikolaj Reg (15th century) says:
"pickle cucumbers in salt, add some dill and sour cherry or oak
and : "Having removed the outside leaves of some nice heads of cabbage,
them in half and fit them neatly into a vat, spreading beet chards and
between the layers" (Dembinska) Syreniusz, an early 17th century
herbalist, says: "dill is useful not only as a medicine but also used
the table . . . the leaves are used in meats, soups, and vegetables . .
the seed is also added to pickling cabbage, salting meat, and added to
for stuffing. . . . and Marcin of Urzedow [16th cent] indicated
garden dill was 'very good for treating nightmares'." (Knab, p111).
Culpeper (1652): "The Seed is of more use than the Leavs and more
effectual to digest raw and viscuous humors, and is used in Medicines
that serve to expel Wind and the pains proceeding therfrom. The Seed
being toasted or fried and used in Oyls or Plaisters, dissolveth the
Imposthumes in the Fundament, and drieth up all moist Ulcers
(especially in the secret parts.) The Oyl made
of Dill is effectual to warm, to resolve Humors and Imposthumes, to eas
and to procure rest. The Decoction of Dill be it Herb or Seed (only if
boyl the Seed you must bruis it) in white Wine, being drunk is a
of Wind and provoker of the Terms."
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Seeds of the perennial fennel along
with the leaves and the bulb of the annual Florence fennel variety were
in medieval cooking. Pliny thought it was an eye herb. It had a
as a diet aid: "In 17th-century Britain, William Coles . . . wrote that
fennel is much used 'for those that are grown fat, to abate their
and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank." It's a carminative and
also: Garland says: "the seeds were eaten in quantities with fish and
hard fruit because of their digestive qualities. In the 11th century a
household is recorded as having consumed 8.5 pounds of fennel seed in a
It was also used to increase breast milk.It was also used to make
Marcin of Urzedow wrote: 'fennel is known by everyone in Italy. They
it in baked cakes and bread.' (Knab) Humorally, it is considered hot in
second degree and dry in the third degree.
Banckes' herbal says "If the seed be dried, it is good and
the stomach. It openeth the stopping of the reins and of the bladder."
Hildegard of Bingen said, "Its seed is also of a warm nature and is
beneficial to a person's health . . . Eating fennel or its seed every
day diminishes bad phlegm
and decaying matter, keeps bad breath in check, and make one's eyes see
by its good heat and beneficial powers."
Culpeper (1652): "The Leavs or Seed boiled in Barley Water and drunk
is good for Nurses to encreas their Milk and make it more wholsom for
the Child: The Leavs, or rather the Seed boyled in Water staieth the
Hiccough, and taketh away that loathing which oftentimes hapneth to the
Stomachs of Sick, and Feaverish
Persons, and allayeth the heat therof. The Seed boyled in Wine and
is good for those that are bitten by Serpents, or have eaten Poyson
Herbs or Mushroms: . . The Seed is of good use in Medicines to help
of breath, and Wheesing by stopping of the Lungs. It helpeth also to
down the Courses and to clens the parts after delivery. . . Both Leavs,
and Roots hereof are much used in Drinks or Broths, to make people more
and lean that are too fat." He also comments on the use of fennel with
Then as now, flaxseed was used for the laxative effect of the mucilage
the seeds give out when soaked in water. Flaxseed oil (now called
oil) was pressed from the seeds and used for food and other purposes:
"Syreniusz recommended it for healing blotches and blemishes, herpes,
scabs and even rough fingernails" (Knab)
Hempseed (Cannabis sativa).
The seeds of Hemp were pressed to produce cooking oil in central
Europe, and were prepared as a pottage (a recipe is given in the famous
work by Platina).
Culpeper (1652): "The Seed of Hemp consumeth Wind, and by the much
use thereof disperseth it so much that it drieth up the natural Seed
for Procreation; yet being boyled in Milk and taken, helpeth such as
have a hot dry
cough. The Dutch make an Emulsion out of the Seed, and give it with
success to those that have the Jaundice, especially in the beginning of
Disease if there be no Ague accompanying it, for it openeth
of the Gall, and causeth digestion of Choller. The Emulsion or
of the Seed staieth Lasks and continual Fluxes, easeth the Chollick,
allayeth the troublesom Humors in the Bowels . . ."
Mustard (Brassica nigra, and Sinapis alba)
Both black and white (yellow) mustard seeds were popular in making the
ever-popular condiment in period-- almost every collection of recipes
one or more recipes for mustard sauce. Mustard sauces generally
crushed mustard seeds, wine and/vinegar, possibly some oil, some
and other spices. They were especially served with fish but were also
with mutton, pork and beef. Mustard poultices do seem to date to period
a counterirritant for aches and pains. Humorally, mustard is
considered hot in the fourth degree and dry in the fourth degree.
C. Anne Wilson on mustard in Britain: "Probably the cheapest spice
all was native-grown mustard seed. It was purchased for less than a
a pound for the household of Dame Alice de Bryene in 1418-19; and in
course of a year eighty-four pounds were consumed. Mustard was eaten
fresh and salt meat, brawn, fresh fish and stockfish, and indeed was
considered the best sauce for any dish. As in Roman times mustard seed
in the mortar and moistened with vinegar. French mustard had powdered
spices added to it, while Lombard mustard was made up thick with honey,
wine, and vinegar, and thinned for use with wine."
Hildegarde of Bingen said, "Its seed flavors other foods." She
disapproved of it but said, "However, one who likes to eat mustard
should pour over
it wine which he has heated. Consumed in this way it does not harm sick
people. . . If one does not have wine, he may pour cold vinegar over it
. . ."
Culpeper suggests it to remove foreign bodies in the flesh,
"for the Falling sickness or Lethargy, drousie forgetful evil, to use
both inwardly and outwardly to rub the Nostrils, Forehead, and Temples,
warm and quicken the Spirits, for by the fierce sharpness it purgeth
Brain by sneezing, and drawing down Rhewm and other Viscuous Humors,
by their Distillations upon the Lungs and Chest procure coughing, and
with some Honey added thereto doth much good therein" Decoction
mustard in wine he prescribes for poisoning and venom, as well as
"The Seed taken either by it self or with other things either in an
or Drink, doth mightily stir up Bodily lust, and helpeth the Spleen and
in the sides, and gnawing in the Bowels." As a gargle for sore throat
a poultice for toothache, sciatica, gout and other joint aches. "It is
used to help the falling of the Hair: The Seed bruised, mixed with
and applied, or made up with Wax, taketh away the Marks, and black and
spots of Bruises or the like, the roughness or Scabbedness of the Skin,
also the Leprosie and lowsie evil.." He says, "It is an excellent Sawce
such whose Blood wants clarifying and for weak Stomachs being an Herb
Mars, but naught for Chollerick people, though as good for such as are
or troubled with cold Diseases, Aries claims somthing to do with it,
it strengthens the heart and resisteth poyson, let such whose Stomachs
so weak, they cannot digest their meat or appetite it, take of Mustard
a dram, Cinnamon as much, and having beaten them to Pouder ad half as
Mastich in Pouder, and with Gum Arabick dissolved in Rose Water, make
up into Troches, of which they may take one of about half a dram weight
hour or two before meals, let old men and women make much of this
and they will either give me thanks, or manifest ingratitude. "
From Marx Rumpolt, Ein New Kochbuch, c. 1581:Brown Mustard Sauce: "Brown
mustard made up with clear vinegar/ is also good."
From the Forme of Cury: "Lombard
Mustard: Take Mustard seed and waishe it &
drye it in an ovene, grynde
it drye, farce it through a farce, clarifie honey wt wine &
vinegr & stere it wel togedr, and make it thikke ynowe, &
whan thou wilt spende thereof make it thynne wt wine."
Nigella (Nigella sativa)
'Black cumin' was probably used in Central European
breads. Humorally, it is considered hot in the third degree
and dry in the third degree.
Poppyseed (Papaver somniferum)
The seeds of the poppy were used to flavor food and for oil,
especially in Poland and Rus: "poppy seeds, which were a source of
cooking oil during fasting days (when animal lard could not be used),
as well as an ingredient in cakes... Poppy seeds also appear frequently
in culinary references, but especially during Lent. The seeds offered a
way on abstinence days to give complex flavor to food that would
otherwise contain meat products" (Dembinska). Hildegarde of Bingen
said, "Its seed, when eaten, brings sleep and prevents prurigo. The
seeds check hungry lice and nits. They can be eaten after being steeped
in water, but are better and more useful eaten raw rather than cooked.
The oil which is expressed from them does not nourish or refresh a
person, nor does it bring him health or sickness . . . "
Banckes' Herbal makes a distinction between white and black poppy:
"The white poppy is cold and moist, and it is good to cause one to
seed thereof well gathered may be kept ten year. It hath virtue of
. . . The women of Salerno gave to young children the poppy, but they
give them no black poppy, for it made them much too heavy."
Andrew Dalby mentions poppy seeds in page 75 of 'Flavours of Byzantium'; he's referring to Simeon Seth, saying that 'poppy seeds with honey [were good for the semen] but on the other hand poppy seed could cause headache'. In page 78, he mentions that bread could be sprinkled with sesame or poppy seed (still referring to Simeon Seth, 'On the properties of Food').
Culpeper: "The Garden Poppy Heads with Seeds made into a Syrup, is
frequently and to good effect used to procure rest and sleep in the
sick and weak,
and to stay Catarth's and Defluxions of hot thin Rhewms from the Head
the Stomach, and upon the Lungs, causing a continual Cough, the
of a Consumption: It helpeth also Hoarsness of the Throat, and when one
hath lost their voice, which the Oyl of the Seed doth likewise. The
black Seed boyled in Wine and drunk, is said also to stay the Flux of
the Belly and Womens
Smallage (Apium graveolens)
Wild celery, or smallage, seeds make an appearance in a Banckes'
herbal as part of a remedy for a stitch in the side: "take smallage
rue seed, pepper and salt, and grind them well together and temper them
wine and drink it, for it is good for the cold and wicked humors in the
the liver and the lungs. Also, it is good for wounds and for ranklings
to cease the burning and aching and to bring them to their kind
again,." as well as a diuretic and a liver tonic. However,
earlier, Bankes cautions that it causes falling sickness (epilepsy).
Hildegarde of Bingen suggests it in a powder for
arthritis. Humorally, it is considered hot and dry.
Thanks to Terri Spencer for looking up humoral references for me!
- An Herbal  Also known as Banckes' Herbal.
Author unknown, published 1525. Facsimile/transcripted edition, ed. by
Larkey & Pyles. (NY: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941)
- Clarkson, Rosetta. The Magic of Herbs: A modern chronicle of
herbs, and savory seeds. (New York: Macmillan, 1939).
- Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physician,
1652. (Made available on the Web by the Yale Medical
- Garland, Sarah. The complete book of Herbs and Spices: an
illustrated guide to growing and using culinary, aromatic, cosmetic and
medicinal plants. (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1993).
- Flandrin, Jean-Louis, "Seasoning, Cooking and Dietetics in the
Late Middle Ages," in Food: a culinary history from antiquity to
the present (NY: Columbia University Press, 1996), p.313-327.
- Henisch, Bridget. Fast and Feast: food in medieval society.
(University Park : Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976)
- Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translated by Priscilla
Throop. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998).
- Katzer, Gernot. Gernot Katzer's Spice pages
- Knab, Sophie Hodorowicz. Polish Herbs,
Flowers & Folk Medicine. (NY: Hippocrene Books, 1995)
- Le Menagier de Paris. online version of an 1844 English
Parkinson, John. A Garden of Pleasant Flowers: Paradisi in Sole.
(NY: Dover Publications, 1991.)
- Redon, Odile, et al. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from
France and Italy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)
- Rumpolt, Max. Ein New Kochbuch. 1581 A translation of
Rumpolt's section on sugared comfits, by M. Grasse:
- Swahn, J.O. The Lore of Spices: Their history, nature and
uses around the world. (New York: Crescent Books, 1991)
- Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain: from the stone
age to the 19th century. (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1991)
2001, Last updated:
November 10, 2004
Copyright Jennifer A. Heise. Contact me via email for permission to reprint: email@example.com
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