Medieval Use of Herbs--

a class presented in the East Kingdom Pages program

By Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

A selection of herbs and spices used in medieval times

Leaves

Balm, Lemon, aka Melissa, Melissa Officinalis: Light green oval leaves that smell and taste of artifical lemon. Used in foods and drinks; considered an aid against melancholy. Fresh leaves were used to polish furniture Beekeepers used it to charm bees into a new hive. (The flowers do attract bees!) Now served as tea.

Basil, Ocimum basilicum: dark green leaves with a 'warm' spicy taste. Used in cooking-- for 'potage' or boiled greens, in salads and green pickles. Symbolic of both love and hate. Culpeper cautions that smelling it too much may breed a scorpion in the head.

Borage, Borago officinalis: large hairy leaves that taste of cucumber, were used in salads and cooked greens, and in drinks. It was associated with courage: "I, Borage, Bring Courage."

Costmary or Alecost, Balsamita major: narrow long sweet-scented leaves sometimes eaten in salad or used to season ale; also used to drive away bugs & moths.

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare: wooly leaves with a nasty taste. Horehound cough syrups and drinks were prescribed for chesty and head-colds and coughs. Modern scientific studies have found no effect from horehound.

Laurel, or bay-leavesLaurus nobilis:  had to be imported as dried leaves (and berries) or potted plants from the Mediterranian, as bay will not grow well in Northern Europe. Bay leaves were used in incense and also in cooking, as we do now, and Bay leaf crowns were a Roman and Renaissance sign of achievement (hence the Laurel).

Marjoram, Origanum majorana: a small-leaved plant related to oregano with a lighter flavor. Used in cooking, in spiced wine (hypocras), in brewing beer, and in medicines to 'comfort' the stomach.

Mint, Mentha species: all kinds were used in food and medicine. Mint vinegar was used as a mouthwash; mint sauce restored the appetite. Used for all stomach ailments, in fevers and in treating venom and wounds. Wilfred Strabo said in the 10th century that there were as many types of mint as the sparks that fly from Vulcan's forge-- in other words, lots!

MugwortArtemisia vulgaris:  gray-green strong-smelling leaves. A charm for travellers and used in foot ointments; also used in treating women's ailments. It is one of the artemisia family, so internal use should be avoided.

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis: pine-scented leaves, symbolic of wisdom and faithfulness. The flowers, boiled in tea, were an all-purpose medicine. A 1525 herbal suggests it boiled in wine for a face wash-- a sort of medieval Stridex. Putting the leaves under your pillow guarded against nightmares. The ashes of the wood, burnt, were used for cleaning teeth. Brides and grooms exchanged rosemary wreaths instead of rings; rosemary was also planted or strewn on graves. Rosemary was burned as an incense to kill or prevent infection, including the plague. Rosemary is said to have blue flowers because the Virgin dried her cloak on it on the way to Egypt.

Rue, Ruta graveolens: a sour-smelling periennial with rounded leaves, also called 'the herb of grace' because it was used as a holy water sprinkler. Used to treat venomous bites, and poor eyesight. Do not use internally!

Sage Salvia officinalis: a shrub with gray-green sharp-tasting leaves, symbolic of age and wisdom. The leaves were used in salads and green sauces and as a spring tonic. "A man shall live for aye who eats sage in May." A tonic that is supposed to 'clean out' the system. In the Renaissance, the English ate sage butter in May.

Thyme, Thymus species: a low, creeping plant with tiny leaves, symbolic of courage. Used in cooking, and in baths and as an astringent. Burned as to fumigate against infection and to scent sacrifices. There are lots of varieties of thyme; they all have different scents. Legend has it that caraway-scented thyme was used so often in cooking 'barons' (big roasts) of beef that they are called 'herba barona'. Supposedly ladies embroidered a thyme sprig in flower, along with a bee, on favors for their favorite knights.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a fringey periennial with manyparted flowers. Used to treat headaches and wounds, especially battle wounds, and the bite of mad dogs. (In modern times it is used as a migraine treatment, but seldom in wound management. ) The wound treatment caused it to be associated with knights.

Roots & Rhizomes

AngelicaArchangelica angelica: a very tallgreen plant whose stalks were cooked like celery or candied and whose leaves & roots were used against fevers, plague, and illness of all kinds.

Calamus, aka Sweet Flag, Acorus Calamus: the rushes of sweet flag were strewn on the floors of medieval houses; the roots were dried and ground for use in body powders. Sometimes also used in food, but I wouldn't recommend it!

Galingale, Alpinia galanga: rhizome of a gingerlike Indonesian plant, imported usually as dried strips. There are two kinds, the greater [Alpina Galanga] and the lesser [Alpina Officinarum]. An ingredient in medieval spice mixes: powder-douce and powder-fort. Similar to ginger but more spicey, peppery and complex.

Ginger, Zingiber officinale: rhizome of a tropical plant. Traveled as either whole roots, dried slices or crystalized (preserved in sugar) slices, packed in ginger jars. The dried slices were often powdered for use in recipes. Gingerbread was a popular sweet cake, sold in decorated slices by gingerbread baking guilds, at least in Torun. Suspected of provoking lust, but widely used in saucing meats, in cakes, and sidedishes anyway. Its warmth was used medicinally to treat stomach problems, and as a remedy for the plague. Modern science confirms its use as a mild anti-nausea treatment.

Flowers

Calendula, aka Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis:  round yellow flowers that look similar to regular marigolds but are a different species. Associated with the sun, they were said to follow its progress across the sky. Flower petals were used in broths and tonics, and in treatments to strengthen the heart. Now used in skin creams.

Chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla: a short, creeping fringy plant with daisylike flowers. Used in handwashing waters and for headaches. Lawns and garden seats were planted with chamomile, for it 'smells the sweeter for being trodden on'. Scientific testing indicates that it really may help settle the stomach and soothe the nerves, which may be why it was used in fevers.

Hops, Humulus lupulus : the cone-shaped flowers of the hop vine were used to flavor beer in much of Europe, though it only came to Britain late in period. Also used as a sedative (to make people sleep).

Lavender, Lavendula vera, Lavendula spica, Lavendula stoechas: dried purple flowers. Used in food, and in refreshing washes for headaches; a cap with lavender flowers quilted in it kept headaches at bay. Used extensively in baths, as a personal scent and as a moth repellent.

Roses, Rosa species: petals of white, pink and red roses [damask, apothecary, and dog roses among others] and the distilled water made from them were widely used in food as well as for scent, and added to medical preparations to strengthen the patient generally.

Saffron, Crocus sativus: the inner parts of a kind of crocus flower. Saffron crocus can be grown in Europe but the best comes from Turkey. (Other crocuses are POISONOUS!) Even in medieval times, saffron was often imitated with safflower or tumeric. Supposedly imported to England in the reign of Edward III. Medieval cooks used it extensively in both sweet and savory dishes, especially soups and grains, for flavor and color. (Also used a dyestuff; when only color was wanted, the flavorless safflower could be substituted.) Used to treat infections.

Fruits

Cloves, Syzyium aromaticum: nail-shaped flower-buds of a tree from the East Indies. Cloves were chewed to freshen the breath, used extensively in cooking -- both meat and fish were studded with them as we do ham. Ground/powdered cloves were also used in gruels and sweets. Clove's antiseptic and slight painkilling affects were exploited in wound treatments as well as treatments for toothache, and for 'coldness of the blood'. Considered one of the hottest of spices. Used in cooking and as an antiseptic and painkiller. (You can still buy oil of cloves for toothache in older pharmacies.)

Citrus, Citrus species: oranges and lemons were imported from Spain as well as the east. They were used extensively as flavorings (in meats as well as sweets), but generally not eaten on their own-- they were too expensive! Candied orange peels, made by soaking out the bitterness from the peels and crystalizing them in sugar, were a popular comfit (candy) and subtlety decoration. [Limes are a New World fruit and apparently were not known in the SCA period.]

Mace, Myristica fragrans: the outer covering around the nutmeg within the fruit of the nutmeg tree. The best is the color of gold, says Banckes, and it will keep 10 years. It used to be sold whole or in strips. Also used as a strewing herb by the very rich, like German Emperor Henry VI whose coronation route in 1191 was strewn with it.

Seeds

Anise, Pimpinella anisum: Smells and tastes like licorice. The seeds were used to treat gas and to make people sweat. They were also used in sweets and candies.

Cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum: 'warm' spicy seedpods and seeds imported from India. The Arabs flavoured their coffee with it, and it was also used in mulled wine. Meat and rice dishes are often flavored with cardamom.

Coriander, Coriandrum sativum: The round seeds (which resemble bugs!) were used for cooking and to deter fevers; often used in breads. They may have been used to treat or prevent tummyaches, including gas.

Cumin, Cuminum cyminum: hot/spicy seeds now used in Tex-mex cooking. Medieval people used it in cooking and to treat gas. Rye bread with cumin seeds is a Slavic food. (Though they may have used 'black cumin' which is another spice.)

Flax, Linum usitatissimum: the plants of flax make linen, and the seeds cooked in water made a constipation treatment and an invalid's porridge;a flax seed, placed in the eye, was used to remove foreign bodies because of the mucilage it exudes. (Don't try this at home!)

Mustard, This huge annual plant produces hundreds of tiny yellow or black seeds (The ability to grow 6 feet tall in a single season is where 'if you have faith even as a mustard seed you can move mountains' comes from). Mustard sauce (generally made by mixing ground mustard with vinegar/wine/water/honey and other spices) was one of the most common condiments for meat. Mustard seed comes in Black/Brown (Brassica Nigra) and Yellow/White (Sinapis Alba). To make good sharp mustard, mix it up on the spot and use it right away-- the flavor fades quickly.

Nutmeg, Myristica fragrans: seed pit of the nutmeg tree, imported from India. Shipped as whole nuts and ground for use, or eaten whole. Nutmegs set in silver were a popular Renaissance pomander. Ground and eaten to improve digestion; set in silver and carried as scented jewelry. Common in medieval cookery. Both Banckes and Hildegarde mention it as a general tonic, but eating too much nutmeg is hard on the kidneys.

Pepper-like spices

Cubebs, Piper cubeba: pepper berries from Indonesia imported to England in the thirteenth century. Also called tailed pepper. Cubeb vinegar was used in recipes in Poland, and cubebs were one of the many pepper alternative fads.

Grains of Paradise, Aframomum melegueta: seeds of an African tree. Gets its other name, melegueta pepper, from the kingdom of Mali, whence it was imported. Faddish as an alternative to pepper in the 13th century. Used in sausages and in certain types of mulled wine and hypocras.

Pepper, Piper nigrum: black, white and green pepper come from the same plant, but medieval cooks only had black -- with the skins on-- or white-- with them removed. Legend said that black pepper was blackened by fire in the harvesting process. (Rose pepper comes from a different plant and was not known in period.) Used extensively in cooking.

Long pepper, Piper longum: a relative of regular pepper(but not the same) comes as long dried seed capsules and has a fiercer flavor and a sweeter smell. Both regular and long pepper were used extensively, in sweet as well as savory dishes.

Barks & Wood

Cassia, Cinnamomum cassia: bark and buds of the cassia tree, from China. Often onfused with (or substituted for) cinnamon, cassia has a rougher, stronger taste. Almost all 'cinnamon' sold in America is cassia.

Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum: the bark of an Asian tree. The ancients thought it came from Arabia. Herodotus and Pliny relate tall tales about cinnamon-bird nests and cinnamon-growing areas guarded by bats. True Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) is lighter in color and more fragile than cassia, with a smoother, richer taste and smell. Cinnamon was used in anointing oils in the ancient Hebrew temple (CAUTION:  cinnamon essential oil will burn the skin!) and burned as a precious incense. It was used to flavor fruit and grain dishes, and used in hashmeat especially-- but because of its expense and prestige factor, it was used in cooking almost EVERYTHING (soup to subtleties) if one could afford it.

Saunders (Sandalwood) both red (Pterocarpus santalinus) and yellow (Santalum album) were known; red was used for coloring food, yellow more for burning. Because it tastes like wood and is sometimes adulterated, it's not recommended for internal use.

Resins

Frankincense, Boswellia Thurifera: resin (dried sap) of the olibanum tree. Came as 'beads' of resin. The best, said Banckes, is clear and white. Imported from India. Used in incense. Also recommended by Banckes' herbal to treat sinus problems and uterine disorders (a poultice of frankincense tea applied to the abdomen, or the user burnt or steeped frankincense and sat over the smoke or steam). A rich, church-y smell. Nowadays primarily used as church incense.

Myrrh, Commiphora myrrha: resin tapped from splits in the bark of an Arabian tree. An aromatic used in pomanders, cosmetics and other scented preparations, as well as embalming. Used extensively in period wound treatments due to its antiseptic properties. Still used in mouthwashes and some antiseptics, though not currently recommended for internal use.

Some terms for ways to use herbs

Some recipes:

Medieval Stridex: "boil the leaves [of rosemary] in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and thy brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face." (Banckes' Herbal, 1525)

A period sleep pillow from Ram's Little Doeden says to fill a small pillow with ground peppermint, ground cloves, and rose petals.

Lombard (honey)  mustard: 2 tbs. ground yellow mustard powder, 2 tbs. crunched up brown and yellow mustard seeds, 1/4 c. wine vinegar, s, mix together and add water as necessary. Blend with 1/2 c. honey; add wine as necessary to thin to watery consistency.

"To make water for washing hands at table: Boil sage, then strain the water and cool it until it is a little more than  lukewarm. Or use chamomile, marjoram, or rosemary boiled with orange peel. Bay leaves are also good. " A medieval Home companion (from Le Menagier of Paris)

Sekanjibin, a medieval drink mix, is described in Cariadocs Miscellany (http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cariadoc/drinks.html#2).

To use, mix 1-2 tsp of the syrup per glass of cold water (8-1 dilution).

A Little on Medieval Herbalism

Most medieval and Renaissance herbal medicine goes back to two Greek author of the Roman Empire, Galen and Dioscorides, who documented herbs used in their time by physicians. However, other medical traditions (such as the Anglo-Saxon) influenced them. Discoveries by the Arabic physicians came to Europe after the Crusades, from the 1100's on. The Medical school at  Salerno, Italy spread that knowledge to Europe. As more experimentation went on, medical theories became more and more popular as ways to determine what to use for what. Though herbs were used for many non-medical purposes, the best documentation on those is from the printed 'housewives advice' books from the 1500's and 1600's

Some Historical Herbalists:

Grand Unifying Herb Theories

Theory of Humors

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, cold, moist or dry.

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 superstitious than herbal, this principle held that things once together maintained a relationship. So, one could treat a wound by putting ointment on the knife that made it, or a wart could be removed by rubbing  with a piece of vegetable and discarding the vegetable. Often used in combination with Doctrine of Signatures, leading to interesting  remedies!

Astrological Correspondences

Propounded by multiple authors, including  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.
 

Aunt Jadwiga's Herbal Safety Rant

Modern herbal medicine is an inexact art even now. Medieval and renaissance herbalism is far chancier, and can even be outright dangerous. (Even some modern resources are unreliable.) People in the Middle Ages and Renaissance used a wide variety of unhealthy and even poisonous things in their food, medicine and cosmetics-- remember, these are people who believed that bloodletting was good for your health! Some herbal substances have been tested and found effective; others have been found useless but harmless; and some are actually harmful or at least dangerous.

Before you use any herb-- for food, crafts, or whatever--, check its safety in a couple of modern herbals that give reliable medical information. I like Penelope Ody's Complete Medicinal Herbal, and Sarah Garland's Complete Book of Herbs and Spices; Rodale Press and Storey Publishing also produce some good herbal resources. There is even a Physician's Desk Reference for Herbal medicines. Check the copyright date: anything from a book copyrighted before 1985 should be verified in another resource.

I love herbs and I do a lot of herb crafts and use herbal home remedies. But after 20 years of working with herbs, I still don't consider myself competent to tackle medical herbalism beyond the first-aid/home remedy stage. Like it says on the labels of over-the-counter medicine, for serious or ongoing illnesses or conditions consult a doctor. Herbal home remedies (from Grandma's 'honey and lemon' to Gypsy Cold Care brand tea) are no different. If you choose to use them, treat herbal medicines with respect. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe. An old apothecary's saying is that something powerful enough to help is powerful enough to harm. An inexperienced herbalist should never mess with them on his or her own-- consult a reputable medical herbalist, pharmacist or other medical professional. (Any modern book or herbalist who doesn't encourage you to also consult a physician should be considered unreliable and regarded with heavy suspicion.) Avoid things that the period herbals say are abortifacients or mind altering (psychoactive, hallucinogenic, etc.) substances-- these are generally toxic. Also treat things referred to as vermifuges (treatments for human internal worms) with extreme caution: if they can kill worms, what do you think they'll do to your insides? 'Purgatives' should not be taken internally, as they tend to imitate the effects of a really bad bout of intestinal flu, and are often outright poisonous.

Anyone can be allergic to anything. If you are making food for a group, or a fragrance or craft for someone, don't keep your ingredients a secret! Some herbs and botanicals are known to be allergens for many people-- camomile and lavender among them. But there are odd allergies out there. If you're trying something new, be cautious yourself, too.

Scientists rightly complain that herbs and botanicals vary widely in quality and strength of active components (which cooks and fragrance crafters will confirm) from batch to batch, so the strength and potency of an herb mix can vary wildly. Essential oils, extracts, distillates and tinctures generally contain the active ingredients of herbs in much higher concentration than in the herb itself, and so can have different or more powerful effects. (I like to check out safety considerations for oils in The encyclopedia of essential oils.) Also, things that are safe for external use may not be safe for consumption. "Natural" does NOT equal "safe".

Everything in moderation: Herbs and spices that in small quantities are pleasant can be problematic when used or taken too much or for too long a time. One cup of peppermint tea can soothe your stomach, but five or six in quick succession may make you nauseous! Scientists continue to find that too much or too extended use of many botanicals can have negative effects. As they say about all medicines, more is not necessarily better.

Wildcrafting (picking herbs and botanicals from the wild) can be dangerous. Don't ever use or consume anything you find growing wild unless you are absolutely certain you can identify it correctly, and even then it's best to get a second opinion from an expert! Never rely on identifying something from a book. (Just because birds or animals can eat something doesn't mean it's not poisonous, either.)

To sum up:

  1. Medieval Sources are Not Reliable Medical Texts
  2. Avoid Self-treatment for Serious Medical Concerns
  3. Some Herbs can have Serious Effects
  4. Allergies can Kill
  5. More of a Good Thing is Not always Better
  6. Don't eat anything you can't identify!

Further reading:

For pictures, see: Bernath, Stefen. Herbs Coloring Book. (NY: Dover, 1991)Primary Sources: Secondary Sources (describe what so-and-so said): Tertiary Sources (summarize known knowledge; some citations) Method Sources
Copyright 1999, Jennifer A Heise (update 6/00).
Copyright Jennifer A. Heise. Contact me via email for permission to reprint: jenne.heise@gmail.com
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used.
Jadwiga's herbs homepage:  http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html