I was surprised to discover that during the Covid-19 lockdown there was an increased interest in homegrown herbal remedies. The resurgence of interest in gardening was expected but apparently people have been researching herbal medicine at a much greater rate and buying many herbs that can be used for medicinal purposes. I’m not sure what has prompted this increase in interest but it got me thinking about medieval herb gardens and the plants, both leaves, flowers and roots that were once used to protect people against all manner of ailments.
In the medieval period gardens of one sort or another were a vital source of food and flavourings, medicine and pleasure to nobility, clergy and peasant. Most people had a garden of some kind – according to the Domesday Book in 1086 over 90% lived in the country and off the land.
For most, the garden consisted of the culinary basics – cabbages, leeks, garlic, onions and the essential peas and beans that made up the staple diet. We would certainly find in plain fare, if not downright indigestible. However, the simplicity of the actual gardens had a distinct appeal as there was no line drawn between utilitarian plants and decorative ones and most flowers were treasured for their beauty as well as their usefulness.
There were three kinds of medieval gardeners, and each produced very different gardens. There were the monks, whose gardens were mostly utilitarian, formal and with a particular emphasis on medicinal plants. There were the rich who prospered from the labour of the others and whose gardens were the outdoor playgrounds of courtly love depicted in painted manuscripts and tapestries. And there were the cottage-dwellers whose all-purpose gardens provided food, elementary medicines and an agreeable pastime.
The Benedictines in particular, saw caring for the sick as one of their roles and their monastic herberers had knowledge of the more arcane, potentially dangerous remedies whose formulae were generally kept secret. They were versed in the strictures for collecting herbs at certain seasons or phases of the moon. This practice, at one time ridiculed, has been scientifically confirmed. We now know that the potency of plants is affected by the time of year, the time of day and the phase of the moon. The European Lady Day in spring and Michaelmas in autumn were thought to be particularly propitious. Sunrise and sunset, using gold and hart’s horn rather than iron to gather the herb, maintaining complete silence and not looking back – these were the most common instructions for gathering herbs. I’m not sure how these practices might be transferred to antipodean backyards but it will be interesting to find out if this rediscovered interest is long-lived or not. Certainly it seems that a great many of the people who established a vegetable garden during lockdown have continued to garden with enthusiasm.
Back in medieval times there were well-established medical enterprises that endured for generations. In Wales there was a rational holistic and humane school of medicine at Myddfai in the sixth century, which continued to care for the sick and prospered until the eighteenth century. Their treatments were the slow and sure ways of infusions and poultices, and made up of the plants and substances that were universally familiar – milk, honey, egg white and lard were the vehicles for many of the herbs, whose effectiveness, has in some cases been vindicated in laboratory tests.
The poorer peasants and workers protected themselves with homegrown remedies as best they could. They made amulets from certain herbs and wore them as a popular protection against evil. They were usually comprised of betony, mugwort, vervain, plantain and yarrow. Scent balls were also popular and were used to sweeten houses, strewn among clothes and linen in chests and cupboards. They consisted of the same ingredients as the pot-pourri we make today from rose buds, lavender, lily of the valley, pinks, lilac, violets, meadowsweet, rosemary and spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Bay salt and orris root layered between the dry ingredients is used to fix the fragrance. If you want to use scent balls in true medieval fashion you could try pounding the dried pot-pourri ingredients in a mortar and pestle with gum tragacanth. Then moisten it with rosewater to a dough-like consistency and shape into balls or beads to hang in cupboards.
Although I much prefer to wear clothes make from nature materials I can’t imagine returning to the medieval practices of growing
hemp and flax to weave cloth. Wool was of course also common. Women used herbal dyes to brighten clothes. Most of the dye plants were readily available, and worked well on scoured and cleaned wool, though flax apparently required more extensive treatment to make the dye penetrate. The art of dying was common knowledge and the season and condition of plants was important. Lichens, for example, gave a better colour if gathered from stones rather than the bark of trees. Spring was the best time to collect new leaves, resinous bark, early flowers, and damp mosses and lichens. There is something wonderful about the intimacy with plants and seasons that we seem to have lost and hopefully, even if we never weave flax, make scent balls or dry medicinal herbs, time spent in the garden during Covid may return us to a sense of calm groundedness and the sheer pleasure of watching over and caring for our herbs, vegetables and flowers.
All the larger houses in medieval times had an herb garden that was tended by the mistress of the house. The garden included both edible herbs and those used to treat ailments. The large herb gardens of the monasteries were known as physic gardens and the herbs were referred to as simples. Although in medieval Europe virtually all plants were assumed to have some medicinal value, by the Renaissance, medicine, botany and horticulture began to slowly diverge. When herbalists became associated with witchcraft and paganism many of these remedies were seen as having evil aspects or dismissed as old wives tales. However, some have been researched and now provide efficacious modern medicines.
A whole branch of science dedicated to the study of traditional medicine, known as ethnopharmacology, has resulted in some remarkable discoveries. One of the recent winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine discovered a breakthrough drug after poring over 2,000 ancient herbal recipes. Dr Tu Youyou’s discovery, the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin, derived from Wormwood, is credited with saving millions of lives.
Both the ancient Egyptians and Hippocrates recommended using the bark of a willow tree for pain relief. In 1915 the drugs giant Bayer started selling it over the count with the brand name Aspirin.
Milkweed or Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus) produces a white sap which Culpeper’s Compleat Herbalist (1826) described as a “good treatment for warts.” In 1997 the active ingredient, ingenol mebutate, was isolated and discovered to be toxic to rapidly replicating human tissue. Recent clinical trails of Picato, a gel derived from milkweed sap, suggest it is effective at stopping lesions turning into skin cancer.
Finally, Galantamine, derived from snowdrops and now used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, was first investigated by the Soviet Union. Folk law, however, tells of Bulgarians rubbing the flowers on their foreheads to relieve headaches.
But what can the backyard gardener do with the herbs and medicinal plants that were once commonly grown in medieval gardens? It is, of course, a relatively simple and cost-effective task to dry herbs grown over the summer and use them to flavour winter stews and casseroles. There are a few herbs such as winter savory, some oreganos, garlic and chives that will grow throughout the winter. Rosemary can also generally be used all year round, but Basil, Lavender, Coriander, Tarragon and Sage are best harvested and dried.
Today we have supermarkets that stock fresh greens throughout the year, but in the bleak medieval winters of England and Europe greenery was scarce and herbs were an important source of vitamins and nutrients. However, it is a very satisfying feeling to have a row of jars in the kitchen filled with dried homegrown herbs. One medieval favourite was rosehip jelly but it can be difficult to source the old-fashioned roses that form an abundance of hips. They are wonderfully attractive when in bloom despite their multiple thorns.
Other plants that were included in medieval gardens are now grown mainly for their attractiveness. Pinks, or Dianthus for example, were grown for culinary purposes. They had a clove-like flavor and were used fresh to flavor summer dishes. They were known for their strong pleasant scent and were believed to promote general health. The Dianthus grown today has little smell or taste but it is still possible to source the old-fashioned varieties from specialist nurseries.
Among the many homegrown herbal remedies here are a few you might enjoy trying as they have been shown to have some degree of efficacy. They are not, however, a replacement for medical expertise or treatment.
Coriander or coltrane, is considered to be a powerful digestive aid and may be capable of removing heavy metals and other toxic agents from the body. It is, of course, frequently used in Asian cooking and grows easily though it will go to seed quickly in hot weather.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officialis) is a tasty addition to a green salad. The oils, tannins and bitters in the fragrant leaves and flowers have a relaxing effect on the stomach and may help to fight off herpes simplex when used topically. I haven’t tried this but love the leaves in a mixed salad during the summer. My plants tend to die back during the winter.
Peppermint makes a pleasant herbal tea and can soothe sore muscles when applied topically as a lotion or a liquid while Echinacea is commonly used as a cold cure. The Echinacea flowers are wonderfully handsome and bright throughout the summer and there are many hybrids of different colours available now but I still prefer the old-fashioned ones.
Thyme oil has antibacterial and antiseptic properties that help to prevent winter colds and flu. In the Middle Ages many believed in thyme’s ability to heighten bravery and ward off nightmares. Good be a good herb to keep an eye on during Covid clusters!
Today we are accustomed to a vast array of plants sourced from all parts of the planet but in Medieval times there were far fewer plants available. There is much to recommend in the simplicity of a medieval garden. Establishing a herb garden using medieval plants offers the opportunity to become aware of the qualities of each plant and to imagine a time when plants with their annual cycle of blossom and fruition were the calendar by which people judged the passing seasons. There is a quietness and a slowness associated with these activities that can be calming and comforting during stressful times.
Time moves on, however, and inevitably the medieval garden changed in many ways. The number of available plant species, for example, increased dramatically during the Middle Ages – from about a hundred at the turn of the millennium to three times as many by the beginning of the Renaissance. The art of the garden and its contents were recorded by various herbalists, encyclopedists, authors and painters. Charlemagne drew up a list of the plants to be grown in his vast empire around 88, called Capitulare de Villis. He required that his lands in every city should produce all the 73 herbs among which were roses, lilies, fruit and nut trees, flag irises, houseleeks, mallows, poppies, rosemary, sage, rue and tansy.
One consequence of these changes, that we refer to as progress, has been a loss of the rituals and shared memories that bound communities together. One of my favourite medieval rituals was the practice of covering beehives with flowers to mark important changes in the seasons. Instead of these annual events today we have fleeting fashions with newly bred or hybridized flowers marketed much like fridges or televisions. Perhaps one way to offset this and garden with a sense of history is to grow a range of old-fashioned edible flowers to decorate salads, cakes, and biscuits.
It is true, this is a present-day fashion, but it harks back to a time when many of these blooms such as lavender were considered to be digestive aids. A simple herb and edible flower garden reminiscent of the medieval herb garden is one way to pay homage to the past, resist the commercialization of garden practices while also having fun experimenting in the kitchen. However, if experimenting, it is best to either research carefully or only use flowers you know to be commonly used in dishes. Those guaranteed to be safe include Borage, Clover, Dandelion, Dianthus, Hollyhock, Marigold, Nasturtium, Pansy and Violet. Enjoy!